Taxpayers' Leaf: Four Recharging Stops Needed to Go 180 Miles

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Nissan Leaf photoConsumer Reports has painted an ugly picture of the Nissan Leaf, as did an early enthusiast based in Los Angeles, who described his frustrations with the heavily subsidized, all-electric car in a recent column.

Now comes what must be the definitive example of the Leaf’s impracticality – this time from a (still) hard-core advocate, whose 180-mile Tennessee trek to visit family over the holidays required four lengthy stops to keep the vehicle moving.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, set out from Knoxville on Monday with his wife and son, headed for the Nashville area. His plan (appropriately) was to follow Interstate 40 West, where a series of Cracker Barrel restaurants – equipped with so-called “fast” vehicle chargers (if you want to call 30 minutes or more “fast”) along the route – would provide an electricity security blanket as the Leaf’s charge diminished. 

Only problem was, the Leaf’s charge dropped more rapidly than promised. In what has to be a public relations disaster for Nissan, Smith’s EV was unable to travel no farther than 55 miles on any leg of the trip – and for the most part, much less. The company, and its government backers, proclaimed the Leaf was “built to go 100 miles on a charge” (large print), with a footnoted disclaimer (small print) that it travels shorter distances (like, 70 miles) if the air conditioning or the heater is used. Turns out even that was an exaggeration.

It was about 35 degrees in the Volunteer State when Smith departed Knoxville on Monday, and Mrs. Smith and his five-year-old son apparently were not willing to forgo heat in order to make the EV cause look good. A trip that should take – according to map Web sites – less than three hours, ended up lasting six hours for the Smiths because of all the stops they had to make. The approximate intervals where they paused for recharging were as follows: 

  • Knoxville to Harriman: 45 miles
  • Harriman to Crossville: 31 miles
  • Crossville to Cookeville: 31 miles
  • Cookeville to Lebanon: 50 miles
  • Lebanon to destination in Antioch, just south of Nashville: 22 miles 

Hence the Smiths required four recharges in order to travel approximately 180 miles. According to the account in The Tennessean, they experienced their first “hair-raiser” range anxiety before they even reached Harriman.

“The display on the dashboard of their Nissan LEAF showed a drop in available range from 100 miles to about 50, when they had only traveled about 40 miles,” reported the Gannett-owned newspaper, which also owns USA Today, a cheerleader of all “clean” energy projects regardless of viability.

If the specs promised by Nissan and Leaf advocates were to be believed, the Smiths should have been able to travel about 25-30 miles past Harriman (where it took 20 minutes to boost the battery to 80 percent) before they’d need a recharge, even when using the car heater. But because of the limited availability of so-called “fast chargers” (440 volts, 30 minutes), the intermediate stop was necessary in order to climb the upcoming Cumberland Plateau and reach the next Cracker Barrel “fast charger” in Crossville. The chargers (which, by the way, don’t work for the Chevy Volt and won’t for many future EVs planned for release) are sparse because they cost $40,000 each, and companies like Ecotality apparently can only do so much with the $115 million Department of Energy grant it received to deploy the equipment.

At Crossville, according to The Tennessean, the Smiths’ battery gauge failed them again. The reading at Harriman said they could go another 70 miles, but after 31 miles, the gauge indicated they only had 20 miles of range remaining. Obviously that wasn’t to be trusted.

“It was a little nerve wracking,” Stephen Smith told the Nashville-based newspaper. “I’m finding the range is not 100 percent accurate.”

But heading west from Crossville, according to Smith, would not be as taxing on the Leaf: “Cookeville will be about the same distance but it will be flat or downhill.” It turned out his battery gauge maintained accuracy on that leg of the trip, but when he reached Lebanon (50 miles), he found that the Ecotality “Blink” fast-charger at the Cracker Barrel was, uh, on the blink (he should have known that was possible, if not likely). So instead he had to plug in to another slower charger at the restaurant, which took an hour to boost the battery enough (they hoped) to travel the remaining 22 miles to their destination.

The Smiths arrived at their destination in Antioch with what the Leaf told them was six miles of range remaining. All that after an anxiety-filled six-hour trip that was more than twice as long as it would take in a gasoline vehicle, which could probably have been accomplished with a single stop for a bathroom break.

The Smiths’ experience echoed that of a Consumer Reports reviewer and Los Angeles columnist Rob Eshman, who called his Leaf his “2011 Nissan Solyndra.” Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal, experienced the same gauge inaccuracies and range anxiety that came from traversing hills and mountains and the use of his air conditioning in hot, smoggy L.A. 

“My life now revolves around a near-constant calculation of how far I can drive before I’ll have to walk,” Eshman wrote. “The Nissan Leaf, I can report, is perfect if you don’t have enough anxiety in your life.”

Of course, you won’t hear words like that from the lips of passionate “Green” energy advocate Smith, who chalked up the experience to being an “early adopter” and a pioneer.

“It’s good knowing we didn’t use a drop of oil getting down here,” he said. He must have had a similar fuzzy feeling on his return trip, which "only" took five hours, since the Lebanon charger was working later in the week.

As for the heavily coal-generated electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority that powered his trip, well, let’s not go there. Let’s just pretend that windmills and solar panels could have just as easily done the trick, if the EPA and Department of Energy would just do their jobs and eliminate all coal power plants and “invest” billions more taxpayer dollars in “renewables” deployment.

As for “why Tennessee” as part of this EV system rollout, you might ask? Thanks be to taxpayers there, also, as Nissan has in its back pocket a $1.4 billion federal loan to retrofit a plant in Smyrna – just outside Nashville – to mass-produce the Leaf. As company CEO Carlos Ghosn has said publicly, Nissan will produce EVs wherever government will produce the financial incentives. 

And that’s what it takes in order for the “Green” energy industry swindle to survive.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center.