Good And Green Reasons To Buy An Electric Car This Year

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"Good And Green Reasons To Buy An Electric Car This Year"

By Felix Kramer and Max Baumhefner, via Switchboard

When it comes to consumer products, environmentalists generally don’t encourage people to buy new and buy now. But that’s what we’re about to do because electric cars are significantly cleaner than gasoline vehicles, and driving one can save you serious cash at the pump.

Perhaps you’ve already thought about buying an electric car, but dismissed the idea for one reason or another. Let’s look at some common misconceptions, and offer some good reasons why you might want to reconsider:

“I should drive my current car into the ground.”

“Hold on,” you say to yourself, “I already own a car that gets 25 miles a gallon. I want to get my money’s worth from the investment.” The sooner you start saving gas, the better it is for the planet and your pocketbook. There’s no use in throwing good money after bad at the pump, and the sooner you sell your current car, the less money you’ll lose to depreciation.

“I’d just be switching my pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant.”

If you want to go green, driving on electricity is a clear winner. Using today’s average American electricity mix of natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, geothermal, and solar, an electric car emits half the amount of climate-changing carbon pollution per mile as the average new vehicle. In states with cleaner mixes, such as California, it’s only a quarter as much. To find out how clean your electric car would be today, plug your zip code into the EPA’s “Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator.” You should also know that, because old coal plants are increasingly being retired and replaced by cleaner and renewable resources, plug-in cars are the only cars that become cleaner as they age.

“What I save on gas, I’ll pay in electricity.”

On average US residential electricity rates, driving one of today’s electric cars is the equivalent of driving a 27 mile-per-gallon car on buck-a-gallon gasoline. It’s been that way for the last four decades, and is forecasted to stay that way for the next three decades. Experts basically throw up their hands when asked to predict the price of gas next year, let alone 30 years from now. One thing we do know: the price at the pump will jump up and down due to geopolitical events beyond our control. If you’re tired of that rollercoaster, call your local utility to ask about electricity rates designed for plug-in cars.

“I’ll hold off until prices go down and there are more places to charge.”

If you’re thinking you’d be better off waiting for a cheaper, better electric car, and a charging station on every block, consider the following:

  • Modern electric cars start well below $30,000. Even better, there’s a federal tax credit worth $7,500, and states like California have rebates of up to $2,500 — which means you can buy an electric car for under $20,000, or lease one at a very attractive price. Still thinking of waiting for a better deal? Those incentives won’t last forever.
  • A variety of high-quality electric cars are available today. There are over 80,000 of them on America’s streets, with the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius Plug-in, and Tesla Model S leading the pack.
  • Public charging stations are proliferating rapidly, but you don’t need to wait for them to be as abundant as gas stations. Drivers of plug-in cars enjoy fuel that comes to them, relying on home charging to meet the vast majority of their needs.

“I often need to drive farther than electric vehicles can go without recharging.”

Broadly speaking, electric cars come in two flavors: all-electric and plug-in hybrid. The second has no range limitations whatsoever; they have batteries sufficient for normal trips (between 10 and 40 miles, depending on the model), and they become efficient gasoline hybrids for longer trips. If you want one car to do it all, a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-in, Honda Accord Plug-in, Ford Fusion Energi, or Ford C-Max Energi is a great option.

If, however, your household has more than one vehicle, an all-electric is an ideal “second car” you’ll end up using most of the time. All-electrics, such as the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, Mitsubishi-i, BMW Active-E, Fiat 500 EV, Coda, Chevy Spark EV, Honda Fit EV, or Tesla Model S, have ranges between 60 and 265 miles, more than enough for the daily commute. When it comes time for the long road trip, you can always take the other car.

When you get behind the wheel of an electric car, you’ll experience the joy of full torque from a standstill and a super-quiet cabin. You may have a hard time going back to a machine that relies exclusively on thousands of explosions of fossil fuel every minute.

