TROY, MI – The head of the nation’s largest energy supplier says the U.S. industry’s infrastructure easily could handle an influx of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) in the coming years and that the cars could help support power demand during peak hours.

Michael Morris, chairman, president and CEO of American Electric Power Co. tells Ward’s the nation’s grid in its present form could withstand an immediate turnover of at least 20% of the nation’s present vehicle fleet to plug-in technology.

“That’s something we’re much more prepared for than people understand,” Morris says following an address to the Detroit Economic Club here.

General Motors Corp., for example, says it would like to put PHEVs on the nation’s highways by 2010. A recent study from Morgan Stanley suggests 250,000 plug-ins could hit the road by 2015 and grow to 1 million units by 2020.

But without a robust electrical infrastructure, auto makers would face the same dilemma as they do today with ethanol – millions of flex-fuel vehicles are on the road, but drivers have too few pumps available – or an impending issue with fuel-cell vehicles that will rely on hydrogen.

Bob Kruse, who leads GM’s global engineering group for hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries, doesn’t anticipate a shortage of electricity, compared with hydrogen.

“There’s no ‘Catch 22,’” he says. ‘Do I put together a hydrogen infrastructure before I have vehicles to buy it, or put out vehicles before there is hydrogen to buy?’” Kruse tells Ward’s during a recent PHEV event in Dearborn.

“There’s already an infrastructure to deliver electricity,” he adds, “so we can start to produce vehicles to take advantage of that infrastructure. And as it begins to resonate in the marketplace, we can convert over our industry and the utility industry can ramp up.”

In fact, Morris says the nation’s electrical infrastructure would benefit from more demand in off-peak hours, when it is expected owners would charge their vehicles overnight.

“You could argue (the addition of PHEVs) would be ‘impactive’ to the license life of a power station,” he says. “But the fact is (power stations) were made to run, not made to be up and down, up and down. The more they run around the clock, the better they are.”

PHEVs also could help lighten demand during peak hours in much the same way a homeowner’s gasoline generator pushes power to the grid during a power outage. “What we like, and the environmental crowd likes a lot, is that (PHEVs) could be a power source during the peak hours of the day.”

Morris foresees a PHEV driver plugging in after his arrival at work and the energy company drawing power from the car’s battery during the day, if necessary.

“If the grid needs to take energy from (PHEVs), (it) can because they would be charged and ready to give up electricity,” he says, “So (industry) people see it as a potential peak-shaver, which would be an excellent way to satisfy need.”

However, that doesn’t mean PHEV drivers would leave work and find their car batteries dead.

“There would be a way to control it,” says Morris, whose company handles 765,000 volts of electricity and supplies most of the power to the Eastern Seaboard. “There’s technology already there, it just needs to be developed.”

Morris also reveals his company is in talks with Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. about partnering with the Japanese auto maker’s U.S. division in Nashville to test a fleet of PHEVs. He compares the partnership’s goals with Ford Motor Co.’s work with Southern California Edison.

Ford plans to provide SoCal Edison with up to 20 PHEVs by 2009 to test for durability, range and the impact on the power grid. SoCal also has placed cars with consumers to collect data for Ford.

Morris says it’s too early to discuss any specifics of a potential deal with Nissan, adding the two companies are in “very early discussions, to say the least.”

jamend@wardsauto.com