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Let’s Take a Ride in an Electric Car

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The following is a guest post long-time friend-of-the-bloggers Mark Buckner.

We got some wheels last summer, a 150-mile range electric Nissan Leaf, and given it’s been almost a year, I wanted to share our experience so far. There seems to be a few misconceptions about EVs, so I hope to clear some of them up and promote getting more of these cars on the road. I’ll be happy to answer any questions.

Observations:

1. EVs are not necessarily expensive to purchase relative to other cars. We hear a lot about the flashy Tesla but other models are mid-range in pricing. For new EVs, there’s a $7,500 federal tax credit. This has helped the fledgling industry get started. In addition, the recent Oregon transportation bill has a $2,500 rebate. This brought the cost down to under $20K for base model Leaf with quick charge package, about what an average new passenger car cost these days. Note that Oregon also has a similar low-middle income rebate for both new and used EVs. Used Leafs (Leaves?) with low mileage run around $10K, less if there are rebates that can be used. Incentives in other states vary. The range is less on older cars, however.

2. Energy cost savings are typically large! At our total electricity home rate of around 11 cents per kwh, it costs about $3 go 100 miles. More like 130 if I charge at work’s lower rates. It’s like getting 100 miles/gallon or more. Estimated savings over 100,000 miles over a gas car getting 30-35 mpg is about $6,000-$8,000. Considering both net purchase cost and energy savings, a non-luxury EV could save significant money over a comparable gas car over time. Electricity costs vary from city to city and state to state.

3. It’s not just a city car. Longer trips can be practically done beyond the 150 mile range. This is because most buyers opt for a quick charge (DC level 3) port, standard on some trims and a package on the base model. “Quick” is relative, as it still takes about 30 minutes to add about 100 miles of range. For a trip to Seattle, we just coordinate with a lunch or dinner stop. Where we’re limited is areas where there are no Level 3 charging stations. No issues near the major highways but a problem for my deep wilderness adventures at the moment. We have a second car between us though so 100% of our driving is covered. Without that, we’d just rent a car for the unusual trips, which is sometimes a good idea anyway to avoid wear and tear from long trips.

4. No gas station stops or oil changes ever. Plenty of cost and time saved there.

5. Environmental benefits/costs: One of the myths floating around is that if you power up from a dirty electricity grid it’s not any better than fueling with gas or worse. EVs are actually far more efficient at converting energy to power at the wheels, about 60% compared to 20% for gas-powered vehicles, where far more energy is wasted as heat – one reason why it costs so little to charge at home. EVs also use “regenerative braking”, which means when you’re going downhill or take foot off of the accelerator, it uses the car’s momentum to recharge the battery. I’ve seen the battery go up a few percent on long downhills. This all doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek cleaner sources at the grid, and limiting fossil fuel sources can make the difference between small environmental savings and bigger savings. Our local power company offers a Green Source option, which requires them to purchase renewable sources when you sign up. Adds a couple of bucks to our bill. Oregon’s standard mix (not Green Source) is mostly hydro and natural gas with about 30% imported coal. Where it becomes less of a clear benefit is comparing EVs to hybrids or plug-in hybrids where the grid is dirtier. With some grids in some states, hybrids are just as clean or cleaner options.

EVs are often advertised as “zero emissions” but more accurately it’s “zero tailpipe emissions”. As a bicyclist and pedestrian, this is noticeable. Imagine how much cleaner cities would be with zero tailpipe pollution!

The larger environmental cost is on the production side and this is probably where my biggest concern is in driving an EV. All cars require materials and mining to produce. Batteries in an EV are big and heavy, requiring mining of various metals. Cobalt and nickel mining is environmentally intensive. Lithium is a smaller part of the battery but is more expensive to recycle and mining of all of these metals can potentially damage ecosystems and water supplies. Other metals are more easily extractable in the recycling process. There are major supply concerns in moving to an all EV system with existing battery technology. Nothing is static though. There’s potential for improvement and innovation in all of these areas. I’m no expert on this topic though. Here is some useful discussion.h

In addition to recycling, reuse is an option. Nissan is planning reuse them as part of energy storage systems before recycling for old batteries.h

There are tradeoffs and one has to compare and make reasonable attempts to compare the full environmental lifecycle costs of each: higher production costs for an EV vs the many thousands of gallons of oil and gas extracted, transported and consumed for a typical gas-powered vehicle. One study puts the production costs of a typical EV at 15% higher than a gas-powered vehicle, but with significant lifetime savings, especially when powered from cleaner sources.