If you’d like to try a plug-in outside of a dealership, you can find an owner on DrivingElectric.org to give you a spin. You’ll be surprised in ways you could never expect, and you’ll never get tired of driving on a clean fuel for the equivalent of buck-a-gallon gas.

Felix Kramer is an entrepreneur who founded CalCars.org in 2002 to promote plug-in hybrids, and DrivingElectric.org in 2002 to connect curious people with enthusiastic plug-in drivers. Max Baumhefner is a Sustainable Energy Fellow with NRDC. This piece is reprinted from Switchboard with permission.

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35 Responses to Good And Green Reasons To Buy An Electric Car This Year

  1. Camburn says:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324128504578346913994914472.html

    A 2012 comprehensive life-cycle analysis in Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery. The mining of lithium, for instance, is a less than green activity. By contrast, the manufacture of a gas-powered car accounts for 17% of its lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions. When an electric car rolls off the production line, it has already been responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission. The amount for making a conventional car: 14,000 pounds.

    • Sasparilla says:

      Come on Camburn you’re trusting an article from the WS Journal and the denier then delayer Bjorn Lomborg?

      “By contrast, the manufacture of a gas-powered car accounts for 17% of its lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions.”

      That would not be surprising since they burn gasoline and have very large CO2 emissions for the rest of their lives.

      Now while an EV might be able to have a larger CO2 emission at production (although that’s hard to imagine since there is a lot less aluminum and steel mined and refined from all that ore) for the engine and battery – I would be very skeptical about the claims – especially from ol’ PR loving Bjorn, he’s constantly popping up with bogus stuff.

      • Camburn says:

        Bjorn cites a ref in his article.

        The reference justifies what he wrote.

        • SecularAnimist says:

          Lomborg’s Wall Street Journal piece is his usual BS that dishonestly attacks any and all steps to reduce fossil fuel use. He misrepresents the single reference that he cites, and the rest is content-free, green-bashing spin.

          But you already know that.

        • Sasparilla says:

          As one commenter noted on the article Bjorn uses:

          When they calculated the materials that went into making electric motors for cars, they accidentally used a static electric motor (the sort of thing you’d use to drive a large milling machine or industrial lathe) instead of a small, compact motor that would be found in a Nissan Leaf or similar car. Their calculations were for a 1,000 kg motor, the motor in the Nissan Leaf weighs 53kg. As you can imagine, an error of this magnitude could skew the figures rather badly.

          Well, their entire prognosis rests on the amounts of materials used and the ability to re-cycle those materials efficiently and economically at the end of the car’s life. A 1,000 kg motor contains 91 kg of copper, copper is expensive and it’s mining and production has, without question, a negative environmental impact. All cars use a lot of copper, the wiring loom, the starter motor etc. Electric cars use a little bit more, that phrase is accurate, they use a little bit more. Not 90kg more.

          The report also ‘casually misjudges’ the size, weight and copper content of the frequency inverter, the bit of an electric car that transforms the AC current fed in from the electricity supply, into the DC current stored in the battery. These units do indeed contain copper but the report happened to measure a large, industrial scale frequency inverter you’d find in a factory tool shop. The factory one contains 36kg of copper, the one in the Nissan Leaf is 6.2 kg, total weight, most of which is the steel box it’s housed in.

          They then analysed battery chemistry which no EV maker uses, battery capacity that no plug in car uses, then skewed the figures of how much coal is burned to generate the power to charge the non existent batteries in the mythical car.

          Essentially, the report is trash from start to finish. It’s sad really because it raised some very important points.

        • Addicted says:

          I am not gonna give the WSJ na unnecessary hit, so could you provide a link to the reference?

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          ‘Bjorn’, eh? How familiar. How intimate. ‘Close personal friend’ is he, or just an idol? This is now, inevitably, turning quite nauseating.

        • Sasparilla says:

          My reply on the reference ol’ Bjorn uses is in moderation purgatory so I’ll do it in pieces.

