Sohn: For Volkswagen and Chattanooga, change means jobs

Sohn: For Volkswagen and Chattanooga, change means jobs

January 15th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / A Volkswagen employee wipes down the sides of cars as they pass her on the assembly line at Chattanooga's Volkswagen Assembly Plant in August 2017.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

It's Chattanooga, again.

On July 15, 2008, the Chattanooga Times Free Press published a special edition celebrating the announcement that Volkswagen would build it first U.S. automobile assembly plant in Chattanooga, bringing an expected 2,000 jobs to the Scenic City. The headline, in huge bold letters, was "It's Chattanooga!"

Here we are 10-and-a-half years later, and the German automaker now anticipates rolling out its first Volkswagen electric vehicle made in Chattanooga in 2022.

The Chattanooga VW plant already has added a second assembly line, bringing the number of jobs here today to 3,500. Now this planned third enterprise — an $800 million electric vehicle assembly facility here — is expected to generate an additional 1,000 jobs. What's more, VW expects to spend $50 billion on developing electric cars, autonomous driving and new mobility services worldwide by 2023. And it all centers on our Chattanooga plant.

It's Chattanooga, again!

The newest announcements were made Monday in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show.

Jessica Caldwell, an analyst for auto researcher Edmunds, said electric vehicles are where all of the big players in the auto industry are heading: "It's very important," she told reporters at the show. "When you look at the landscape in the future, there are a lot of vehicles that will be electrified in some form."

Indeed, global sales of new electric vehicles passed 1 million in 2017, which could nearly quadruple by 2020, according to a 2018 McKinsey & Co. report. China has been a leader in electric vehicle sales, with a larger market than the U.S. and Europe combined. New models are expected to be introduced amid tougher emission regulations and an emphasis on rolling back gas- and diesel-powered cars in areas including China, Norway, California, France and the United Kingdom.

Think about it. We're keeping with tradition. We were a railroad hub. We've been an industrial hub. And it's sounding a lot like we're about to be an North American electric car hub. Not too shabby.

Things and times change, and we adapt — albeit, sometimes kicking and screaming.

Already, today, we've heard some question the wisdom of this venture, asking whether electric cars will really work, really catch on.

Of course they will. What's not to like about saving money? Electricity is less expensive than gasoline, and EVs are more efficient than gasoline vehicles.

The average cost of electricity in the U.S. is 12 cents per kWh, so the average person driving the average EV 15,000 miles annually pays about $540 a year to charge up, according to pluginamerica.org. That's about half the cost of an average driver's gasoline expenditure. Another way of looking at it is fill-up cost — about $2.64 to reach a full charge.

General Motors has estimated the annual energy use of the Chevy Volt at about 2,520 kilowatt-hours, which is less energy than what is required to power a typical water heater or central air conditioning unit.

Another adaptation is time. Charging an electric car can take as little as 30 minutes or as much as 12 hours. The time depends on the size of the car battery and the speed of the charging point. A Nissan LEAF takes four hours to charge from empty with a 7kW home charging point, according to pod-point.com.

The range of 100 percent electric cars is getting better all the time, thanks to great advances in battery technology. Some of the latest models can travel 200 miles or more, and car experts say that will soon be improving to 300 and 400 miles per charge.

And just where do you charge-up — other than in your own garage?

The number of electric charging stations in the U.S. is small but growing. As of September 2018, there were an estimated 22,000 public charging stations in the U.S. and Canada that are classified as level 2 and DC fast charging. (Typically, fast-charging stations supply 60 to 80 miles of range for every 20 minutes of charging, according to theverge.com) By comparison, there are seven times more gas stations: about 168,000, according to FuelEconomy.gov.

But VW will be a part of growing that, too — thanks to the automaker's diesel scandal and the agreements it made with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 and 2017. Of the $25 billion in VW's settlement, $2.7 billion will be used to establish an Environmental Mitigation Trust that states and territories may use over the next decade to invest in transportation projects proven to reduce pollution. One of those proven methods is EV transportation. Each U.S. state and Washington, D.C., are receiving a specific allocation of funds. Of that, they may designate up to 15 percent to build EV charging infrastructure.

"The shift toward electric vehicles is a trend that can be seen worldwide, and Volkswagen's decision to locate its first North American EV manufacturing facility in Chattanooga underscores Tennessee's manufacturing strength and highly-skilled workforce," Gov. Bill Haslam said of VW's Chattanooga announcement.

Atonement is sweet.

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