Tennessean: Bill Theobald: Alexander helps generate buzz for electric cars

Posted on September 26, 2010

WASHINGTON — Efforts by Tennessee politicians and business leaders to promote widespread use of electric vehicles have enjoyed a few new jolts of power recently.

The most significant, at least symbolically, was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's introduction last week of legislation that would promote the development of infrastructure needed to expand use of electric cars.

The legislation probably won't be considered this year, even if Congress returns after the election for a lame-duck session. Lawmakers must deal with a long list of must-pass bills.

Still, Reid's support is significant because he essentially decides which issues the full Senate considers.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander was an original co-sponsor — along with Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota — of the Electric Vehicle Deployment Act, introduced in May.

Alexander said he's happy that Reid's bill now includes language from the Electric Vehicle Deployment Act that would create several test communities for electric cars. But he's disappointed the bill omits tax credits for buying electric cars and for building charging stations and other infrastructure. He also opposes Reid's proposal to use the nation's Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay for the legislation.

"It's the right church but the wrong side of the aisle," Alexander said of Reid's bill.

The Dorgan-Alexander bill would:

• Provide $250 million each to the test communities to develop the infrastructure system.

• Increase to $10,000 the tax credit for buying electric vehicles in these test communities. Earlier this month, state officials announced a $2,500 incentive to the first 1,000 buyers of the Nissan Leaf electric car.

• Provide $1.5 billion in research to reduce the cost of batteries and other components of electric vehicles.

The Dorgan-Alexander bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support on July 22.

On Sept. 16, Alexander tried to draw attention to the issue by test-driving a Nissan Leaf electric car at the Capitol. It was part of Nissan USA's promotional campaign for the Leaf, which will be produced in Smyrna by 2012.

"Our goal is to electrify half of our cars and trucks within 20 years, which could reduce our dependence on oil by one-third," Alexander said.

He is planning to buy a Leaf, after driving a Toyota Prius for the last two years. Alexander converted the Prius into a plug-in that he charges at home.

Reid's support for electric car test communities could prove less important if Democrats lose control of the Senate in the November election. But the Electrification Coalition, which includes CEOs of 14 companies, including Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and Fred Smith of FedEx, is trying to reach out to more conservative thinkers and politicians to attract them to the cause.

Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian leader and former presidential candidate, was among several conservative leaders who wrote to Alexander and Dorgan expressing support for their bill. Also signing the letter was Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is affiliated with the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention.

Alexander said he remains optimistic that some electric car legislation will pass before the end of the year. Controversial cap-and-trade proposals have bollixed up the congressional debate over energy and climate change, he said.

"We have failed to focus on the energy issues we agree on," Alexander said. "One of those is electric cars."