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Nissan LEAF

Not only in Knoxville

Plan ET region

Plan ET region

Yesterday’s Knoxville News Sentinel reported on plans for installation of electric-vehicle charging stations at public sites (parks and parking garages) in the city of Knoxville. This is not only happening in Knoxville — we’re getting ten federally funded charging stations at public places here in Oak Ridge, too. Five sites will each get two car-charging units. If I remember the list correctly, we can look for them soon at the Library-Civic Center complex, the Haw Ridge trailhead, the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge, and the east- and west-end fire stations on Oak Ridge Turnpike. This will help define various Oak Ridge sites — especially Haw Ridge and the Children’s Museum — as good destinations for electric-car owners throughout the Knoxville metro area.

While it’s natural for Oak Ridgers like me to focus on our city and for the Knoxville paper to focus on its own backyard, I believe that we shouldn’t be thinking of our two cities in isolation. We are part of one metropolitan region that is increasingly interconnected — and our fortunes will rise or fall together. The economic development group Knoxville Oak Ridge Innovation Valley has produced an impressive list of rankings that indicate our strength as a region — number 1 in Green Jobs Growth according to the Brookings Institution, the number 4 High Tech Hub according to Business Facilities, number 5 for “Best Metro Value” according to Kiplinger’s, a number 8 ranking on CNN Money‘s “Fastest Growing Cities” list, and number 6 on the Forbes list of Best Metros for Jobs. Even though these rankings are sometimes described in regional media as relating to the “city of Knoxville”, these scores are based on statistics for the entire metropolitan area (usually the metropolitan statistical area of Knox, Anderson, Blount, Loudon, and Union counties), and Oak Ridge is a big part of the region’s successes.

This perspective has a lot to do with why I’m supportive of the Plan ET initiative. Although it is inevitable that we will continue to think about places like Knoxville, Farragut, Clinton, and Maryville as competitors, we need to think regionally and start to cooperate for our mutual benefit. This coming week I’ll be attending Plan ET working group meetings to discuss trends in the region, a draft vision for the region in the year 2040, and the next steps that will create some alternative scenarios for our future.

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A new kind of car

Our new Nissan Leaf

After much waiting, our new Nissan Leaf is finally here. I picked it up this afternoon. It’s definitely a new kind of car — not only is it fully electric, but in many respects it seems a bit like a computer on wheels. It goes faster than any computer, though. Driving on Oak Ridge Turnpike, I noticed that I was going too fast — my guess is that since there’s no engine noise, I wasn’t getting the auditory feedback that I’m accustomed to.

One thing that will take some getting used to is the fact that many of the major controls of the vehicle seem to be closely related to the controls for the radio — it’s all about communication, I guess.

The Nissan Leaf dashboard display is both totally familiar and totally strange.

The dashboard display behind the steering wheel includes the speed and the odometer reading (just like a gas-powered car), some interesting symbols that measure current power utilization — how hard the car is either using power or regenerating the battery while decelerating or braking, a display that looks like a gas gauge but indicates how much charge is left — measured in miles remaining on the battery, and a temperature gauge that shows the temperature of the battery. I don’t yet know what we are supposed to do if the battery starts getting “too hot.” There’s a coolant reservoir under the hood, but I still don’t know where the coolant circulates and what part of the car it cools (maybe it cools the battery — or maybe it’s part of the HVAC system).

There’s a touch screen with a complicated collection of displays — far more than in our Toyota Prius. I think that it’s probably best to ignore this touch screen while driving, as the Google navigation maps, energy use details, radio station displays, heating/cooling details, etc., could be very distracting. The touchscreen display is where I saw a readout indicating that the car was getting 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, on average.

Electronic display on the EV charger mounted on our carport wall.

Both the car and the plug-in charger are programmable devices that can be told when to charge the car (I don’t know which device takes priority if they have different programming), so the battery is scheduled to get recharged in the middle of the night, when baseload electricity generating facilities (nuclear power plants, plus some coal-fired plants) typically crank out more electricity than the grid needs. At this time, Oak Ridge residential customers pay the same price for that off-peak power as we do for peak power during the day, so we’re not saving any money by charging at night, but over the next few years that’s expected to change. TVA recently started charging the city a dual rate that has both a monthly usage (kilowatt hours) component and a peak demand component (based on the hour each month that the city had the highest usage). Over the next several years, they’ll introduce peak and off-peak rates, and the city will begin to pass differential rates on to consumers — encouraging us to shift the timing of some of our electric use. Until then, I guess we’re practicing for that future — and our car and our charger will be sending data to Department of Energy researchers to help them understand and model how electric cars will interact with the electricity grid and the transportation system in future years.

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Waiting for the Nissan Leaf

Ellen behind the wheel of a Nissan LeafFor quite some time now, my household has been looking forward to acquiring a Nissan Leaf — the first mass-market plug-in electric car. On Saturday we finally had our first chance to see, touch, and drive one, when Nissan brought 14 cars to World’s Fair Park in Knoxville.

This car is an exciting opportunity for our area — a chance to be a leader in changes that should reduce our national addiction to foreign oil, as well as our emissions of greenhouse gases. Tennessee is one of the first states where the Leaf is being sold, and in a couple of years Nissan will start making this car in Smyrna, Tennessee. The process of becoming early adopters of this new technology has been frustratingly slow. It’s been 10 months since we put in a reservation (with a $99 deposit), about 5 or 6 months since an electrician came to evaluate the cost of installing a 240v charging station in our house (cost to be subsidized for us pioneer owners!), and about 3 or 4 months since we placed our order with Oak Ridge Nissan, but delivery is still at least 3 months away. The Nissan reps who were in Knoxville on Saturday said that only about 150 cars have been delivered to U.S. customers so far.

Still, the prospects are exciting. The car is comfortable to ride in and it drives well — although I’m not sure what I think about the fact that it feels even more like driving a computer than our Toyota Prius does. We will be able to use a computer or smartphone to send it messages — for example, to schedule it to recharge during the hours of the night when electricity demand is at its lowest, and even to turn on the car’s heater in the morning a few minutes before leaving for work (while it’s still plugged in). It remains to be seen how the advertised 100-mile driving range will compare with our experience, but we know that’s more than enough for most of our daily needs — and in the early months the car will be sending its performance data to Department of Energy-funded researchers to help provide an information base to benefit future electric car owners.

It’s exciting for me to know that our region will be one of the first to have public car-recharging stations throughout the area (including stations at ORNL, where we work, and at our local Nissan dealership). Given Oak Ridgers’ commitment to leadership in energy technology, I look forward to our Leaf seeing plenty others of its kind around town.

Update on March 20, 2011: Our wait will be longer as a result of the recent earthquake near Sendai, Japan. Nissan sent e-mail saying “As a consequence of the earthquake and tsunami, a delay in the scheduled delivery date of your Nissan LEAF™ is unavoidable.” They still can’t say how long the additional delay will be.

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