There it was.
There, just behind the row of television cameramen and still photographers, all lined up for the big moment. There was no red carpet; there were no sexy models like at the Detroit Auto Show. But there it was, under a giant white cloth in the middle of Nashville's Action Nissan showroom: the state of Tennessee's first Nissan Leaf. The state's first next-generation mass-consumer all-electric car. And, if you buy into the hype (or hope), the first of thousands of such vehicles that will soon be flooding East Tennessee roadways.
"This truly is a historic day for Tennessee," says Ryan Gooch, the director of energy policy for the state of Tennessee, just before the Leaf is unveiled and the non-keys handed over to its lucky owner. (Like an electric appliance, the Leaf starts with the push of a button, not the turn of a key.)
"As we look back on our clean energy future, this trend of sustainable mobility, it really is an important one," Gooch continues. "And you all will be able to say you were here the first time in Tennessee when somebody drove this off the lot … [Y]ou will be able to say you were part of the movement that helped changed really how we drive, and how we move people from place to place in the United States."
But can a car that can't even make it from Nashville to Knoxville on one battery charge really change the way people drive? (Even if there will soon be charging stations at Cracker Barrels along the way?) And can a state that leans so politically rightward ever embrace a car that's even more of a leftist California yuppie stereotype than the hybrid Toyota Prius—and one that's more expensive, at that?
Knoxville is one of a few select markets in the country in which the Leaf and an accompanying infrastructure of electric charging stations are being rolled out. But is there really a future for electric cars in East Tennessee?
Let's back up a bit.
At that press event in Nashville, which was just a few days before Christmas, there were a lot of people tossing around phrases like "the state's first electric car." This was, of course, an exaggeration.
Not only was there a second Leaf parked on the sidewalk outside the dealership, but at the party later that night at Nissan's headquarters in Franklin, a couple of Leafs were plugged into charging stations in front of the building, while more were inside for attendees to ogle. Of course, those are Nissan corporate promotional vehicles; the Leaf under the white drop cloth was the first one actually sold to paying, regular customers in Tennessee. But that hardly made it the state's first electric car.
No, the first electric car in Tennessee was sold over a hundred years ago.
In case you're not a scholar of automotive history, here's a brief refresher course. According to Curtis and Judy Anderson's Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History, the first American-built automobile ever sold, back in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair, was an electric vehicle. In an 1899 issue of Scientific American, electric car manufacturer Colonel Pope writes, "The storage electric motor is clean, silent, free from vibrations, … and produces no dirt or odor. While it is not so cheap in such mileage as some other forms of motors, it is certainly not extravagant in proportion to service rendered, and its capacity has been proved to be more than equal to the demand of the average city or country vehicle."
By 1904, one-third of the cars in Boston, Chicago, and New York were electric. By 1912, 34,000 electric cars had been registered across the country—and at least a few were probably in Knoxville. The 1912 Knoxville city directory has an advertisement for the automobile dealer Rodgers & Co. that lists Waverly Electric as one of the brands it carries.
But 1912 was the beginning of the end for the electric car. In that year, the electric starter was invented for internal-combustion engine vehicles. The starter replaced the dangerous crank, the lack of which had made electric cars much more appealing for the unathletic (i.e., women), despite their heftier price tag.
Around the same time, cheap oil from Texas made gas stations a possibility—Chevron opened the first one in 1913—and it was easier (and cheaper) to plop down a gas station in the middle of nowhere than to expand the infrastructure of the still-nascent electric grid.
By 1916, sales of electric cars had seriously declined. By the time Henry Ford had perfected the cost-saving assembly line enough to knock the price of his Model T down to $265 in 1923, the market for EVs (as they are called in industry-speak) was practically quashed. (Despite this, Ford's wife, Clara, actually drove an EV.)
There have been sporadic bursts of interest since then, like during the fuel shortages in the World War II years and during the oil crisis of the 1970s, but EVs never reclaimed the interest of major automakers.
