This article was originally published in the December 4, 2014 edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by AJC Senior Staff Writer Richard Halicks. I have corrected the tax information section, updating the description of the Georgia State Income Tax Credit.
It’s fall, and the LEAFs are turning left and right. The handful of plug-in electric car models available here, led by the Nissan Leaf, has come as a bit of a shock to the Atlanta market. They aren’t underpowered golf cart-like vehicles, for one thing. The coolest and most expensive plug-in, the Tesla Model S, goes from zero to 60 in, well, it was there before you finished reading this. (For the record: 3.2 seconds.)
By the end of 2014, 18,000 to 20,000 all-electric cars will be on the road in Georgia. Although that’s still a relatively minuscule number, it suggests that the vehicles have passed a big milestone: the market has outgrown the hard-core enthusiasts who would have bought the cars no matter what and now takes in people looking for a good deal.
And such a deal: some people who lease the Nissan Leaf find that, between the state’s tax credit for zero-emission vehicles and the savings on gasoline, the monthly cost of the lease comes out roughly to not much. (Fair warning: the tax credit cost the state $13.6 million in 2013 and may be much more costly in 2014 because of greater sales of electric vehicles; the credit was nearly repealed earlier this year, and a state legislator wants either to repeal or revise it in 2015.) Leaf buyers tend to be enthusiastic about the cost, the quiet and the absence of emissions.
“I absolutely love it,” says Leaf driver Karen Hines, who commutes about 18 miles one-way from her home in Tucker to her job downtown. “When my lease is up on this one, I will get another one. No question.” Hines was driving a grumpy old minivan when she got a new lease on Leaf a year ago. “I think my monthly lease payment is probably just a little bit more than the gas I was buying for my van,” Hines said. “We got a really great deal. The van was big, didn’t have great gas mileage. And I get to travel in the HOV lane all by myself.”
People like Hines have made Atlanta the No. 1 market in the nation for the Nissan Leaf, which is also the nation’s No. 1 plug-in electric car. A third of the LEAFs sold in the United States are sold here, a Nissan spokesman said, and while the Leaf accounts for about 2 percent of Nissan sales nationwide, it adds up to 25 percent of the automaker’s sales in Atlanta. The biggest concerns about plug-ins — the range is too limited, the price is too high, charging stations are too few and far between — are still concerns, but there’s progress on every front: range for the typical plug-in is now about 80 miles on a charge (265 miles for that supercharged, $70,000 Tesla); the price is steadily coming down for most models; and charging stations are increasing in number.
‘They’re finding out it’s a very fun car to drive’
Don Francis, the executive director of Clean Cities-Georgia, which promotes alternative-fuel vehicles — natural gas, propane, electricity, hydrogen and more — is both a promoter and a believer. “The customer is beginning to see the financial benefits of the vehicle,” said Francis, who is driving his second Leaf. “It’s very inexpensive to operate. In addition to that, they’re finding out that it’s a very fun car to drive.”
William Cook, who runs the state’s tax credit program for the state Environmental Protection Division, said he has been surprised by the growth in the program this year. The state approved 132 tax-credit certificates in 2012, he said. The number jumped to 1,372 in 2013. Through September this year, the total was 4,591. He estimated that 90 percent of the plug-in electrics certified are Nissan LEAFs. No. 2, though quite a bit lower, is the Tesla. The list then dwindles to a few BMW i3 models, Mitsubishi I-MiEVs and SmartCars. And one Toyota Rav4 plug-in, Cook said. Cook noted that Georgia’s tax credit, which is among the most generous in the nation, is always subject to legislative review. Repealing the $5,000 credit could take the steam out of the electric-car market in the state.
