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VOL. 126 | NO. 133 | Monday, July 11, 2011

Charging Ahead

Peabody’s electric vehicle station speaks to rising tide of sustainability

By Bill Dries

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A row of four electrical outlets with cords in the Peabody Place garage Downtown are a first for the city’s hospitality industry and retailers in general – charging stations for electric vehicles.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. attempts to connect the power line from a recently installed charging station for electric vehicles to a Nissan LEAF in the parking garage of The Peabody hotel.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The Peabody hotel is the first hotel in West Tennessee and the second of five hotels across the state to get the charging stations under an 18-city, six-state effort to build an infrastructure of 14,000 charging stations, which speaks to a growing desire to combat high gas prices.

“That’s why we were quick to raise our hand and say that we wanted to be the first. We do think this is the future,” said Doug Browne, general manager of The Peabody.

“We have had a few requests. And luckily you can plug into a 110 (volt) outlet.”

Hotel guests will not pay for the charge.

“They are going to pay our normal parking fee,” Browne said. “They would have had to pay that anyway.”

Other business owners who have signed up for the recharging stations are also in many cases considering not charging fees for those using the stations.

As the network of charging stations grows through the effort of ECOtality, a San Francisco company hired by the U.S. Energy Department to build the charging infrastructure, the Nissan LEAF electric cars to use the stations are still in short supply.

For this week’s milestone at The Peabody, the organizers had to borrow a LEAF from Clint Bray of Collierville.

ECOtality and Nissan are pushing hard the theme that the cars can go 100 miles on a single charge and that a network of charging stations will eliminate what they acknowledge is the chief concern car shoppers have – will they get stuck by the side of the road because the batteries run out?

Bray recently drove from Collierville to Brighton, Tenn., over the Fourth of July holiday weekend with his family.

“At no time did I worry about getting back,” he said. “You can drive it like you stole it or you can drive it like a pa-paw, like I do.”

Electric vehicles and charging stations aren’t a new phenomenon for Memphis business fleets.

A Blink Level 2 charging station for electric vehicles was recently installed at The Peabody.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Ray Skinner remembers the EVs used by Forest Hill Dairy starting in the 1930s. His father, Raymond Skinner, was a partner in the Midtown dairy, which designed some of the 12 to 20 trucks used to deliver milk at a time when there was no air conditioning and sleeping customers often left their windows open.

“It was a premium to have silence,” Skinner said. “They were recharged at night and they made their deliveries when Memphis was much smaller and bottles were glass. The cases had wire dividers on them. And literally the only thing you could hear as they went down the street was the tinkle of the empty bottles against the dividers.”

The growth of the suburbs to the east caused Forest Hill to phase out the early EVs as they stretched the boundaries of the batteries of the day and increasingly had to be towed back to the dairy when they went too far.

Drivers had to adjust to the lack of noise. And the milkmen had to remember that when they parked the vehicles at the loading dock they had to turn off the vehicle.

“They would back up to the platform to get a load of milk and some idiot would forget to turn off the motor and they would literally sit there and grind their (solid rubber) tires to pieces,” said Skinner, who still has one of the brass plugs used to start the electric vehicles.

A shift to electric vehicles is clearly happening at the city’s largest employer. FedEx Express announced recently it will double its fleet of all-electric vehicles to 43.

Keshav Sondhi, the head of asset management for FedEx Express Global Vehicles and a fellow at the Aspen Institute, said the habits of driving a conventional internal-combustion engine vehicle are something EV designers try to compensate for.

“We try to maintain the tactile feel … as close as we can to a regular truck,” Sondhi said.

The vehicles don’t need a gear lever or box. They could use a touch screen instead. But there is a concession to the tradition of auto design.

“No gearbox today can match that instantaneous torque we get with the electric motor,” Sondhi said, referring to one of the harder adjustments some EV drivers have to make initially. “You’ll still see sort of a gearshift kind of lever.”

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