Obviously, the electric grid has improved since 1912. But the key technological advance that has made EVs a somewhat attractive option once again is the creation of the lithium-ion battery. Just like in a conventional car, the electric cars of past eras utilized lead-acid batteries. But unlike conventional cars, in which there's just the one heavy battery taking up a small part of the vehicle's overall weight, EVs have a battery pack that's comparable in size to some car engines. A vehicle's weight affects how far one can drive on a single battery charge, and how fast one can drive while doing so. Lead is heavy. Lithium is not.
Lead is also cheap. Lithium is not. This is why the Leaf has a sticker price starting around $33,000, and the highly touted Chevrolet Volt starts around $40,000. (The Volt is technically a plug-in hybrid, not a purely electric car; see "Test Driving the Nissan Leaf" for more.) Even though right now there is federal tax rebate that knocks about $7,500 off that cost, in addition to state incentives, the price of a Leaf is still out of reach for many Americans.
"If you want an American to do something, hit him in the wallet," says Jonathan Overly, excitedly tapping his foot as he takes another sip of coffee.
Overly is the director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, which he helped found in 2002. He's a former engineer who once researched advanced fuel technology for Saturn, but don't let his sweater vest and hiking boots fool you—Overly is at heart a practical businessman. He sees the mass adoption of electric vehicles as a marketing problem.
"As much as I like talking about how it's good for America, it's going to have to come down to economics. Cost is king," Overly says.
A Leaf might cost more upfront, but you aren't buying gas, and you aren't changing the oil. Yes, you are paying for the electricity to charge the car, but it's nowhere near the same cost. Nissan estimates charging the car is 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is around $3 for a full charge.
That's $3 to drive up to 100 miles. (However, using the air conditioner or the headlights affects your range, so it's unlikely you'll get that far on one charge; the EPA's official range rating is 73 miles.) Even if 100 percent of that electricity is generated by the dirtiest coal-fired power plants, there are still dramatically fewer emissions produced than by driving a regular car. The United States Department of Energy reports that replacing a conventional vehicle with an EV reduces carbon monoxide emissions by 100 percent in urban settings over the life cycle of the vehicle. (In rural settings, though, EVs can actually increase sulfuric oxide emissions, the primary cause of acid rain, up to tenfold.)
Overly's all about cutting emissions—as the director of the ETCFC, he works to promote a number of alternative fuel options, not only emission-free EVs. Overly himself drives a Volkswagen Jetta that runs on biodiesel, but he understands better than most the problem of making a compact car like the Leaf attractive to East Tennessee drivers, like men who love their trucks, even if they only use their truck beds once or twice a year.
"You know that guy in a [Ford] F-150, he can't drive a Prius because he knows his friends would think he's a pansy—they'd laugh at him," Overly says. While he might not have many friends who laugh at him for driving a Jetta, Overly can empathize—his former vehicle was a giant Dodge Ram 2500 truck. Overly says he loved his truck, not the least because it intimidated other drivers.
Then the price of gas went up. One day, Overly says, it cost him $147 to fill up his tank.
"That was when I started planning to get rid of it," he laughs. "I think with EVs, the more we can start showing savings, even without the federal grants, the more sales there will be."
So how many sales could that be? In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for there to be one million plug-in electric vehicles on the road by 2015, just four years from now. To that end on Tuesday the Department of Energy announced the president's new budget will include a provision that would change the $7,500 tax credit to an up-front rebate, like the Cash for Clunkers program. (It remains to be seen whether Congress will approve the measure.)
Nissan seems to think Obama's goal is not only possible but probable; Nissan Motors CEO Carlos Ghosn told The New York Times in December that he expects the company will sell one million Leafs in six years. But automotive industry analysts are skeptical.
Looking at the market for conventional hybrid cars, they point out it took over a decade for Toyota to sell a million Prius hybrid vehicles. (A Prius plug-in hybrid will hit the U.S. market next year.) A recent study by J.D. Power and Associates forecasts that there will be only 5.3 million electric and hybrid vehicles sold globally by the year 2020—just over 7 percent of all vehicles.
A similar study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance is more optimistic, estimating that plug-in EVs alone have the potential to make up 9 percent of U.S. auto sales by 2020 and 22 percent by 2030. But 9 percent is still only 1.6 million vehicles, and the study notes its estimate assumes both that gas prices rise and battery costs fall dramatically.
