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Plugged In

Electric cars get ready to take over the road, quietly and powerfully

By Reed McManus

So what's delaying our zippy, quiet, low-maintenance future? Purchase price, for one. The least expensive mass-market all-electric car on the road today is the Mitsubishi i, which has a sticker price of about $29,000. Most EVs cost in the mid- to high $30,000s. Factor in a federal tax credit of $7,500 for most plug-in vehicles, and the bottom line stays within range of the price of the average new car sold in the United States: around $30,000. (Unless your choice is the Tesla, which comes in around $100,000. For that, you get a car that goes from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds and travels 265 miles between charges...and has an 11-month waiting list.) Ford says the battery pack in the Focus EV costs $12,000 to $15,000, which helps explain why the well-equipped Focus EV costs some $25,000 more than a bare-bones gas-powered Focus.

If you're comparing an EV with an under-$20,000 high-mpg gas compact, payback becomes a slippery issue. According to research that TrueCar.com compiled for the New York Times, with gas at $3.85 per gallon, it will take 8.7 years for the Nissan Leaf's gas savings to make up for the approximately $11,000 price difference between it and the gas-powered Nissan Versa. But the payback day does come, with gas savings of $1,100 per year. In the meantime, do you want your dollars going to distant oil-producing nations and ExxonMobil?

It's probably "range anxiety" that makes potential EV purchasers hesitate most. That "freedom of the road" ethos takes a hit if you have to stop to recharge for three or four hours after driving 62 miles (Mitsubishi i), 73 miles (Leaf), 76 miles (Focus), or 88 miles (Coda). EV advocates point out that most Americans drive less than 40 miles per day, and if you charge up at home each night, well, no worries. All-electric car drivers typically install a high-capacity 240-volt charger, costing about $2,000, in their garage; otherwise, charging can take upwards of 20 hours on standard 120- volt household current.

My own white-knuckle moment came while approaching the Golden Gate Bridge in a Nissan Leaf that was telling me I could drive another 24 miles before I would be stone-cold stranded. I quickly calculated that my destination was only 14 miles away, and my anxiety subsided. But serendipitous discover-America side trips were off the table until I reached a plug.

Forget to plug in? Only halfway to your destination? The infrastructure of charging stations in North America, which currently number more than 11,000, is growing. In theory, "topping off" during the day should be convenient. But for now it takes a lot more advance planning than just popping into one of the 117,000 gas stations in the United States. In downtown San Rafael, California, I killed time while my Focus charged up by hanging out at a pool hall for a couple of hours. In a San Francisco parking garage, my Leaf and I jockeyed for position with a Chevy Volt owner for the one remaining 240-volt charging spot. Had the electric-car revolution occurred overnight? No, it turned out that an Apple software developers' conference was taking place nearby. The place was packed with "early adopters."

Volt guy settled for a slower-charging 120-volt plug. But neither of us would have been stranded had all three stations been in use. I had enough juice to get home, and the Volt, an "extended range" electric car, could simply have relied on its gas engine to keep rolling. Which is why, of the three plug-in vehicles I tested (Focus, Leaf, Prius), the Prius Plug-in is the one I would choose for a single-car household. It wasn't as fun as the Leaf or the Focus. In fact, it drove like an appliance on wheels—that is to say, just as perfunctorily as a regular Prius. But after I drained the batteries (in about 15 miles), the gas engine kicked in. Road trip, anyone?

The Berlin Wall was erected when I was a child, and I was as stunned as anybody that one day in late 1989 it was simply gone. I've never expected the choke hold of multinational oil conglomerates and OPEC nations to disappear. But as I zipped along suburban streets in a Nissan Leaf past a string of suddenly irrelevant gas stations tied to refinery emissions and tanker spills and tar-soaked sea turtles and Middle East oil fields and foreign entanglements, the possibilities seemed just as delightful.

Grid Locked?

"But electricity comes from coal!" say critics of electric vehicles. Since greenhouse-gas emissions are created when generating electricity, why bother to use it to fuel cars?

The nation's utility grid, however, is getting cleaner. Some 32 percent of America's electricity comes from burning coal, down from 50 percent five years ago. Electricity is one automotive fuel source that gets cleaner over time.

What matters most to an EV driver, of course, is where his or her own electricity comes from. According to State of Charge, a 2012 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, for about half of the U.S. population, "electric vehicles produce lower global warming emissions than even the most efficient gasoline hybrids." A Nissan Leaf driven in California, a state whose utility grid has one of the least-polluting power mixes in the country, is responsible for releasing about as much carbon dioxide as a car that gets 78 miles per gallon. (Parts of New York, the Northwest, and Alaska are also among the "cleanest" electricity regions.) For a driver in Michigan, where nearly 60 percent of electricity comes from coal, that number is closer to 38 mpg.

Here's how TreeHugger puts it: "The environmental impact of driving an electric car will vary a lot more than a gas car, though even the worst case scenario (charging with coal) tend[s] to be close or slightly better than burning gasoline in an internal combustion engine." —R.M.

 

Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign.
To learn more about electric vehicles and the Sierra Club's Go Electric campaign, including the activist-based EV Media Rapid Response Network, go to sierraclub.org/electric-vehicles.


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