Power On 

Mid-South leaders hope to make Memphis a hub for electric vehicles.

Somewhere, there's a spark in the air.

Earlier this month, members of the Mid-South Council to Help Advance the Regional Growth of Electrification, or CHARGE, wrote U.S. senator Lamar Alexander in support of a bill aimed at increasing the use of electric vehicles. The group, which included Memphis mayor A C Wharton, Shelby County mayor-elect Mark Luttrell, and mayors from Collierville, Germantown, Hernando, and West Memphis, hopes that the metro area will be chosen as one of 15 deployment communities for electric vehicles and infrastructure once the bill passes.

"The energy crisis we're in, we've got to work together or be crippled," Wharton said. "I think we're positioned extremely well because of our location."

Locally, the charge — as it were — has been led by FedEx founder Fred Smith.

Co-chairman of the Energy Security Leadership Council, Smith testified before a Senate energy committee in June, saying that "after terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, our increased dependence on petroleum represents the biggest single threat to our nation's economy and national security."

Smith makes a compelling case, even citing oil prices as the fuel for the mortgage crisis. The average price of gas rose from $1.46 in 2001 to $3.27 in 2008, resulting in a cost increase of $1,990 to the average American household. By comparison, changes to the federal tax code saved the median household about $1,900 annually.

"In other words," Smith testified, "every penny that most Americans saved due to federal income and estate tax cuts over those eight years was spent on high gasoline bills."

As for national security, Smith noted that oil dependence constrains U.S. foreign policy, as well as costs taxpayers between $67.5 billion and $83 billion annually in defense funds to guard and defend oil supply lines.

For Smith, the answer is electric.

With transportation accounting for 70 percent of American oil consumption in 2008, it makes sense Smith would want to put electric cars in drive. Electricity is generated using a diverse group of domestic fuels; the sector has substantial spare capacity; it's cleaner for the environment; and a network of infrastructure already exists.

The key is how to turn electric vehicles from a niche product for environmentalists and early adopters to something for mainstream consumers. For recharging stations to be viable, there needs to be a critical mass of electric vehicles. For consumers to buy electric vehicles, they need to know they'll have places to charge them.

Should the bill pass, five to 15 communities would be chosen for a range of incentives for consumers, infrastructure providers, and utilities.

That's the outlet regional leaders are hoping for, both for the economic and environmental benefits.

"There are so many incentives ranging from incentives to build recharge centers to incentives to purchase vehicles," Wharton said. "There is a job training program. ... This has the potential to mend a lot of what ails us."

In addition to the financial incentives, electric vehicles could also represent cost savings, given the right infrastructure and economies of scale.

"In our current economy, we rely almost entirely on fossil fuels. That's a big drain. That money we're putting in our fuel tanks could be used [elsewhere]," Wharton said.

Becoming a deployment community could also help the area stay in compliance with federal air quality standards.

Memphis Light, Gas & Water head Jerry Collins is also part of Mid-South CHARGE.

"It's a much bigger issue than MLGW," he said. "We strongly feel that Memphis Light, Gas & Water must do those things that are in the best interest of our customers as a whole."

Though demand for energy at peak times is increasing, the overall demand has remained relatively stable.

"If we can recharge those cars during non-peak periods like the middle of the night, we can better utilize the capacity TVA has that goes largely unused," Collins said.

If Memphis were chosen as one of the 15 cities, it would mean charging stations spanning the state of Tennessee. Under a 2009 U.S. Department of Energy grant, ECOtality was awarded almost $100 million in part to install charging infrastructure in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, as well as cities in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington.

It bears noting that energy, the environment, the economy, and global security are intrinsically linked.

"The environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is making clear once again yet another aspect of the danger posed by our dependence," Smith said. "The longer we remain addicted, the more oil we will have to produce from more and more technically and environmentally challenging ways.The only way to turn from that dangerous path ... is by ending oil's chokehold on our transportation system."

To read more about this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's In the Bluff blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/


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