A Rollicking EV Romp

Guest Blog | December 5, 2011 | Clean Transportation, Electric Vehicles, Energy Policy
My vision of EV groupies hounding me as I cruised through town.
My vision of EV groupies hounding me as I cruised through town.

If you follow this blog regularly, you know that my posts tend towards technical and, well, boring. You’ll have to take that up with my editors. I assure you that my first drafts are always rollicking romps through environmental policy. I do recognize though that analyzing coal retirements and administrative rulemakings are informative at best. They don’t lend themselves to great entertainment. So I was understandably excited when I borrowed SACE’s new, fully electric, zero-emission, Nissan Leaf. The Leaf, I was sure, would be much better fodder for the entertaining blog post I’ve been itching to write.

When I first slid behind the wheel I had two distinct visions for the long Thanksgiving weekend. On one hand I pictured myself cruising through the streets of Knoxville thronged by hordes of women awed by the coolness of the new EV (see picture–In my vision I didn’t tell them that it was a company car). On the other hand I envisioned venturing out to pick up some cranberry sauce only to find myself stranded on a cold, dark road, snow piling up around me, fighting for my life as I searched for an EV charging station. For better or for worse, I didn’t have a brush with death or with throngs of EV groupies. In the end you are stuck with another boring post but one with an important lesson: It turns out that the Leaf–despite its novelty and historic significance–is still a car, one that looks and operates much like any other car.

The titular difference between an EV and a gas burning, pollution-emitting automobile is that one is powered by electricity, the other by gasoline. Gas stations line every street in every town and city across this country, even in the rural parts of our region. EV Charging stations are just now popping up on a large scale. This disparity may raise anxiety in some drivers who will worry about when and where they will charge their new EVs and I admit that this was my first concern. It was my only concern and I put it quickly to rest.

I met two colleagues from SOCM (Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment) for lunch on my first day with the car. We drove the short distance from their office to to a small, local, hole-in-the-wall restaurant I’d never heard of. Cracker Barrel? It turns out that Cracker Barrel has over 600 locations across the county, including 50 in Tennessee. Many of those Tennessee locations are installing EV charging stations.

Charging at a strange place called Cracker Barrel. Note to other drivers: Don't park in front of these charging stations. They're not for you!
Charging at a strange place called Cracker Barrel. Note to other drivers: Don't park in front of these charging stations. They're not for you!

I pulled in to Cracker Barrel and had 60 miles left on my charge (of a possible 100 mile range). I drove to the west side of the building and found two charging stations, neither was in use. Interestingly, the parking space in front of one station was already occupied by an antiquated Honda Civic hybrid. The car wasn’t using the charging station. It couldn’t because, as with most hybrids, it still needs to stop at the gas station to fuel. Luckily one of the two spaces was available. I parked, hooked right in and had lunch.

When I came back about an hour later, I’d increased my range by almost 20%.

Not bad for lunchtime. And then I discovered something else. The Leaf comes with a “trickle” charger. This is a 120v cord that plugs right in to any grounded electrical outlet. Its slow, but it was perfect for my situation. When I got home I plugged it in. When I awoke the next morning and realized that I needed more nutmeg for my pumpkin pie, the car was fully charged. That was Thursday, and while I did errands around town and visited friends, I didn’t need to recharge again until Sunday night. Sure, I couldn’t have driven to visit family 600 miles away for the holiday but I got around town with no trouble at all and I hardly even thought about needing to plug in. That’s four days of guilt free driving.

My visions of EV glory and disaster never came to life and that speaks highly of the Leaf because a car shouldn’t make a blog more fun, it should get you around town reliably. But the weekend wasn’t quite over.

I was plugging in before bed on Sunday night when my neighbor clamored over to my wife and I and stared cautiously at the car. When I first met my neighbor several years ago he asked me what I did for a living. I mumbled that I was a lawyer and he grumbled a noise that I’ve grown used to over the years. He asked what type of lawyer and I said “environmental.” That elicited a grumble of a slightly different and more appalled timbre.

Needless to say, I was apprehensive about our present meeting over the hood of the new Leaf with the distinctly environmental phrase “zero emissions” emblazoned across the doors.

Using the

“What have you got here?” Said my neighbor.

“Its a Nissan Leaf” I responded. “An electric car.”

“Are you plugging it in? You can do that at home?”

“Yes. I plug it in over night and its charged in the morning.”

“How far does it go?” He asked.

“About 100 miles on a single charge.” I explained.

“Hmm. I don’t ever drive that far in a single day. My family lives in Anderson County, that’s as far as I usually need to go. Would y’all take me for a spin?”

And so I did. My neighbor, my wife and I took a ride around the block, talked about the neighborhood, and then pulled back in at home.

“So this car doesn’t use any gas? We don’t need to drill in Alaska?” He asked, not at all skeptically.

“No, we don’t.”

If next week the President announces that Alaska’s North Slope and the Gulf of Mexico are both permanently off-limits to oil exploration and drilling, I’ll take credit for that. If not, I’ll still sleep well knowing that the Leaf is a small step in that direction. The Leaf allows SACE to do its part by moving around town more cleanly and efficiently but as my neighbor showed, this car has another important function. It helps people understand that a clean energy future is tangible and realistic. This is the electric car! It didn’t strand me in the wilderness, it didn’t win me the affection of Betty Boop or Jessica Rabbit. It got me around town and it changed a mind. We must not underestimate either of those accomplishments.

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