Most motorists have yet to get charged about electric vehicles

Most motorists have yet to get charged about electric vehicles

October 6th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Sales of electric-powered vehicles are up, but are still less than 1 percent of all vehicles sold.

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TRACKING SALES

Total sales of electric-powered, plug-in vehicles in the United States this year are nearly 10 times the level of two years ago, but still less than 1 percent of all vehicles sold.

CHEVROLET VOLT

• 2011: 7,671

• 2012: 23,461

• 2013: 20,950

NISSAN LEAF

• 2011: 7,671

• 2012: 9819

• 2013: 20,095*

TOYOTA PRIUS PLUG-IN

• 2011: Not yet introduced

• 2012: 12,750

• 2013: 8,602*

TOTAL PLUG-IN SALES

• 2011: 17,425

• 2012: 52,581

• 2013: 81,167*

Source: Edmonds.com, "Inside EVs." Totals include sales from 14 models.

Nissan Leaf

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Chevrolet Volt

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Toyota Prius plug-in

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

ECOTALITY AT A GLANCE

• Headquarters: San Francisco

• Products: Electric charging stations, including the Blink line

• Charging stations: More than 4,000 charging stations in nine states, including 810 in Tennessee

• 2012 revenues: $54.7 million, primarily from government grants and cooperative agreements with retailers

• 2012 loss: Net loss of $9.6 million

• Bankruptcy filing: September 2013 filed for chapter 11 reorganization

• Federal funding: $99.9 million federal stimulus grant to install vehicle chargers

Fort Oglethorpe chiropractor John Johnson traded his gas-driven Subaru Outback for an electric-powered Nissan Leaf a month ago to get a cheaper, quieter and cleaner ride.

Johnson, who lives in Lookout Valley and travels at least 40 miles back and forth to work and other activities every day, estimates his vehicle change is saving him nearly $150 a month in fuel expenses.

"I was spending about $175 a month on gas before, but with the Leaf it cost only about an extra dollar a day for electricity at home (where he recharges his car every night)," he said. "I love this car and would recommend it to anyone, but you do have to be a bit more aware of how far you are traveling."

Those miles between a "refueling" with an electric charger are typically less than a third as much as the range in a conventional gas-powered vehicle. Concerns about being stuck with a depleted battery and unable to plug in for a recharge - known as "range anxiety" - have helped keep the electric car market a relatively boutique market so far.

Even in Tennessee where Nissan makes its Leaf and where 850 recharging stations make it easier to keep battery-powered cars running, experts estimate there are barely more than 1,000 all-electric cars on the road. Although, in Tennessee, there are thousands of hybrid vehicles that use both gas and battery power, the share of all-electric vehicles in Tennessee is so far less than .05 percent of the state's 2.7 million registered cars.

With gasoline priced about 40 cents a gallon cheaper than the same time a year ago, few motorists have so far gotten charged up about replacing their internal combustion engines with battery-powered motors.

As a result, the federally funded maker of most of the recharging stations for those electric vehicles is bankrupt. Four years after landing a nearly $100 million federal grant to develop and study recharging stations in nine states, Ecotality filed a Chapter 11 petition to reorganize its finances in bankruptcy court. Stephanie Cox, formerly stakeholder services area manager for Canada and the Southeast for Ecotality, was laid off in July, more than a year after the company closed its Tennessee office in Nashville.

Nissan just gave Ecotality a lifeline of $1.25 million to continue operations, including the Department of Energy-sponsored Blink Network of chargers which Ecotality continues to maintain while it looks for a new buyer.

But despite Ecotality's fiscal woes, electric vehicle sales continue to grow and industry backers insist that the nascent industry is poised to expand far further.

"I think it's like four steps forward and a half step back and the latest step back is obviously what happened with Ecotality," said Jim Frierson, a long-time proponent of electric vehicles who helped organize one of seven "National Plug-In Day" rallies in Tennessee last week to tout the advantages of electric vehicles. "The bankruptcy of an operating company doesn't change the asset value and, in the case of all these chargers, there were other companies that competed for that DOE grant and someone else will step into that operating role, especially with that initial testing already having been done."

Jonathan Overly, director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, said seeing and driving plug-in electric vehicles is critical in convincing motorists of their value. When car owners realize that "fuel" costs for electric vehicles are usually only about 20 percent of gas-powered vehicles, consumers quickly get excited about electric vehicles.

"There is no way to talk to a lot of people about EVs (electric vehicles) until you get them in the car and allow them to experience it and drive the vehicle," Overly said. "There is almost always a "wow" factor when you do."

Electric cars, at least with current battery capacity, are not for every motorist. With a typical range of about 80 miles and no need for oil changes, electric vehicles are most popular as urban cars that supplement another gas-powered vehicle in the household for longer commutes.

Toyota, Nissan and GM have been making the three most popular all-electric cars - the battery-powered Prius, Leaf and Volt models - for the past three years and collectively they have sold just over 100,000 of the plug-in, all-electric models,. Although growing, such vehicles sales comprise a tiny fraction among the more than 35 million cars and trucks sold in the U.S. since the start of 2011.

The Nissan Leaf battery-electric car sold 1,953 cars last month, for a nine-month total of 16,076-less than 700 units behind the Volt. That number is sharply down on the 2,420 sold last month, though Nissan noted that it was the company's ninth successive month of year-over-year sales increases.

"As electric vehicle sales spread from the West Coast to a new wave of markets sales were up in all major Texas markets as well," Nissan said in announcing the results last week.

August was the first month ever in which U.S. electric car sales exceeded 10,000 units.

"I think sales will continue to grow as people learn about and experience electric vehicles," said Tim Lee, a retired TVA engineer who has driven a Nissan Leaf for more than two years. "It's a great car and I've had absolutely no problems with it. But you do have to think more about how far you are going each day because there is a range limit."

Electric vehicle backers note that for more than 90 percent of Americans, a battery-powered car can be driven back and forth to work every day and recharged at night to adequately handle those transportation needs while saving hundreds of dollars a year in fuel expenses.

"Initially, we saw primarily buyers who were early tech adopters or were interested in the environmental advantages of these vehicles, but we're getting a broader mix of drivers now," said Joel Fort, a sales manager at Mountain View Nissan.

Fort said most of the three dozen Leafs he has sold in the past two and a half years have been leased, rather than purchased, by local motorists.

"If you like what you have after a couple of years, you can buy from your lease," he said. "But if you want a new model which may have new technology and better recharging in the future, then you can trade in for a newer model once your lease expires."

For all the current advantages Johnson sees for his new Leaf, he and his wife, Nancy, still decided to lease, rather than buy, their new Leaf to avoid investing in an early model that may lack the battery life or efficiency of later models.

"One of the reasons we decided to lease was that in two years when this lease is up, there may be better technology that we might want to take advantage of," said Nancy Johnson. "But it's still been a great deal for us."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.