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Money makes electric cars go

When the auto was first invented, electric and gas-powered cars were about equally viable, but while the internal combustion engine evolved in efficiency and power the battery did not and the electric car never caught on.

When the auto was first invented, electric and gas-powered cars were about equally viable, but while the internal combustion engine evolved in efficiency and power the battery did not and the electric car never caught on.

Now the Obama administration and the automakers have discovered the secret to making the electric car go -- money. The administration plans a $5 billion program of tax credits to buyers and grants and subsidized loans to automakers to get the electric car rolling.

There is a $250 million public-private partnership called the EV Project to spread the gospel of charging stations and popularize electric cars. A West Coast company has a $115 million contract to set up and subsidize 15,000 charging stations in 16 cities. Another company has a $15 million contract to install 2,600 public chargers and another 2,000 in private homes.

The New York Times talked to a Nashville lawyer who put down a $99 deposit on an all-electric Nissan Leaf and is getting a $7,500 federal tax credit, a $2,500 cash rebate from the state and, for participating in a study, a $3,000 home charging unit paid for by the Department of Energy. Even if you missed the free charger offer, you can still take a $2,000 tax credit for buying one.

And there are other bennies. California will give you a $5,000 tax credit. In Washington, electric cars are exempt from the state sales tax. And in six states you have unfettered access to the HOV lanes.

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In eastern and central Tennessee, electric cars can recharge for free at charging stations on the major highways. It so happens that a Nissan is building an electric car plant there so maybe the idea is to have you well out of sight of the plant if the juice runs out.

The Nissan Leaf arrives in selected showrooms next month and the Chevy Volt, an electric car with a small backup gas engine, in December. They are the vanguard of about 20 models to come from Ford, Toyota, Honda and BMW.

Prospective buyers of electric cars give the automakers access to what is described as "a highly desirable demographic," affluent, college-educated, mid-40s, environmentally conscious, willing to take a chance on new technology. In other words, if you're willing to buy an electric car, there's a good chance you're willing to buy a whole lot of other stuff.

But there are naysayers. According to the killjoys at The Wall Street Journal, "Electric cars are too expensive, take too long to recharge and don't provide enough driving range before they run out of juice to be practical ..."

The Leaf is $33,000 and the Volt, $41,000 when well-equipped cars of similar size go for half that. The Leaf's range is 100 miles -- less if you use the heater or air conditioner -- which in some parts of the country, particularly out West, is a trip to the corner store. In the East, it's the equivalent of a normal backup on I-95.

The Leaf takes eight hours, basically overnight, to charge on a 240-volt home charger, but even the high-powered chargers like those being installed at selected BP stations take 26 minutes. That's a long time to kill in the convenience store inspecting the displays of window washer fluid and chewing tobacco.

And one consultant quoted by the Journal thinks gas would have to hit $8 or $9 a gallon for electric cars to be cost effective.

The Obama administration plans to have 1 million electric cars on the roads by 2015. That's a lot of bribes -- excuse us. incentives -- to would-be buyers. Between the Cash for Clunkers and the electric car subsidies and its ownership of two carmakers, the motto of the Obama administration may soon be: No Car Buyer Left Behind.

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McFeatters writes for Scripps Howard News Service.

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