‘Leaf inventory was measured by the hour’
This past year, for example, Alpharetta Republican Chuck Martin, who chairs the House Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee, filed a bill that would have repealed the credit, which Martin said was too expensive. The House passed Martin’s bill, but it didn’t make it through the state Senate. Contacted late last week, Martin said he still believes the credit is bad policy and plans to renew his effort to repeal it in the session that begins in January. In an email, Martin said he hopes a renewed “discussion of the policy could lead to a revision, reduction, or phased elimination of the credit or just sunset at some future time.” The Nissan Leaf has changed the game in the Atlanta market in at least two ways: first, it comes with the lease that takes advantage of that $5,000 tax credit for zero-emission cars (caveat emptor: the credit has limitations); and second, Nissan builds the cars in Smyrna, Tenn., ensuring a steady supply to meet demand in Atlanta.
The trick for car dealers is to have enough cars on hand to meet demand for, say, 60 days, but not so many cars that they’ll sit on the lot for months. Not long ago, however, you couldn’t count Leaf inventory by the month or even the week, Francis said. “Leaf inventory was measured by the hour,” he said. “People would follow the trucks in. The dealers have the cars now. It’s not up to the 60- to 90-day ratio, but it’s more than 30 days.” Cautions on the lease: check the distance of your commute, as well as the availability of charging stations either at work or along the way. Second, and perhaps more important, remember that auto leases often carry a mileage limit, with costly penalties for exceeding it.
‘We take turns going down to plug the cars in’
Karen Hines said she’s one of about 20 Leaf drivers at the law firm King & Spalding, where she works in telecommunications. The firm provides free charging stations in its parking garage, and the Leaf people have created a Google doc that schedules charging time for everybody. “One Leaf owner here keeps us all organized and playing nicely together,” she said. “We take turns going down to plug the cars in. That’s how we worked it out.” “Hines said her car is just about perfect for her commute — she needs to charge it every few days — but she doesn’t use it for longer trips and doesn’t usually go places if she doesn’t know there’s a charger in the vicinity. Nissan has a promotion for that, too. The company last week announced a “no charge to charge” promotion in which it offers free public charging for two years to those who buy or lease the Leaf. The special quick chargers, at 12 stations across metro Atlanta, can charge the car from zero to 80 percent in less than 30 minutes, Nissan said. Some retailers, notably Whole Foods and Kohl’s, some employers and some municipalities offer free charging. EV owners also may pull up to a charging station that, um, charges, for about $2 an hour.
About EV tax credits
Georgia has one of the nation’s most generous personal income tax credits for zero emission electric vehicles, up to $5,000. The federal and state income tax credits can make electric vehicles affordable for most of us. But Jeffrey Cohen, founder of the Atlanta Electric Vehicle Development Coalition (atlantaevdc.com) says it’s important to know how the credits work and the limitations that apply to them. Much of the information below comes from Cohen, who emphasizes that he’s not a tax attorney and suggests that current and prospective EV owners consult a tax professional.
Federal: Income tax credit of up to $7,500, (depending on the electric vehicle’s battery size, so consult the IRS schedule of makes and models can be taken against the purchaser’s personal or business income taxes. Important: the credit is not a rebate or a specific tax deduction. It’s a credit against your tax liability. Note: IRS has not yet released the form for the 2014 tax year. In leases, auto financing companies typically take the tax credit, since they own the car, and then reduce the lease payment accordingly. The lessee cannot claim the federal tax credit. The credit can only be taken by the first owner of the qualifying vehicle; it can’t be passed along to later owners.
State of Georgia: A personal income tax credit of $5,000 is currently available to purchasers and lessees of zero-emission vehicles. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles do not qualify because they emit some carbon dioxide. Georgia permits the credit to be taken over six years – the year of purchase and five additional years -rather than just one tax year. Remember: you don’t just get a check or a rebate for $5,000. The credit applies to your tax liability, reducing it by up to $5,000 over six tax years. You claim the tax credit on your Georgia return, so it doesn’t matter whether you buy or lease the car. The auto financing company that provides the lease cannot claim the Georgia tax credit as it can with the federal tax credit.