Maryville Daily Times: Turning over a new Leaf: Sen. Alexander leases Nissan’s first electric car in East Tennessee

Posted on March 8, 2011

The scene at Twin City Nissan in Alcoa on Monday was a blend of synergy and energy.

Energy because it focused on power. Synergy because it featured a man who burst on the political scene wearing a plaid shirt and walking 1,000 miles across Tennessee end to end.

That hike helped boost Lamar Alexander to the governor’s office, where he worked to bring Nissan to Smyrna to build cars. Now, U.S. Sen. Alexander is again setting an example of avoiding transportation that burns fossil fuel. And Nissan is key to that.

Alexander was at the Airport Motor Mile dealership to show off his brand new car, a Leaf. One hundred percent electric. No tailpipe. Zero emissions. The world’s first electric car for mass market production.

Manufacturing facilities to build the Leaf and its battery are under construction in Smyrna. By the end of 2012, the cars will be rolling off the assembly line. The plants will be able to build 150,000 vehicles and 200,000 battery packs annually and employ 1,300 workers.

“This Nissan Leaf is cheaper to drive, easy to drive, and plugging it in every night will give me the patriotic pleasure of not sending money overseas to people who are trying to blow us up,” he said.

Alexander went online a year ago to get in line to lease a Leaf. He got the first one to roll out into Twin City Nissan’s showroom. He’ll take delivery in Washington, D.C.

“Today I am leasing a Nissan Leaf, all-electric car that travels about 100 miles every time I plug it in. This is the single best way to avoid paying $4 gasoline,” Alexander said.

“The single best way for our country to use less oil is to plug into electric cars and trucks. My goal is that over the 20 or 30 years about half of our cars and trucks in America would be plug-in electric cars and trucks. That would reduce our use of oil from about 20 million barrels of oil a day to about 12½ million barrels of oil. ”

Alexander also is backing electric vehicles with political persuasion. He was the lead Republican co-sponsor in the past Congress of the “Promoting Electric Vehicles Act of 2010” to speed up introduction of electric cars and trucks.

Jerry Hodge — an owner of the Twin City Dealerships and a classmate of Alexander’s when they attended Maryville High School — said a Leaf lists for around $35,000, but federal and state tax incentives lower the price by about $10,000.

Alexander is foregoing incentives on his vehicle.

“I’m not accepting any of the federal tax incentives to purchase the car. I don’t think that’s appropriate since I’ve sponsored legislation to expand the use of electric cars.”

But he does think the federal backing is right.

“I believe electric cars and trucks ought to be on their own in the marketplace after a few years, but think it’s appropriate to jump-start them.”

Alexander has been an electric commuter for awhile. For a couple of years he’s been driving around Washington in a Toyota Prius powered with converted A123 battery.

“It’s been very simple,” he said. “Just plug it in at night when I go home. I drive it during the day. I use very little gas. On the Nissan Leaf I’ll be using zero gas.”

The average commuting range of the Leaf is around 100 miles — enough for Alexander’s urban commute which is between his apartment and the Senate Office building or the airport. In time he expects improved batteries and a proliferation of charging stations to expand the range.

“I expect to see charging stations at the Cracker Barrel, at the Wal-Mart parking lot. I expect to see them at the federal buildings and the places where employees park so you can not only plug in at home, you can plug in when you go to work,” Alexander said.

“It’s just changing your mind-set a little bit. You can run out of gas as easy as you can run out of electricity, but there are a lot of gas stations. Well, there are also a lot of plugs. And you don’t have a special plug to plug in the car; you can just plug it into the wall.”

Alexander has reason to believe that being on the forefront of automotive change can work. He’s seen it before.

“I was governor when Nissan first came to Tennessee, and it helped change our way of life. It helped attract auto suppliers all over the state so that a third of our manufacturing jobs in Tennessee today are auto related. DENSO, for example, in Blount County employs 3,000 people.”