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STATE WATCHDOGS: Few drivers using tax-paid stations to recharge EVs

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Photo - Electric vehicle charging stations like these at Nashville's airport are funded by taxpayers under a Department of Energy program. (Photo by Chris Butler, Tennessee Watchdog)
Electric vehicle charging stations like these at Nashville's airport are funded by taxpayers under a Department of Energy program. (Photo by Chris Butler, Tennessee Watchdog)
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NASHVILLE -- Few Tennesseans are taking advantage of the free, taxpayer-funded electricity to recharge their electric-powered vehicles.

What environmentally conscious person who can afford to pay for a shiny, all-electric $36,000 Nissan Leaf wouldn't want taxpayers paying to charge up their new toys at hundreds of charging stations throughout Tennessee?

Is the Boogeyman lurking behind the chargers, savoring the chance to jump out and traumatize anyone who dares to use them?

Are the stations themselves radioactive, possibly making users glow in the dark?

Are there any souls brave enough to use these devices?

Tennessee Watchdog wanted to know these answers firsthand, so we spent considerable time at three of Tennessee's nearly 600 stations.

The result -- not a single person showed up.

At the famed Loveless Caf?, outside Nashville, manager Marc Browne said he's never seen anyone use either of the two chargers located outside his restaurant.

"Actually, no, I don't see either one of them being used at all, even at peak times when business is heavy."

Tennessee Watchdog also found no takers at the Brentwood Public Library and the Nashville Airport Marriott.

Just because Tennessee Watchdog didn't see anybody, however, doesn't mean other people aren't using the meters on other days, said Nashville Airport Marriott General Manager Shannon Bowles.

Bowles would not provide specifics, but she said a large number of her clients only do business with hotels that support green initiatives.

She also said several people in a nearby office complex use the charging stations on a regular basis.

"I'd say out of five days of the week, we see somebody charging up out there at least four out of the five days. After all, they need to be used. You can't go very far in a battery-powered car without charging them up," Bowles said.

Most electric-powered cars, including the Leaf, can only travel 100 miles before drivers must recharge them.

A public-private partnership between the federal Department of Energy and the private firm ECO-tality puts the burden of charging the cars squarely on taxpayers.

ECO-tality spokesman Jan Helbing told Tennessee Watchdog that the company paid half of the $230-million costs to deploy electric chargers in 21 cities throughout nine states, including Tennessee. Federal taxpayers paid the balance.

Tennessee Watchdog asked Helbing how much electricity has been consumed at the charging stations and, more specifically, how much that translates to in electric costs.

"I don't think that's something that we release to the public," he said, although taxpayer dollars pay the bills. "We don't get specific."

Helbing said he would investigate the matter further, but Tennessee Watchdog did not hear back from him late Friday.

Another ECO-tality spokesman, Scott Watkins, would not answer Tennessee Watchdog's direct questions about why they chose Tennessee for this project, nor would he answer questions about how the investment is paying off for taxpayers.

One possible reason for the investment in the Volunteer State -- the Leaf is manufactured in Smyrna, 28 miles southeast of Nashville.

The Department of Energy gave a $1.4 billion loan to Nissan three years ago to retool an existing plant for Leaf production, said Nissan spokeswoman Paige Presley.

The Smyrna plant employs about 6,0000 people, 300 of whom work on Leaf production. That number could rise from 300 to as much as 1,000 depending on market demands, said Nissan spokesman Justin Saia.

In 2010, state and federal officials announced generous tax breaks -- up to almost $10,000 -- for state residents who bought the Tennessee-made Leaf, meaning many of them would have to pay only $26,000 of the vehicle's $36,000 cost.

The rebates were available only for the Nissan Leaf, and not its competitor, the Chevy Volt, thanks to Nissan officials' involvement with ECO-tality. ECO-tality's stated mission is to promote greater use of electric vehicles throughout North America.

Information about exactly how much money was given out with the state and federal rebate plans was unavailable late Friday.

Ironically, by aggressively promoting electric cars, Tennessee officials might jeopardize the amount of revenue the state receives from its 21.4-cents per gallon gasoline tax. That money is used to funds road maintenance throughout the state.

State officials receive about $372 million last year from the gas tax, said Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Deanna Lambert.

Lambert acknowledged that drivers of electric cars do not contribute so much as 1 cent to that fund.

"We are not aware of any studies addressing the specific question of loss in gasoline tax revenue as a result of electric cars. At this point, there are so few electric cars that the impact on revenue would be insignificant," Lambert said.

Chris Butler is a Tennessee Watchdog reporter. He can be reached at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org.

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