          When they calculated the materials that went into making electric motors for cars, they accidentally used a static electric motor (the sort of thing you’d use to drive a large milling machine or industrial lathe) instead of a small, compact motor that would be found in a Nissan Leaf or similar car. Their calculations were for a 1,000 kg motor, the motor in the Nissan Leaf weighs 53kg. As you can imagine, an error of this magnitude could skew the figures rather badly.

          Well, their entire prognosis rests on the amounts of materials used and the ability to re-cycle those materials efficiently and economically at the end of the car’s life. A 1,000 kg motor contains 91 kg of copper, copper is expensive and it’s mining and production has, without question, a negative environmental impact. All cars use a lot of copper, the wiring loom, the starter motor etc. Electric cars use a little bit more, that phrase is accurate, they use a little bit more. Not 90kg more.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Catbum is, in my opinion, a Lombortomised wannabe troll. He does remind us, even here, in rationalist Arcadia, of just what we are up against-‘Et in Arcadia, Egotist’.

    • Leptoquark says:

      “When an electric car rolls off the production line, it has already been responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission. The amount for making a conventional car: 14,000 pounds.”

      The story doesn’t end there, it’s just the beginning. How much CO2 will the gas car emit over its lifetime? Don’t forget, gasoline refining also uses lots of electricity, before the gas itself is ever burned. Let’s include that as well.

      • SasparillaFizz says:

        The report itself was a scam (I have a detailed reply sitting in moderation purgatory) – when calculating manufacturing CO2 emissions they used industrial electric motors (1000kg in weight instead of the 59kg a Leaf motor weighs) same goes for the inverter, a battery type no vehicle uses and on and on – a report intentionally manufactured to get the result desired.

        I’m sure the report was courtesy of the Petroleum Institute of America and their bosom buddies the WSJournal and Bjorn (just do R&D for climate change) Lomborg.

  2. Sasparilla says:

    I love the article and the most of the recommendations.

    These are just my opinions, so take them for what they are worth (I followed the blogs for plugins daily since before the Leaf and Volt were revealed – bit of a hobby).

    As with many 1st generation vehicles, the manufacturers are going to learn a lot here, I’d let the manufacturers take the risk and go with a lease (for sure with the Nissan Leaf because of capacity/range loss issues that have been occurring). If you do a 3 year lease now there will be 2nd generation vehicles out by the time the lease is up.

    If I didn’t want to lease and wanted to buy one, I wouldn’t hesitate to consider the Chevy Volt (it seems to be holding its range well since introduction, it’ll still go down over time but it appears slowly, and it appears GM engineered it well – its their 2nd gen electric vehicle) or the Tesla S (its battery is big enough that it won’t get cycled so much – won’t age so fast – and capacity loss won’t be such a big deal) and probably the Toyota Rav 4 EV (it has a bigger pack, more range, not close to the Tesla, but bigger than most other EV’s and loosing capacity over time will still leave it with better range than a vehicle like the Leaf or Focus Electric start out with).

    • Sasparilla says:

      Just to add:

      The batteries in the plug-ins are Li (Lithium) based and will loose capacity/range as time goes on (the amount lost depends on the Li chemistry type, the temperature environment the battery is subjected to day to day as well as how much of the battery itself is cycle charged up/run down). This is different than the battery in a normal Prius, NiMH, which lasts the life of the vehicle without much capacity loss. The battery thermal environment (temperature) and how it is managed will effect how the battery performs and the rate at which it keeps or loses range over time.

      If you live in hot areas (TX, AZ etc.) or places where its cold (below freezing) much of the winter be sure to get a vehicle that has a TMS (Thermal Management System) for the batteries – keeps the batteries at a steady working temperature – Li batteries are very sensitive to the temperature and if they get too hot they get damaged (and loose capacity) and if they get cold they don’t work as well while they are cold (loose significant range before you even start the car) but that goes away when the weather warms up. The two cars I know that don’t have TMS’s are the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi I-Miev – most other plug-ins have a TMS.

