Fresh off an international meeting of mayors that focused on municipal climate change initiatives, Mayor David Miller has announced a plan to convert hybrid vehicles to plug-in models that can be charged at any wall socket and are powered primarily by electricity.

Conventional hybrids are powered by gasoline engines assisted by an electric motor. But Miller is out to prove that when equipped with larger batteries that can be plugged in and recharged, hybrids can operate in a city setting on a single charge for more than 50 kilometres, while using little or no gasoline.

The initiative is called the Toronto Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle Pilot Project. The mayor has just returned from New York City where mayors discussed a "green city" competition as well as methods of tackling climate change on an urban level.

"The key purpose is to determine if plug-in hybrid technology is suitable to Toronto's climate
and roads," Miller said in Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square on Saturday, at the launch of the program.

There are suggestions that the converted vehicles would be able to feed electricity back into the grid, serving as mobile power stations to homes during a blackout. Or they could be plugged into the electricity grid during periods of peak demand to supply power and prevent blackouts.

"By boosting the all-electric range of hybrid vehicles, this technology has the potential to help us address one of the largest climate and air-quality impacts in the city," Miller stated in a draft media release for the project.

The first phase of the Toronto project would see 10 hybrid vehicles converted and driven for one year in an urban setting.

The goal is to have as many as 200 vehicles on Toronto streets by 2008, with groups and organizations like Bullfrog Power, Toronto Hydro, the University of Toronto, York University, architectural firm TAS Designbuild and Ontario Ministry of Transportation and Ministry of Environment.

The project is being led by the Toronto Atmospheric Fund -- a city agency providing funding for the project. The group estimates carbon dioxide emissions from the vehicles, once retrofitted, will be reduced by 40 per cent drop.

"First we have to demonstrate the technology is viable, that it works on Toronto streets and in our winters, that the system is safe, and that there's significant potential environmental benefits. Then we go from there."

The goals of the project are to battle rising gasoline prices and reduce emissions.

Plug-in hybrids are expected to get double the gas mileage of conventional hybrids, and to be cheaper and cleaner to operate.

Students and faculty at the University of Toronto will gather performance data from the vehicles to monitor emission reductions and fuel-mileage improvements.

The retrofits of the vehicles will be done by Hymotion, a Concord. Ont.-based company that was recently acquired by A123 Systems Inc. of Watertown, Mass.

The companies are also working with General Motors on its plug-in hybrid development program.

The president of Hymotion, Ricardo Bazzarella, said the cars can travel 100 kilometres on just 2.4 litres of gasoline.

With a report from CTV Toronto's Alex Mihailovich