On January 28th the DOE announced the closing of a $1.4 billion ATVM loan to Nissan North America, a unit of Nissan Motors (NSANY), for the purpose of retooling a factory in Smyrna, Tennessee to produce the Leaf, a zero emission electric car that will be released later this year. Nissan will use the loan proceeds to create “up to 1,300 American jobs” at a cost of about $1.3 million each and the 200,000 Leafs it hopes to produce and sell each year will “conserve up to 65.4 million gallons” of gas, a whopping 327 gallons per car per year. Secretary Chu said, “This is an investment in our clean energy future. It will bring the United States closer to reducing our dependence on foreign oil and help lower carbon pollution.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
With due respect to Nissan and its PR team, no electric car can honestly claim zero emissions because unless they’re sold in a bundle with a wind turbine or solar panel, the best any electric car can do is take distributed CO2 emissions from the roads and centralize them in a coal or gas fired power plant. Even under the most optimistic of renewable energy scenarios, American EVs will be plugging into a lump of coal for decades. I’m the first to point out that the Leaf will be responsible for a little less than half the CO2 a comparably sized car with an internal combustion engine would produce, but calling the Leaf ‘zero emission’ has all the intellectual integrity of a no-peeing section in the public swimming pool.
Nissan’s alliance with France’s Renault (RNSDF.PK) makes it a major player in the global automotive industry with combined sales of roughly 6 million vehicles in 2009. While Nissan and Renault both make marketable products, neither company has a sterling reputation as an automotive trendsetter, particularly when it comes to electric drive technologies. Nissan was fighting for survival while Toyota (TM) was developing its highly successful Hybrid Synergy Drive. As a result, the best Nissan could do was license the synergy drive from Toyota for use in the Altima. As recently as 2006, Renault was snubbing HEV technology in favor of fuel-efficient diesel engines. Now it seems that they’ve both found religion and want to leap-frog a decade of real-world electric drive experience by introducing an audacious, expensive and unproven electric car that will be underwritten by taxpayers and sold to customers (a/k/a lab-rats) as part of the grandest science fair project in history.
The best part is, Nissan wins no matter what happens. If the Leaf is a successful product, Nissan will have a taken a clear lead in the field with taxpayer money. If the Leaf is a failure, Nissan will be able to look regulators and EV advocates in the eye and say, “we spent billions to throw your stupid EV party and nobody came.” No wonder Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is happy. Heck, even P.T. Barnum and W.C. Fields would have been proud.
To date Nissan’s pricing plans for the Leaf have been cloaked in mystery, resulting in a plethora of conflicting press reports. Most seem to agree that Nissan will copy the ‘batteries not included’ section from Mattel’s (MAT) business plan and lease the batteries to consumers under a separate contract. This strategy has the dual benefit of concealing the true cost of the Leaf while deflecting customer backlash from battery pack failures or service life issues.
I hate going back to unpleasant realities, but the Smyrna plant will need roughly 4.8 million kWh of lithium-ion batteries per year to build 200,000 Leafs. If Nissan-Renault had taken the time and spent the money to develop a competitive HEV technology of their own, those same batteries would be enough to upgrade more than half of their global auto production to HEVs and save 500 million gallons of gasoline per year in the process.
Last October a White House advisor called it ‘calculator abuse‘ when ABC News had the temerity to suggest that stimulus jobs cost taxpayers an average of $160,000 each. I would love to hear a cogent explanation of how it makes sense to:
- Put taxpayers on the hook to the tune of $1 million for each new job created in Smyrna;
- Save 64.5 million gallons of gas with a small fleet of Leafs instead of saving 500 million gallons of gas by upgrading half of Nissan-Renault’s global production to HEVs; and
- Reduce total CO2 emissions by 335,000 tons with a small fleet of Leafs instead of reducing CO2 emissions by 5 million tons with a larger and more affordable fleet of HEVs.
As things presently stand, I have to wonder whether the inmates aren’t running the asylum.