      I don’t want to sound like I’m disparaging the Nissan Leaf, its a great car in many ways, and as long as you are not in a hot environment, can handle range drop when it gets cold and can handle range drop over time it can be a great vehicle – that said I’d lease it only (we don’t know what the range drop will be over extended time).

      Here’s a happy owner who has one on the southern CA coast (not the desert) and after 22 months he’s lost 17% of its range already:

      http://drivingelectric.blogspot.com/2013/03/twenty-two-months-in-our-nissan-leaf.html

      Lease that baby….

  3. rjs says:

    you all go buy those new electric cars; i’ll be waiting for whatever you trade in…my 96 olds, that i paid $1400 for 3 years ago, has seen better days…

    • Hazel says:

      You’re right — by just about any metric (cost, energy, GHG), if you have a working car, it pays to keep driving it. It does cost a huge amount of energy and GHG just to build a car, even an ICE car, and batteries do cost more than fuel tanks, at least for now.

      But when it’s time to get a new car, definitely go HEV, PHEV or BEV.

      Or even better — my family bought our HEV three years ago off lease (3 years 13k miles half off new price, what a steal!), so we got the lower price due to depreciation of a used vehicle, and the efficiency of a hybrid.

  4. Leptoquark says:

    I drive a 2012 Nissan Leaf all-electric. The ’98 Saturn it replaced cost 12 cents/mile in fuel, which is typical for a gas-powered car. That doesn’t include the increasingly expensive repairs. The Leaf costs 3 cents/mile, also typical for an electric. It has basically no maintenance, other than tires. We drive it about 1300 miles per month and charge it in the garage.

    I’ve occasionally used public charging, and I’m glad it’s there. If you want to see what kind of public charging is around your area, especially at retail areas and near your workplace, check out http://www.plugshare.com. It’s what I use to see what kind of charging is available at my destination, since it’s agnostic as far as charger networks it displays.

    The Leaf is an awesome second car. For road trips, we have a 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid that gets about 45 mpg. The Leaf is definitely the preferred car to drive, if at all possible, since it’s so smooth and quiet. My wife complains I don’t let her drive it enough.

    One other factor to consider is that you don’t necessarily need 240V Level 2 charging at work. Since you’re there for 8’ish hours, an ordinary 120V wall plug is adequate. You might already have one you’ve never noticed was there, where you park. The 2011 and 2012 Leafs put on about 5 miles per hour of charging at 120V, which will double to about 10 miles on the 2013 model. So, in my 2012, I can add 40 miles while I’m working.

    You also don’t usually drive it down all the way to empty, depending on your driving. Usually, I recharge it once or twice during the day, then charge it fully overnight. Every morning, I have a solid 80-90 miles on it, ready to go.

    Please go out an at least test-drive an electric, so you can start teaching yourself about these great cars. The more electrics we have, the less imported oil (including tar sands crude) we will need.

  5. I’ve got 5,000 km on a plug-in Prius. Mileage so far during cold-weather BC has been 78 mpUSg (3.0L/100km or 94 mpIMPg).

    The car’s range of 16km on electric in BC winter temperatures covers our usual commute. Matching electric range to usual trips seems a key factor when choosing a plug-in.

    MORE STATS:

    * Just over 40% of our driving has been with electricity
    * BC electricity is 95% renewables and so very low emissions.
    * we average 16kWh to go 100km
    * each kWh replaces 0.32L of gasoline
    * $0.18 in electricity replaces a $1.40 L of gasoline.

    Over the lifetime of a car the gasoline burned will emit:

    24 tCO2 3.0L/100km car
    38 tCO2 regular prius
    61 tCO2 yaris/fit
    86 tCO2 outback
    88 tCO2 USA fleet average 2010
    126 tCO2 f-150 4wd

    The emissions out the tail pipe are the biggie.

