Thursday, September 17, 2015

Celebrating one year of gas free driving during Drive Electric Week

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Last summer, I interviewed Save The Bay’s Facilities Manager about his decision to lease a Chevy Volt. The Volt is an electric drive vehicle with a gasoline engine for extended range. The all electric range is about 40 miles, after which a gasoline engine takes over. This is slightly different from a hybrid engine which switches back and forth from gasoline power to electric power during driving. After doing some research of my own, I decided last September to lease an all-electric Nissan Leaf, and go gasoline free. I like the simplicity of having one engine and virtually no maintenance other than tires and brakes.

Driving an all-electric car does take some planning ahead, and is best for city driving. The range varies widely depending on outside temperature and driving conditions. On good days, the range can top 90 miles with moderate driving speeds, but winter weather and use of the heat lowers the range under 80 miles. The car starts to warn you when running with under 20% of the battery remaining, so I generally take 20 miles off my effective range when planning my driving. With a battery instead of a gas tank, I feel like there is a direct feedback and connection to my own energy consumption and driving habits.

Rhode Island Supports Electric Vehicles
In 2013, Rhode Island partnered with National Grid to install 50 public charging stations through the ChargePoint Network. These stations are free to network members for the first four years while owners pay for the electricity. After four years, owners of the stations can decide to keep them free or begin using a fee based system. The stations are distributed throughout the state and are located at the state beaches, malls and restaurants such as Cilantro Grill and Chili’s, and at other locations such as Rhode Island College and Bryant University.

But what About the Electricity?
If you are interested in a direct comparison of energy consumption and costs for an electric car and a gasoline car, here are some of the things I have learned. One gallon of gasoline has the equivalent amount of energy as 34 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. Our second car, the Honda Fit, gets about 34 miles/gallon or about 1 mile per kWh. My Leaf diagnostics tell me that I average about 4.6 miles per kWh, or the equivalent of about 156 miles per gallon. The 2015 Nissan Leaf advertises an average miles per gallon equivalent of 114 miles, so either I am very efficient or my car is not very accurate.

The 2015 Nissan Leaf battery holds 24 kWh of energy. This means that a full charge at 16 cents per kWh costs about $3.84. I have been using about 200 kWh at home every month, for a cost of about $32. It also means that at an average of 4.6 miles per kWh, I should have a range of 110 miles, which is kind of pushing it. I have heard that the diagnostics are not very accurate, and that is something being worked on. 

To me, all those numbers mean that my electric car is almost five times more efficient than my gasoline car, regardless of the fuel type. Because of regenerative braking technology, the brake pads last up to three years longer. Fewer fluids and oils means less contribution to stormwater pollution. No exhaust means I am not contributing to low level ozone pollution, the major cause of air quality alert days in the heat of the summer. In addition, electric vehicles emit only 19.8% of the total heat emitted by conventional vehicles per mile, reducing the heat island effect in cities.

What About other Sources of Pollution?
Electric vehicles do create more pollution during the manufacturing process, and they do require electricity to be generated somewhere, using some type of energy source. The best scenario would be to plug in to a solar panel array or to purchase green energy through your electric company. Not all parts of the country are set up to distribute electricity from clean sources of fuel. The east and west coasts, however, happen to be areas where the electricity mix is steadily becoming more and more renewable.

According to the Sierra Club, in Massachusetts EVs have about 70% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cars. If you are interested in seeing the energy mix going into New England’s electricity generation in real-time, check out this site from ISO New England (our energy grid operator).

The Future of Electric Vehicles
In October 2013, eight states which include Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Washington and California, signed a pledge to get 3.3 million EVs on the road by 2025. I am fairly confident that we will soon reach a tipping point and this goal will be easily surpassed. When the 2018 models start rolling out, we will see range go up over the 200 mile mark and electric cars will be mainstream. Electric options are available from most major car companies already.

The problem with being an early adopter, however, is that depreciation is relatively high, given that the technology is getting so much better with each new car model. This does provide some opportunities, however, if you are looking to get into the electric car game and save a bunch of money. I am very happy with my choice and am looking forward to seeing what happens. I am already fighting for space at the public charging stations that I use, so I know there is a growing crowd out there with me.