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VOL. 36 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 20, 2012

All amped up but too few to charge

Nation’s best electric vehicle infrastructure struggles to find users

By Linda Bryant

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Tennessee has fulfilled the wishes of government officials, planners and environmentally conscious citizens who wanted the state to be a user-friendly zone for electric vehicles and their owners.

Problem is, there really aren’t many electric vehicles on the road.

The state and its four largest cities – Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville – are considered a national standouts when it comes to its network of charging stations and its ability to get the public involved in planning for the future.

Still, the usage of electric vehicles – many of which are or will be built in Middle Tennessee – is still minuscule compared to standard oil-and-gas dependent cars and motorcycles. But if sales of electric vehicles, often called EVs, take off, Tennessee has the infrastructure in place to accommodate them.

“Tennessee is definitely ahead of the curve in the EV movement,” says Stephanie Cox, program manager for the Tennessee EV Project for ECOtality Inc. “It’s a ripe place for the EV market to blossom.”

Nashville real estate appraiser Richard Exton (left), one of the first to buy a Nissan Leaf, and James Arledge, builder and owner of NOGAS electric scooters.

Tennessee has more EV charging units than any other U.S. state, and Interstate 40 is the most “electrified” road in the U.S., Cox says.

ECOtality is a San Francisco-based clean energy company that partners with the U.S. Dept. of Energy to enhance EV infrastructure. The company is currently spearheading EV infrastructure enhancements in 18 U.S. cities, including four in Tennessee. The company has partnered with local and state governments on EV charging station installations and says it will have 2,500 EV stations by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, local “early adopters” of electric vehicles – the trendsetters who embrace technology before the masses – aren’t daunted by skeptics. They have high praise their electric cars and scooters and say they are getting around town just fine.

Dana Nelson is among the believers.

The Vanderbilt English professor was one of the first to purchase an electric scooter designed and manufactured by NOGAS, a company owned by local entrepreneur and inventor James Arledge.

Lebanon-based Cracker Barrel has set up a network of charging stations like this one at its Lebanon restaurant location.

Nelson thinks the scooter makes more sense than an electric car because it’s affordable and easy to charge. The NOGAS scooter can be charged by plugging into a standard electric outlet and doesn’t need a charging station.

“I use my scooter for local errands –groceries, going to yoga, and also going to work on the days I don’t have to transport my dogs,” Nelson says. “It feels incredibly stable and safe.”

Nelson’s scooter, which cost about $5,000, can reach a speed of 50 mph and go up to 50 miles without a charge, depending on the model. Recharging the scooter takes 30 minutes to eight hours, depending on how much of a charge the battery requires.

James Arledge, owner of NOGAS, believes in electric vehicle technology so much he’s spent the past four years of his life and $1 million of his own money developing and manufacturing an electric scooter.

He became fixated with e-scooters during a visit to China five years ago.

The Infiniti LE concept car at the 2012 New York International Auto Show in New York City. The Chicago Tribune reported this week the all-electric LE also will be built in Smyrna.

“They were everywhere I looked,” Arledge says. “I honestly felt ignorant that I didn’t know more about them. I really had an ‘aha’ moment. I immersed myself in the technology. I decided I was going to find out everything that needed to be done (to make more electric scooters available in the U.S.)”

Arledge has made 15 trips to China in order to perfect the NOGAS scooter. He sells three models in a store connected to a small manufacturing facility in Berry Hill.

The vehicles have received media attention and even made an appearance as a prize on the perennial game show, “The Price is Right.” Arledge wants to grow organically and only sell in areas where NOGAS can service the scooters. Ultimately, he envisions a network of nine regions where independent reps sell and service the e-scooters.

Real estate appraiser Richard Exton also was an early adopter of an electric vehicle. Exton bought one of the first Nissan LEAF electric cars in 2011.

Exton says he spends about $30 a month on his LEAF, compared to the $150 he spent on gas for his regular car. He spent about $33,000 on the car itself, but tax incentives made the actual price close to $25,000.

Exton’s has logged about 8,000 miles on his LEAF in less than a year, mainly using it as work car.

“It works for 90 percent of the driving I need to do,” he says.

“I’m by no means a tree hugger, but I was motivated by the conservation end (of driving an EV),” Exton adds. “I was also motivated by the tax incentives.”

Having Nissan’s U.S. headquarters in Middle Tennessee, and the fact that the LEAF is responsible for a growing number of jobs at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, added to the appeal, he says.

The Chicago Tribune reported this week that the all-electric Infiniti LE also will be built in Smyrna.

Nissan expects to start U.S. production of the Leaf by the end of the year. The Infiniti, industry reports state, will use the same battery pack as the Leaf. It will have a range of 100 miles, compared to the Leaf’s 74.

A recent study determined that 95 percent of all U.S. vehicle trips are within a 35-40 mile driving range and that 20 percent of car buyers are somewhat likely or very likely to buy an all-electric vehicle.

Despite the promising statistics, industry analysts say that American’s aren’t likely to fully embrace EV technology until the electric car battery is able to go further without a charge – upwards of 200 miles.

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