    Heard a recent talk on EVs that has great stats on battery footprint, dirty electricity cross-over points and consumer sentiments and lots more. Here is an article about it with links:

    http://www.vancouverobserver.com/blogs/earthmatters/electric-vehicle-ready-are-you

  6. The article states:

    “The sooner you start saving gas, the better it is for the planet and your pocketbook. There’s no use in throwing good money after bad at the pump, and the sooner you sell your current car, the less money you’ll lose to depreciation.”

    This could well be true for people who drive an average number of miles — and the author should note that . I drive less than three thousand miles per year and buying any new car would stretch my finances.

    We live on the outskirts of a smallish college town (Corvallis, Oregon), and as a practical matter we have to drive most places we go. So we don’t go a lot of places — my wife and I both work at home. I ride my bike when I can, but when it’s below 40ºF or raining hard, as it often is in the winter, I take my old ’98 (four cylinder) Toyota pickup. The truck is left over from my days as a general contractor in the SF Bay Area, where I got along fine with a “little” truck instead of one of the big beasts that most contractors drive around. It’s got 150K miles on it, should go at least twice that far, and I’ll probably have it for the rest of my life — unless it becomes impossible to get parts 20 years from now.

    So this is all relative. Does anyone know where we could get a complete breakdown of the relevant stats for electric vs. hybrid vs. new gas vs. used cars and accounting in some way for the miles driven? That would be most useful.

  7. Omega Centauri says:

    They aren’t for everyone, there is the price of a more expensive than average new car. For those who buy EVs with large batteries (Volt & Leaf mainly) there is the additional expense of a 240volt home charge station. For plugins with smaller batteries (and 10-20mile EV range) a 120volt plug will work fine (Prius Plugin, Ford plugins…).
    I’ve divided EVs into categories, which are roughly the fraction of time in quarters you travel in EV mode. On this scale:
    (0) A traditional gas vehicle.
    (1) A non plugin hybrid, gets better milage -especially in city driving.
    (2) Half EV, small battery plugins, like the Prius plugin, maybe half your milage will be EV.
    (3) 3/4 EV, like the Volt, with large batteries, most trips can be pure EV.
    (4) Pure EV, like the Leaf.

  8. Felix Kramer says:

    Thanks for all the comments.
    Here are responses of two issues raised: embedded energy and low-mileage cars.

    1. You know the saying, “give away the razor, sell the blades?” In terms of energy used, that’s how cars work. It’s a secret for most people that the energy “embedded” in manufacturing is usually well below 25% of the total energy a car uses in its lifetime! (This is also a reason why we hope companies start, sooner, not later, to provide safe, affordable, certified conversions of gasoline-powered vehicles to EV and PHEV.)

    2. If you take mass transit, bike, or walk everywhere except for a short trip once a week, you could justify keeping a clunker. But if you think you’re destined to make the switch eventually, you might be smart to trade up sooner. And when you do upgrade, know that while someone else drives your old car, you’re getting companies and suppliers in Michigan or Tennessee or Europe or Asia to build fewer gas-guzzlers and more plug-ins.

    ABOUT LOMBORG: Many people switched into discussing the WSJ piece. In a report by longtime environmental journalist Jim Motavalli this morning at PlugInCars.com, quoted analysts and commenters take apart Lomborg.
    http://www.plugincars.com/electric-cars-dirtier-gas-cars-concludes-wall-street-journal-op-ed-126685.html
    It includes a comment and link to an entire article on Lomborg’s assumptions and math by my coauthor, Max Baumhefner:
    http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/mbaumhefner/wall_street_journal_op-ed_need.html

    In Motavalli’s article, frustrated at writers and re-broadcasters who don’t care about facts, science, or truth, I’m quoted as saying “Lomborg’s writings on EVs are a whining sideline to his main interest, climate change, where he tries to spread confusion through misinformation and disinformation. Rebutting his specifics is somewhat beside the point.”