So while the lifecycle environmental footprint might be a lot lower than average cars, especially with a cleaner grid, there are still some costs and major challenges that precludes being able to guarantee EVs will take over in the near future but I think these are challenges worth pursuing. The technology is moving quickly and that includes potential for major improvements in materials sourcing, battery composition, recycling and reuse may mitigate the costs. My view is that bicycling is the most environmentally beneficial form of transportation. Limited production costs. Why not walking/running? That burns many more calories requiring much more food as fuel, and all that has an environmental footprint.

6. Other random features: The latest model comes with an “E-Pedal” mode, which allows you to drive with limited use of brakes. When taking the foot off the accelerator, it uses more regenerative braking. This is also advantageous when needing to stop quickly, as you get an extra split-second of braking. Acceleration is also excellent. EVs have power. Our car is a hatchback that also has a lot of trunk space.

7. Charging: I mentioned the level 3 charging capabilities. So far most of our charging is at home on a standard wall outlet, a slow “trickle charge”, only getting about 5 miles of range per hour, or at work’s 240 V outlet, charging from low to full within 6-7 hours. If we got a converter for our dryer outlet or dedicated 240V charger, we could charge at home about 20 miles per hour but we find it’s mostly unnecessary. It only matters if we were to take long trips on back to back days and we still have plenty of local DC chargers if absolutely needed.

8. Performance: EVs tend to have fast acceleration from a complete stop. 0-60 of the Leaf is 6-7 seconds. And it does that without needing to make a bunch of noise. EV manufacturers actually add a bit of noise for safety reasons.

9. Limitations:

  • Every EV battery degrades over time, so expect the range to be somewhat lower 5-10 years after purchase. Nissan guarantees 66% after 8 years or 100,000 miles for our year’s model. The car might have a 100 mile range around that time, not much practical difference on a day to day basis for most of us but will require more frequent DC charging for longer trips. Much of that depends on various factors, such as how extreme the outside temperatures are throughout the year, driving habits, charging habits, etc.. My recommendation is that if 150 miles is the minimum range you require, look at purchasing an EV with a longer range, like 225. Next year’s Leaf will have that options and other models already have it. We were ok with 100 miles so the 150 mile range car is more than sufficient.
  • While long trips are practical, they’re inevitably slower since charging at DC level 3 is slower than a gas stop. Of course the overall time is made up by never having to use a gas station other than perhaps to keep the tires inflated, and no oil changes.
  • Recent-year Leaf models have one additional flaw compared to other EVs: Some EVs use a liquid cooling system to keep battery temperature in check. The Leaf only uses air cooling. This is a problem in very hot climates like Arizona where owners have experienced faster battery degradation. For everyone else, it’s a problem with multiple DC level 3 charges in a day. DC charging increases battery temperature. To protect the battery, the Leaf will limit charging rate with each subsequent charge. So maybe 30 minutes to charge 100 miles the first time but 45-60 minutes the second time and even slower the third. Leaf owners dub this “RapidGate”. Nissan is expecting to upgrade their battery system to liquid cooling in 2020. Makes long trips to places like San Fran impractical for us. But we have a second car and might rent a car for such long trips to reduce wear and tear anyways. My thought is if you have a multi-car household, it’s not a problem. If the Leaf is your only car, expect to rent a car for the very long trips.

10. Other EVs

Chevy Bolt, Hyundai Kona EV, Tesla Model 3 are some other options. Kona EV has a comparable range EV at a similar price and high-range (250 mi) option. Bolt is 225 mi range. Tesla is comparable. All but the low-range Kona are at least $6-$7 thousand more in base price than the Leaf. Since one of our primary goals was to save money compared to a gas-powered car, we chose the Leaf.

11. Random notes: We went through the Costco auto buying program. This allows for a no-haggle approach with a set price on car and features. I found the price was on the low end of KBB fair market value. When purchasing a Leaf, new and especially for used vehicles, ask the dealer to demonstrate the State of Health reading, which gives you an exact percentage of remaining battery capacity. It’s possible even with new cars it’s less than 100% as it could have been sitting on the lot in high state of charge, out in heat, for a long time. SOH readings aren’t necessarily precise either but can give you a good ballpark estimate beyond the dashboard bars.

12. Long story short, we love our EV. I hope others will consider purchasing one when the time comes and spread the word. I hope governments will continue to support the industry through credits/rebates/charging infrastructure until it becomes mainstream, which probably involves continued range improvement and/or drops in battery costs with, hopefully and critically, continued improvements in lifecycle environmental costs. It’s come a long way so far but may have never gotten started without early incentives.

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