Taxpayers Fund Impractical Cracker Barrel EV Recharging Scheme

CrackerBarrelIf you were going to run a pilot project that deploys charging stations in a network to enhance the use of electric vehicles, what kind of establishments would you locate them at? Whose customers might be most interested in that amenity?

Certainly Starbucks comes to mind, as might sustainability-crazy Walmart – but how about Cracker Barrel?

It’s true, the down-home chain of Old Country Store restaurants was chosen by Ecotality for a practice run in Tennessee as part of The EV Project, which is funded with a $115 million Department of Energy grant to create infrastructure to support EVs like the Nissan Leaf. The rollout features a dozen so-called “fast chargers,” which means they can provide an electric “fill-up” in 30 minutes, with the idea that an EV owner could consume his Cracker Barrel Sampler and a couple of sweet tea refills while the Leaf gets its electric infusion.

It all made for a pleasant photo opportunity.

“Cracker Barrel works hard to remain relevant in our guests’ changing lives while continuing to offer the genuine hospitality and honest value associated with times past,” said Cracker Barrel President and CEO Sandra B. Cochran. “Our leadership role in the EV Project allows us to continue offering what our guests need and expect while also participating in a meaningful way in our nation’s explorations of energy independence.”

Tennessee was one of the test states chosen for The EV Project because Nissan is retrofitting a plant in Smyrna, in the greater Nashville area, to mass produce the Leaf – thanks to a $1.4 billion U.S. government loan. A concentration of the chargers will be installed at restaurants located along the 425-mile triangular formation of Interstates between Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Altogether 12 “fast” chargers will be located at Cracker Barrels and 13 placed at BP gas stations. Slower chargers, which require seven to eight hours to fully amp-up the Leaf, will also be set up.

“Without chargers in place along the interstates,” The Tennessean reported, “Leaf drivers would not be able to make trips between Nashville and Knoxville or Chattanooga – distances which are about 160 (actually 180) and 130 miles, respectively, making both cities well outside the car’s estimated 75-mile travel range on a single charge.”

So let’s do the calculations: If a resident of Nashville wants to drive his or her Leaf to Knoxville (say, to bring a child to school at University of Tennessee) and back, it will require at least two 30-minute recharges en route, and two more on the way home – assuming you can locate the chargers at necessarily precise intervals. Hanging around Cracker Barrel or a gas station while the “fast charger” works its magic (assuming someone else isn’t using it), which adds at least two more hours to the trip, doesn’t sound like enough of an incentive to abandon your gasoline-powered vehicle – even if the recharge costs nothing. Cracker Barrel says EV customers can use its electricity for free until the end of the year, but they will have to pay beginning January 1, 2012.

“The pricing has not been set yet, but certainly it will be less than for traditional fuels,” said Cracker Barrel spokeswoman Julie Davis to The Tennessean.

The impracticality of it all did not prevent Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander from showing up for the photo op at the company’s headquarters store in Lebanon, Tenn., as he is said to be a proponent of EVs.

“There is enough unused electricity at night that we can plug in half our cars and trucks without building a single new power plant,” Alexander said, “and forward-thinking companies like Cracker Barrel are making it even easier to drive electric vehicles by allowing customers to charge them up while we eat, work, shop or otherwise go about our days. Electric vehicles are the best solution to $4 gasoline — and plugging in my Nissan Leaf gives me the patriotic pleasure of not sending money overseas to people trying to blow us up.”

Unused electricity? Does Alexander think it gets thrown out with the uneaten chicken ‘n dumplins’ at night? And if he thinks EVs are the best solution to $4-per-gallon gasoline, he has probably also embraced the fantasy that bright sunshine and mountain breezes are enough to keep his Leaf running strong. Meanwhile the rest of us, who are steeped in reality, are the ones left to fight for the right to drill for fossil fuels on our own lands and shores, which is the real answer to high gasoline prices. 

The EV Project is said to be all about “creating a solid charging infrastructure across the country.” But besides the aforementioned issues, the fast chargers also can only accommodate one Leaf at a time, despite being equipped with two “nozzles.” So, as The Tennessean explained, “the one that got there first will be charged first, then the system automatically switches to the other vehicle.” So once the Leafs start rolling off the Smyrna assembly line en masse next year, Tennessee EV owners might see something like the 1970s gas lines develop at their local Cracker Barrels – it will only take a vehicle or two charging for 30 minutes each to reproduce such a scenario. If your battery is almost empty, it’s not like you can just go to the next charger up the street.

Also, as NLPC reported last month, the “fast” chargers do not work with that other heavily subsidized EV, the Chevy Volt, because of its small battery pack. And electric vehicles produced in the future by automakers – other than Nissan and Mitsubishi – will not be compatible with the chargers installed at the Cracker Barrels because they will use a different standard.

The stated intention for the whole EV Project is to collect data to understand how owners use and recharge their vehicles in real-life situations. Until researchers overcome the long-befuddling challenge of worthwhile, extended-life battery storage, they will never be able to replicate “real life” – not even with the incentive of country ham, cornbread and unlimited drink refills.

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