Sen. Lamar Alexander doesn't just talk about alternative car technologies. He spent $10,000 to have a Toyota Prius fitted with a special new battery that essentially turned his senatorial black hybrid into an electric car. I had a chance to talk about his new ride and the potential for electric cars to save tanker's worth of oil, and here's what he said.
Paul Bedard: Tell me about your new car. What is it?
Lamar Alexander: It's a Prius converted by A123, which is a company in Boston that has invented a better battery. And I bought it in July.
PB: How did you hear about it?
LA: Well, I had a hearing on electric cars—they came to it.
PB: I bet you got a good deal.
LA: Well, I made sure that I paid exactly what the last person paid and what the next person paid. It's simply a Toyota Prius converted with a different kind of electric battery. It's a hybrid car, and instead of starting out on the gas engine, it starts out on the electric battery and the electric battery will go 30 miles without using any gas. So I drive only about 4-5 miles each way to work every day, and I've only put one tank of gas in my car, and I've still got a half a tank left. So I don't drive very much.
PB: So it holds a whole tank?
LA: Yes, it's a regular Prius, except the little regular battery in the normal Prius, which a million people have bought, has been replaced with a battery that will take you 30 miles. The regular battery in the normal Prius will only take you a mile and a half. In the regular Prius, it starts out on the gasoline engine, and when you're idling, the little bitty electric engine relieves your engine. In this converted car, you start out with electric, and you don't go to gasoline, that's your secondary engine. We've got four Tennessee car companies—Nissan, General Motors, Volkswagen plus Toyota has a large presence in Tennessee—are going to be producing these cars in some version by 2010. And I've been working with TVA. And I think it's likely that within 15 to 20 years, about half of us will be driving electric cars rather than gasoline cars, and it's that it's the single best way that we'll stop using foreign oil. Just a guess. But it's easier to fill up. I just go home at night and plug it in just like I would my cellphone.
PB: What, you've got an extension cord?
LA: Yeah, you just buy an extension cord at Walgreens.
PB: That's easier than a golf cart where you need a converter or something.
LA: It's as easy, well, a golf cart you got to put a bigger plug on. I just plug it into the wall, and it uses about the same amount of electricity as a water heater would during that amount of time. So I can fill up at night for 60 to 80 cents instead of going down to the gas station to fill up for $60 to $80. Right now, there are only a few hundred of these in the country because this little company in Boston, A123, is converting only Priuses.
PB: So you heard about it at the hearing, you got hooked into it, and you had to have one?
LA: I heard about it at the hearing, I made it part of our Republican policy, and I thought I better put myself where my mouth is, so I bought one.
PB: What else do you like about it?
LA: It's quiet, it's inexpensive, and it's a symbol of where we are headed in this country. I like the fact that we have all sorts of ideas tossed around. What I like about it is this is something that doesn't depend very much on the government. We have automobile companies actually making these cars, they are going to be selling these cars. So what I like about it is we'll have the cars, we have the electricity, all we need is the cord. The other thing which most people don't know, is that in the TVA region when we're asleep, we have an enormous amount of unused electricity. It's our biggest untapped resource in America. So in the TVA region alone, TVA says we have the equivalent of six or seven nuclear power plants' worth of electricity that are unused. They've entered into a deal with Nissan in the Nashville area; they'll put a smart meter in your house, you plug in at night, they'll sell you some of this unused electricity at a cheap rate.
PB: I'm moving to Tennessee.
LA: Well, you can do it anywhere. I talked to the Austin, head of the very progressive utility there. They've been pushing these cars for longer than I've heard about them. He said they've got about 1 million cars and light trucks in the metro area. He said he figured that 10 percent of them would be electric within five years and maybe half within 15 to 20 years. And I asked him how many new power plants will they have to build to provide the electricity. He said zero if you plug them in at night. So we've got enough unused electricity at night to electrify half of our cars and trucks in the United States without having to build one new power plant.
PB: All right, what did you pay? What's the premium?
LA: $10,000 above the sticker price of a regular Prius in order to get A123 to convert it. So today, it's not cost effective. I don't save $10,000. But when General Motors, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford start selling these in 2010, it will cost less.
PB: I have heard nothing about this.
LA: Well, it's a fascinating story. What's fascinating is that the car companies are producing the cars, and we already have the electricity.
PB: What color is it?
LA: It's black. Very senatorial. It's like the Nissan Maxima I turned in when my lease expired.
PB: Do you like driving it?
LA: It's fun to drive it. And it's fun to see something that might actually help solve the problem. We estimate that if half our cars and trucks were electric, that would be 125 million and that might take 15 to 20 years, that would reduce imported oil by 4-5 million barrels a day, which is 400-500 hundred million dollars less a day we'd be sending overseas. We import 12 million barrels of oil a day, and we could nearly cut it in half if half of our cars and trucks were electric.