Right now, while Nissan has a waiting list of about 20,000 people who want to buy a Leaf, they've sold just 106 cars in the past two months. Although it should be noted, the car is available in only eight states at this point, and the company did announce earlier this week that it would increase production in Japan to speed up fulfilling those orders. (This was shortly after GM announced plans to double the number of its Chevy Volts on the production line for 2012, up to 120,000 cars.)
But, yeah. Tennessee is one of the few places in the country where one can buy what seems to be the first viable, mass-consumer, fully electric car in a century.
Of course, Tennessee did not land this exclusivity because it's likely to be a top market, like Portland or San Francisco. Nissan declined to provide any specifics as to how many of those 20,000 Leaf pre-orders are in Tennessee, but Overly says his understanding is that there have been less than a thousand—"exactly what we expected."
Tennessee will be one of the last states in which GM dealers begin to sell the Volt later this year. And there's not a Tennessee city scheduled as one of the launch markets for the all-electric Ford Focus that will roll out this fall. (Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, and Richmond, however, are.)
No, the Leaf is here because Nissan is here, just outside Nashville. Starting in 2012, the Leaf will be built here, on the Smyrna assembly line, once Nissan finishes building a new manufacturing facility nearby that will construct the vehicle's lithium-ion batteries.
And because those batteries were designed in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and because the Tennessee Valley Authority is one of the nation's largest energy providers, the Leaf will be sold in Knoxville to a handful of buyers (who have been on the waiting list for months now) before it is sold in New York City.
Thus, even if there will be only a few EV owners eagerly waiting for them, Knoxville—along with Nashville and Chattanooga—will become one of the first cities in the country to experiment with the new electric charging station infrastructure.
A 1914 Waverly electric car had a range of 75 miles on a single battery charge. The Nissan Leaf has a touted range of 100 miles. The battery may be lighter than a century ago, but if anything, the "range anxiety" has only gotten worse.
Range anxiety is the industry term for the EV equivalent of that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you're driving in the middle of nowhere and realize you might run out of gas before you find a filling station. Except no matter how far away from a city you are, you're more likely to happen on a gas station than a charging station. If you do run out of gas, you can call someone to bring you a canister of fuel. Even though you can plug the Leaf into any regular 110-volt electric outlet, you'd be unlikely to find an extension cord long enough to be useful if you run out of power on the side of the road in, say, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Oh, and if you did happen to find a long extension cord and a nearby outlet, it might take you 21 hours to fully recharge your battery.
That's why range anxiety is a real issue, and that's another reason why EVs declined in popularity a century ago: suburbs. But Nissan's director of marketing, Mark Perry, cites statistics that 95 percent of all Americans drive less than 100 miles a day, total. If you charge your car overnight (using a 220-volt home charging station cuts the time down to eight hours or less), Perry says most drivers can go to work and home again, with plenty of range left for a few errands. A similar statistic —that 78 percent of people drive less than 40 miles a day—is the reason for the Volt's purported range 40-mile battery range. (GM's marketing campaign is something along the lines of, "Look, most of you can commute every day emission-free, without even having to use the gas engine, so you'll save a ton on fuel costs. But if you want to go on that road trip to the Smokies, you won't have to worry about being stranded.")
Yet, even if you do have a giant number flashing on the center console telling you exactly how many miles you can drive before your battery is completely drained, there's still that anxiety. What if something unexpected comes up, and you need to run a few extra errands? Where can you charge your car?
These issues are why widespread EV adoption is problematic for a city like Knoxville, which sprawls and sprawls. But stimulus funds from the federal EV Project will place at least 10 (and likely more) municipal charging stations installed at points around town later this year—all at no cost to the city.
"We have this unique position to be cutting edge without having to spend the money to be cutting edge," says Susanna Sutherland, the city's sustainability program manager. The locations aren't yet set in stone, but Sutherland says some possibilities could be the zoo, the airport, Ijams Nature Center, and select parks and libraries.
As part of a different partnership, with ORNL, there will also be two solar-powered charging stations downtown, most likely in the Market Square and Civic Coliseum garages; Sutherland notes non-solar charging stations in a handful of other high-volume locations downtown are also possible.
