Lynn Webb is waiting for an email from Nissan. Any day now, the carmaker will give him the delivery date for his brand new Leaf, the all-electric car that will replace his wife Marilyn's nine-year-old Toyota Highlander.
Because it's a replacement vehicle, Webb expects Marilyn will drive the Leaf the most, primarily making her daily nine-mile trip from their home in Franklin to Brentwood's Kenrose Elementary, where Marilyn is the principal. They plan to charge the car each night — confident it won't run out of juice during the day and feeling satisfied they're doing something to help America reduce its dependence on oil.
"I'll admit," Webb said, "it will also make me feel a little less guilty because I drive a pickup truck." He figures that if his 2009 truck gets about 15 miles per gallon, and the Leaf gets the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon, the couple will average about 60 miles per gallon in fuel usage.
Unless there's an emergency — like a mid-day snowstorm that makes driving up the hill to the Webbs' home treacherous in any vehicle but the truck — Webb doubts he'd have a reason to drive the car on his longer commute to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he serves as vice chancellor for Health Affairs, and use the university's soon-to-be-installed charging stations during the day. Then again, he might have the Leaf at work and need to visit Murfreesboro or Cookeville, prompting him to get a charge at the Nashville campus.
Whatever scenarios unfold after the Webbs get their email and, subsequently, their car, the couple's charging behavior will be tracked, recorded and analyzed in order to help those who will follow in their footsteps.
Creating a microclimate
The Webbs are among 1,000 Tennessee-based Leaf owners expected to participate in The EV Project, a $230 million program sparked by $115 million in federal Department of Energy grants. The project will deploy more than 15,000 electric vehicle charging stations in six states and Washington, D.C. Tennessee will get about 2,500 residential and commercial stations in and between Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis.
Officials expect the infrastructure installation to be completed in September. Then, the project's administrator, California-based ECOtality, will get to work analyzing its use by nearly 10,000 EV drivers like the Webbs.
"What we're trying to do is create a microclimate of a fully mature EV infrastructure," said Stephanie Cox, stakeholder services area manager for ECOtality in Tennessee. "So we're taking these pockets around the country, and we're putting enough charging stations in to replicate a fully mature system of what it might look like five or 10 years from now. And then we're trying to learn what works best and what doesn't work and why."
Those "lessons learned" will help the DOE plan for the nationwide deployment of infrastructure that will be used by millions of future EV drivers.
In order to learn those lessons, EV Project participants must let ECOtality track their behavior through data collected by the charging stations and the vehicles themselves. So, for example, every time Marilyn Webb plugs in, the chargers will record the time of day, her Leaf's current state of charge, its charge level when unplugged, and so forth. Through 2012, those statistics and driver surveys will be sent to Idaho National Laboratory in preparation for a report to the energy department in June 2013.
Cox expects the data will answer a number of EV unknowns, such as whether charging stations are best located near building entrances, or if people don't mind traversing parking lots; whether drivers charge at public stations to get a boost before juicing up at home, or if they're plugging in at the mall so they can run more errands; whether individuals prefer to charge at certain types of public locations but shun others, and so on.
"Maybe people will charge everywhere they go because it's there and it's new," Cox said.
Finding the hosts
Nearly 1,500 commercial charging stations are earmarked for Tennessee. To find homes for them all, Cox has been hosting business forums and cold-calling companies. She's looking for a variety of partners — from malls and grocery stores to hospitals and hotels — places where people may park their cars for one to three hours.
Thus far she's received about 200 letters of intent from businesses interested in participating in the project. Vanderbilt University Medical Center, for example, is installing up to 10 charging stations. The Sheraton Hotel downtown plans to host stations. Cracker Barrel will install stations at 24 of its Tennessee locations, including those situated between the four participating Tennessee cities so ECOtality can test infrastructure use for long-range EV trips.
Businesses that raise their hands can receive chargers at no cost for the duration of the project and, depending on the electrical infrastructure at the location, free installation. ECOtality VP Colin Read said the company plans to roll out point-of-sale payment systems for the charging stations after an initial no-cost period for drivers. Businesses will then have the opportunity to participate in revenue sharing to recoup the cost of the hardware if they want to keep the chargers at the project's end.
Plus, there's the foot traffic factor. Charging station sites will appear on in-car electronic maps, helping drivers find a plug-in spot when necessary. "To me, a business wants to be on that map, especially in these early years when you're one of the few," Cox said.
But Cracker Barrel spokesperson Julie Davis said that wasn't a motivating factor for the Lebanon-based restaurant and retail chain.
"We don't expect to make any money of charging vehicles," Davis said. "It's all too new, too small."
In fact, Cracker Barrel will incur some "substantial" costs to install the stations, she said, because it will need to upgrade some of its transformers and dig up sidewalks and asphalt in some locations to place the chargers near store entrances. The company is more interested in anticipating and meeting the needs of its current guests, Davis said, and participating "in what we think is a meaningful way in terms of nation's exploration into energy independence."
Energy independence was a motivator for the Webbs, but the financial incentives for early Leaf owners didn't hurt either.
EV Project participants get their at-home chargers for free and, unless their homes need certain electrical upgrades, installation costs are also covered. Leaf owners who join the EV Project also get a $700 fast-charging port installed on their cars for free, and the vehicle purchase itself is eligible for a $2,500 state and $7,500 federal rebate.
"The Tennessee one was a real bonus," Webb said of the rebate. He and Marilyn had already ordered their car when former Gov. Phil Bredesen announced the incentive. "A $10,000 rebate on a $30,000 car is really significant," he said.
For now, the Webbs look forward to bringing home their Leaf — and a time, maybe not so far away, when there will be enough charging stations available that they can drive it to visit their son and daughter-in-law in Georgia.
"It'll be interesting to see when we'll be able to take it to Atlanta and back," he said. For now, they'll be driving the pickup.