published Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Charging ahead: After six-month delay, Leafs, stations branch out

Mike Gondek, service manager for Mountain View Nissan, explains some of the unique features on the all-electric Nissan Leaf while examining his car Tuesday. Gondek purchased the car in May.
Mike Gondek, service manager for Mountain View Nissan, explains some of the unique features on the all-electric Nissan Leaf while examining his car Tuesday. Gondek purchased the car in May.
Photo by Dan Henry.

The effort to install electric vehicle chargers is expected to amp up in coming months in the Chattanooga area, though some say the initiative has been slow to roll out.

“My understanding is that they are at least six months behind in getting the sites in place,” said Jonathan Overly of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition.

But the area manager for the company overseeing the installation, Ecotality, said work is proceeding “at a very steady pace.”

“We’re confident all the charging stations will be in by the end of the year. I feel it is on time,” said Stephanie Cox of San Francisco-based Ecotality, which is responsible for implementing the stimulus-funded project in Tennessee.

However, while announcements were made last August about the installation of chargers at Ruby Falls and Rock City, the devices are yet to be installed. The charging stations could be in place this summer, however, according to the attractions.

According to Cox, the DoubleTree Hotel on Chestnut Street in March installed the only commercially available site so far in Chattanooga.

Tom Dugan, CARTA’s executive director and a member of a regional advisory board on the project, said the project has taken longer than anticipated. But Dugan cited the slowness in the appearance of Nissan’s Leaf electric vehicle in the United States.

The car has been slow to roll out in the U.S. partly because Nissan allocated much of its inventory to the Japanese market to take advantage of big incentives there, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Last week, the Journal reported Nissan expects to sell 10,000 to 12,000 Leafs this year in the United States, which is well below earlier expectations.

Still, officials at both Hunt Nissan and Mountain View Nissan in Chattanooga said they’ve already sold and delivered several Leafs to customers.

ecotality hired

The U.S. Department of Energy hired Ecotality to install a target of 14,000 chargers in Tennessee and five other states in homes and in municipal and business locations.

The project is to cost about $230 million, with $114.8 million of that in federal stimulus money, and the rest from Ecotality and its partners, the company said.

In Hamilton County, Cox said officials have chosen municipal sites for more than 30 chargers. The Chattanoogan hotel announced last week it plans to hold two chargers.

Also, Cox said a downtown restaurant soon is slated to be announced as a charging site.

In addition, Dugan said CARTA plans chargers at three of its downtown parking garages.

But he added that he believes officials tried to kick off the entire project too fast.

“It’s nice to see cars out there now,” Dugan said.

Chattanoogan Jim Frierson, a member of a statewide panel related to the project, said there was an issue related to charging pedestals meeting federal disability requirements that slowed the project.

He also cited concerns by some businesses about how electricity costs for charging stations will be paid by vehicle owners. The Tennessee Valley Authority regulates electricity sales within its seven-state region under agreements with its 155 distributors.

James Ellis, a TVA senior manager, said a hotel with a charger could sell a service but not a metered amount of kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Cox said while a business couldn’t sell power, it could charge an access fee to the charger.

“It’s like Wi-Fi,” she said, noting some hotels charge patrons for access to Wi-Fi.

Cox said it still wants to hear from local businesses before year’s end about potential charger installation sites.

“If they believe they’ll be visited by a Leaf that will stay from one to three hours, we want to hear from them,” she said.

Cox said that how many chargers get installed in the Chattanooga area ultimately will depend on demand for electric vehicles.

“There’s a strong relationship to the number of vehicles and the number of public charging sites,” she said, adding that earlier numbers floated regarding charging stations were “targets.”

Cox said the company is adjusting those targets to where it’s appropriate for the number of vehicles that end up in an area.

Mike Gondek, Mountain View Nissan’s service manager and an owner of a Leaf, said he has a charger in his Cleveland, Tenn., home through Ecotality.

The company will track his charging habits, he said.

Gondek, who commutes in his Leaf between Cleveland and Chattanooga, said the Leaf is meeting or exceeding expectations.

He estimates the cost of fuel for a regular Chevrolet Malibu he owns at 23 to 25 cents per mile. For the Leaf, he said the cost is about 2 to 3 cents per mile.

“I’ve found I can manipulate the mileage based on speed,” Gondek added.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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