By Jim Motavalli
11:47 AM EST, November 9, 2011
Connecticut doesn't have enough Cracker Barrels for an EV charging network, but Tennessee, well that's another story. It's not often that the world's media descends on the Cracker Barrel in Lebanon, off Interstate 40, but that's what happened this week when the company announced that it had installed its first fast charger there.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) was there, and Sandy Cochran, president and CEO of Cracker Barrel. A 480-volt DC fast charger is capable of getting a Nissan Leaf from zero to 80 percent full in about half an hour, which is still a lot longer than most people spend at gas stations — but it's getting closer.
Last year, Cracker Barrel said it would plug in 24 of its Interstate-based stores in a Tennessee triangle that includes Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga (half of those will have fast charging). According to Julia Davis, a spokeswoman for Cracker Barrel, the first 12 240-volt Level II chargers are now in place, and the first of a dozen ECOtality Blink fast chargers is installed in Lebanon.
“People are using them now, and plugging in is free,” said Davis. It's unclear how many Nissan Leafs are on the road in Tennessee, but the state (home to the Leaf factory) is in the initial rollout plans. Tennessee chargers, including Cracker Barrel's, are subsidized by a $115 million in two federal grant to ECOtality.
How will fast charging work? Half an hour is a long time to be twiddling your thumbs at a gas station, which is why 480 volts DC makes more sense at restaurants like Cracker Barrel, movie theaters and big-box stores — where you're going to be occupied for a while. Heck, even Starbucks would probably make a lot of sense, since waiting for your grande mocha latte can take 20 minutes at least. Mark Perry of Nissan told me to think of fast charging as a quick way to “top off” your electric tank, and I think people may end up plugging in for just 10 minutes to get 30 miles or so of range.
EV charging is one big experiment. We don't have much reliable data on how much usage public stations will get. The early evidence is anecdotal. Scott Nedbeck, manager of the InterPark Government Center garage in Chicago, said back in April that a couple of its 11 stations have seen occasional use. “They haven't been used much yet, but we are hoping,” he said. When the Cracker Barrel chargers are fully installed by the end of November, it should be possible to drive across Tennessee, stopping only at Cracker Barrels for both human and car refueling.
Jim Motavalli is the author of the book Forward Drive: The Race to Build "Clean" Cars for the Future. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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