Knoxville News Sentinel: Prius-driving senator champions electric car incentives

Posted on June 21, 2010

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is a big fan of his electric-powered Toyota Prius.

When he's in Washington, the Maryville Republican gets behind the wheel of the vehicle, which he fitted with an extra lithium-ion battery, and drives 15 minutes from his home to the U.S. Capitol. When he returns home at the end of the day, he plugs in his car just like he would a cell phone and recharges it overnight.

"Over a period of five or six hours, it's ready to go again," he said.

The United States may still be a country of gas-guzzlers, but Alexander is betting that will change as Americans look for ways to cut fuel costs and electric cars become more readily available.

Electric vehicles are expected to start showing up at dealerships in larger numbers this fall, with the debuts of the Nissan Leaf and GM's Volt. An electric Ford Focus is expected to be out in 2012, and another four Ford vehicles in 2013.

Alexander and other members of Congress want to see at least 700,000 electric vehicles on the road in the next few years. Alexander would like for half of all cars and trucks to be electric within 20 years.

It's an ambitious goal, he concedes, but one that, if achieved, would reduce Americans' dependence on oil by one-third, from about 20 million to about 13 million barrels a day.

After the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, "People are going to be asking, 'What is the best way to reduce our use of oil?'" Alexander said. "The single best way to reduce America's use of oil is to electrify half of our cars and trucks."

To nudge Americans in that direction, Alexander and two Democrats - U.S. Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Jeff Merkley of Oregon - have filed legislation to help put in place the support system that is needed for electric cars and to give tax credits to motorists who buy the vehicles.

Under the proposal, five to 15 communities would be eligible for grants of up to $250 million each. The money could be used to build plug-in charging stations and other equipment or services needed to integrate electric cars and trucks into the community. The measure also would increase by $2,500 the tax credit available to people in those communities who purchase electric vehicles, raising the total credit to $10,000.

If the proposal becomes law, Tennessee cities would stand a good shot of getting some of the grants, Alexander said.

Nissan is revamping its Smyrna, Tenn., plant to build the new Leaf and recently broke ground on another plant that will make the vehicles' batteries. The TVA and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are among the partners in a project that will bring the Leaf and a network of charging stations to Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga.

Given those factors, "I would think Tennessee communities should be at the head of the line" for the federal money, Alexander said.

The senators' proposal also includes $1.5 billion for research and development on batteries and other vehicle components. And there's this: A $10 million prize to whomever invents the first battery to go 500 miles on a single charge.

A longer-lasting battery would eliminate one of the obstacles that may be keeping many people from buying electric-powered vehicles. While there have been improvements - the Nissan Leaf, for example, will be able to travel about 100 miles before it must be recharged - a long-distance battery could would almost certainly put more electric-powered cars and trucks on the road.

"A 500-mile battery would virtually guarantee electrification of half of America's cars and trucks," Alexander said. "Inventors all over the world are scrambling to produce such a battery."