ECOtality, the company managing the EV Project, will also be providing charging stations to some local businesses—none yet confirmed, but Earth Fare and West Town Mall could be options—and they are installing 24 DC Fast Chargers at Cracker Barrels along the I-24, I-75, and I-40 corridors between Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. If the project stays on schedule, hypothetically you could drive your Leaf from Knoxville to Bonnaroo, charging it during three 30-minutes stops at different Cracker Barrels. But if you want to go to Memphis, you're out of luck.
"Any time you introduce a new technology that involves infrastructure, it's a big deal. It's very complicated," Sutherland notes.
Those complications are what TVA and ORNL are trying to figure out. Although he drove a Model T, Thomas Edison was a proponent of electric cars; he thought more electricity would eventually be sold for cars than for lights. That day is still far off, but having such a small potential test market in Knoxville gives TVA time to prepare for what could happen if EVs sales do soar.
"Can we shift loads so we don't have to build new power plants?" says Chad McGhie, an energy efficiency expert with TVA. "What are the impacts on distributors? The purpose of the project is to understand charging behavior. Like, will there be clustering? We expect clustering."
Clustering, when talking about the electric grid, is what would happen if you and your neighbors all bought EVs, and you all plugged them in at night, at the same time. While electric utilities want to encourage night-charging, when there is less demand on the grid, too much demand on one tiny segment of the grid could potentially have serious consequences, at least for those handful of people in that cluster.
McGhie was talking about this two weeks ago while in the parking lot of the Electric Power Research Institute off Dutchtown Road. It was another catered media event with a handful movers and shakers and a lot of people from TVA and ORNL: It was the launch of the Knoxville area's first EV charging station.
The EPRI site is the first one of the solar charging stations, aka SMART stations (an acronym for Smart Model Area Recharge Terminal). There will be a second one open soon at ORNL; the two downtown stations won't be built until several months of testing have gone by on the pilot projects. The design has solar panels that store electricity underground, which can charge any EVs plugged into the station or be directed back to the electric grid. And since it's connected to the grid, you can still charge your EV on a cloudy day.
Home on the Range
Besides the suits at EPRI, there are a small handful of regular people poking around, examining the charging station and the EVs—although regular might not be precisely the best description.
Take Leslie Grossman, who proudly calls herself both a conservative and a capitalist. She drives a big black Jeep Wrangler, dangerously plastered with Alabama Crimson Tide decals. Under the hood of that Jeep are 12 12-volt lithium-ion batteries.
Or take Jim Coleman, who still seems a little bit in shock to actually be staring at a charging station in a parking lot. "After 30 years, I'm just glad to see this happening," he says. "I really thought electric was going to take off, but the day the fuel crisis was over, it was all canceled."
Coleman and Grossman are two of the 30-plus members of the Knoxville Electric Vehicle Association, a group dedicated not just to promoting mass-consumer EVs but also to making their own. Do-it-yourself EVs have been around as long as cars have, of course. But proponents now see a huge opportunity to increase their popularity—and in doing so, perhaps, convert some of those East Tennessee truck drivers who wouldn't be caught dead in a Leaf.
"Why not a take a classic car, fix it up, and make it electric?" asks David Gill, standing in his workshop out in Heiskell. Gill's a professional welder and a former aircraft mechanic in the United States Air Force. He served in Desert Storm, and that experience is part of the reason he's now so excited about retrofitting cars to be electric.
"I do not like people who hate us, giving our money to them," Gill says, complaining about spending his hard-earned cash on foreign oil. He hasn't built his own EV yet, but he's working on converting a 1989 bright red Blakely Bernardi on behalf of Gary Bulmer, a retired ship captain for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"I don't think of myself as a tree-hugger," Bulmer says. "It's very important to me that we wean ourselves off foreign oil. I'm not the kind of person to sit back and just whine about it. … I don't think we'd have a war on terror if oil weren't a big issue."
And here, according to Overly, is another way to sway the minds of East Tennesseans inclined to write-off EVs as akin to Obamacare: patriotism.
"At what point does pride in America become something you really give a shit about, and do something about it, instead of just waving a flag?" Overly says.