    It would be great if we had thousands of people to rebut these stories when they propagate.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Denialist disinformers like Lomborg and Mark Lynas need to keep broadening their appeal to their Rightwing patrons. So Lomborg moves on to attacking electric cars, while Lynas uses his rapidly diminishing environmental credibility to falsely blame China for the Copenhagen fiasco, support the hideous dead-end of ever more expensive nuclear energy and, latterly, take up the Monsanto banner to push GE crops, and throw in a mealy-mouthed attack on organic farming, gratis. They’re just busy little entrepreneurs, doing their thing.

  9. Omega Centauri says:

    Aside from the question of economics, “can you afford an EV or nearEV”?, I think there is also a question of what the driver and his likely passengers, expect and value from a vehicle. If you are someone who never thinks about energy, but just drives based upon emotion, and turns on the AC at the slightest sensation of warmth (never thinking, maybe the fan will be sufficient), and deal with the cold in like manner, you are not a good candidate for an EV. Especially for plug ins with small batteries, it is important to plan ahead high acceleration or deceleration will put undue wear on your battery. If you habitually drive at full speed until you have to panic stop for a red light -don’t buy an EV, they are for those drivers who like to think and plan ahead, and value being smooth.

  10. Tom says:

    Missing from the article is an analysis of solar. Depending on range, 8-12 solar panels will completely charge your EV car with ZERO marginal dollars per “fillup”. 8-12 solar panels will completely recharge your Nissan Leaf in most US climates.

    About half of a normal household installation. So install a 5kW system instead of a 3.3kW system (bigger is indeed better so long as you are grid tied) – and drive for free.

  11. BBHY says:

    Another good green reason: that 210 million gallons of black oozing stuff that polluted the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010 wasn’t electricity.

  12. Fr33d0m says:

    What about battery life and cost of replacement–isn’t total cost of ownership higher? How does it affect resale value?

  13. Mike says:

    I have a 2011 Honda Insight. It’s a hybrid and gets 40 mpg. Can it be upgraded to a plug in hibird? Would it be worth it to do so?

  14. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    I’d like to see the breakdown of the numbers for some of these arguments. We have two cars, both of which get about 34 mpg (a 1997 Honda Civic and a 2006 Toyota Corolla) and, combined, we probably accumulate 4000 miles annually. I put on at least 2000 miles on a commuter bicycle and if I coud get my wife to do the same (seems unlikely), we’d cut the car mileage in half. Even so, I doubt that getting an electric car is worth the net reduction in CO₂ emissions that would result.

    • Omega Centauri says:

      With a combined 4000mile per year don’t feel guilty about not making the switch. There are only a limited volume of EV and near EVs available, let them go to people with longer commutes. I burn more gas in my plug-in than the two of you do with both your ICEs!

  15. fj says:

    Now imagine net zero vehicles much smaller and lighter than 100 pounds with options such as human power and infrastructure that can provide collision-less self-steering at highway speeds and better.

  16. Felix Kramer says:

    “Checking a Skeptic’s Fuzzy Math” from the EV industry trade association takes a similar approach to others posted above.
    http://www.electricdrive.org/index.php?ht=d/ReleaseDetails/id/35537

  17. fj says:

    The emissions of the externalities are much more than for the vehicles.

  18. Michael Glass says:

    It is simply not true that replacing gasoline with electricity from the grid necessarily results in lower CO2 emissions. A lot depends on where your electricity comes from.

    My 2006 Prius emits about 210 grams of C02 per mile.

    (That is calculated from 8.9 kg of CO2 per gallon, and 43 to 44 miles per gallon averaged over full years. NOT EPA estimates. I keep spreadsheets.)

    It is entirely from gasoline. No plug-in.

    Among all-electric cars the calculator referred to in this article shows much higher: 270 to 300 grams for the Leaf and the Teslas,

    Among plug-in hybrids it shows 220 for the plug-in Prius and 290 for the Volt.

    As long as I live in the Chicago area part of the EGRID map, plugging in will INCREASE my CO2 emissions. It seems likely that it would be better to buy that plug-in Prius and never plug it in.