Adventures in an Electric Car
by Ken Carrasco
Ken Carrasco is a marine and salmon biologist who lives outside Acme with his wife, Mariann Carrasco, and three children. He holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s degree in fisheries, and is a certified fisheries professional. Ken has worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a shellfish biologist, for NOAA Fisheries participating in research on the effects of chemical pollution on fish, and finished his career with the King County Department of Natural Resources as a senior ecologist. Ken is currently serving on the board of directors of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and is a member of the Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee. For questions or comments, please contact Ken at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve bought a number of cars over my lifetime, but I’ve never felt such apprehension as I did last August when I signed the papers for a new 2011 Nissan LEAF. I could see that my purchase of this Leaf was going to be totally one way or the other — a really, really good idea, or a really, really bad one.
We live five miles southeast of Acme and value our closeness to nature and wildlife out here, but I frequently drive into Bellingham for various environmental meetings or for family needs. And for years I have felt like the biggest hypocrite in the world burning gallons of petroleum and generating literally tons of carbon dioxide only to stand up before groups of people to lament about the very real consequences of climate change, ocean acidification, marine pollution, and the geopolitical price of our petroleum habit.
So when I heard about this new concept of electric cars which don’t directly use petroleum nor emit exhaust emissions, I jumped at the idea and went for the first affordable technology to become available, the Nissan Leaf, which means a “Leading Environmentally friendly Affordable Family” car. (LEAF is supposed to be spelled with all capitals, but I always feel like I am yelling so it will be just Leaf in this article)
The Leaf is a completely electric car; it has no gasoline or diesel tank and no internal combustion engine or exhaust pipe whatsoever. It relies on electricity stored in a lithium-ion battery, the same technology used by your laptop or cell phone, to power an electric motor. The Leaf came on the global market in December 2010 and, as of March 31 of this year, over 27,000 of them have been sold worldwide with over 11,400 of these sold in the United States, 12,000 in Japan, and the remainder in other countries.
My first couple of drives into town were anxious because I didn’t know what to expect, but it was my third trip — returning from town packed with our two teenage sons and their laptops, skateboards, and enough various frozen foods to satisfy their appetites — which was downright nerve-wracking. Mount Baker Highway and Highway 9 never seemed so long, but we did make it and with energy to spare.
But now that I have driven the car for eight months and 8,000 miles, I have an understanding of the benefits, limitations, and future opportunities of a purely electric car like the Leaf. After the first couple of weeks I have had only a few cases of so-called “range anxiety.” After purchasing the car and I had driven particular routes under a variety of conditions, this anxiety went away and the Leaf quickly became my primary car for about 90 percent of my personal driving.
I have another vehicle, a diesel pickup in which I burn a biodiesel blend, which I use for longer trips and these can be planned for in advance. A family with multiple cars is perhaps the ideal situation with the Leaf doing commuting duty and most errands.
In this series of two articles, I’ll answer the most common questions I’ve been asked and will also include answers to the most frequent comments I’ve seen posted after articles about the Leaf or electric cars in general. I intend to give you credible and objective information.
Why Do You Own a Leaf?
What’s the big deal about electric cars? There are three major advantages. First, electric motors are many times more efficient than internal combustion engines; second, the electricity used to power them can come from a variety of sources and usually does not necessarily involve petroleum; and third, electric motors are vastly more simple so require significantly less maintenance and less can go wrong.
Electric Motor Efficiency
1. An internal combustion engine is a terribly inefficient device which we blithely accept only because petroleum is (artificially) cheap and each gallon of gasoline/diesel contains so much energy that this wastefulness can be ignored.
A gasoline engine uses only about 25-30 percent of the energy in gasoline to actually move the car (but it still, of course, emits all 100 percent of the greenhouse gases in the fuel). An improvement can be gained in diesel engines of a modern and expensive design, but they still have efficiencies of perhaps 50 percent The wasted energy in both gasoline and diesel vehicles is lost as heat through the tailpipe and cooling system or as noise and vibration.
In contrast, electric motors can attain efficiencies in the 80 and 90 percent levels and a reliable technical report on the Leaf’s motor indicates the efficiency of that improved design to be 97 percent. Certainly, after a 60 mph run from Fairhaven to Lake Samish and then several miles at 70 mph to Alger, I can open the hood and the metal parts available to touch don’t even feel warm. These electric motors also have the unique ability to work “backwards” and become an alternator to recapture kinetic energy and generate electricity to recharge the car’s battery when going downhill or when slowing — in addition to the electricity harvested by the brakes.
An electric motor is so much more efficient that even recharging with “dirty” electricity can still provide benefits. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released an April 2012 report1 titled “State of Charge: Electric Vehicles’ Global Warming Emissions and Fuel-Cost Savings Across the United States.” This report found that in the areas of our nation where fossil fuels such as coal are predominantly used to generate electricity, an electric car will still generate significantly fewer greenhouse emissions than a comparable standard car.
2. The other reason for choosing an electric car is that electricity is a secondary power source and there is flexibility in choosing your primary source. We are enrolled in the Puget Sound Energy Green Power program at the 100 percent level, so the electricity used by our car is offset with electricity obtained from wind, from landfill gas which would otherwise be flamed-off, and also from low-impact hydro, wood waste, livestock methane, and solar. Of course, the best situation would be an installed solar array, or even a mini-hydro plant, to generate one’s own energy.
The future is bright, because even in areas which currently have electricity generated by fossil fuels, there is a strong likelihood that those utilities will eventually adopt less harmful sources of energy for their electric generation. One can expect continual improvement in power generation over the coming decades.
As a military veteran, I am motivated by geopolitical issues in addition to the environmental issues. An electric car offers the unique opportunity to sever the reliance on petroleum for my transportation.
3. The simplicity of a purely electric car is a clear advantage for reliability and reduction of subsequent maintenance issues as the car ages. There is no transmission, clutch, or many of the other mechanical equipment necessary in a regular car. Even the brakes in the Leaf are utilized much less because the motor takes over much of the braking function to slow the car.
How Far Can You Go on a Charge?
Nissan marketing claims the Leaf has a range of 100 miles2, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it is actually 73 miles under driving conditions which includes a mix of city and highway driving. Because of our hilly terrain and the lower air temperatures relative to other parts of the country, I have found the U.S. EPA estimate to be more accurate for my car. People in flat, warm Los Angeles probably enjoy much more range, at least until they drive 80 mph on those freeways.
I routinely drive somewhere between 50 to 65 odometer miles on a single overnight charge during a round-trip from our home near Acme into Bellingham, and once I drove 73 miles (and that was last November when the temperatures were in the mid-20’s). For me, a typical trip to town will include any number of errands ranging from Cordata to Fairhaven before driving back home along one of several routes.
For those familiar with the drive east from Bellingham along the Lakeway/Lake Whatcom Blvd/Park Road route, we live over 14 miles east of the Sudden Valley shopping area. That slower, shorter route consumes little battery capacity while the longer, high speed Mount Baker route will leave me with much less of a battery reserve when I reach home.
The eventual number of odometer miles available during a trip depends on air temperature (indirectly, as it affects the temperature of the battery), speed (which decreases mileage exponentially in any car), load, terrain and use of heater, defroster, or air conditioner. Regeneration going downhill or braking does provide energy back to the battery, but you never regain as much as you expended going uphill. And a long, steep hill can drain the battery.
Is It Easy to Recharge Away From Home?
For all these round-trips from Acme into Bellingham, Lynden, or Mount Vernon, I have never — repeat never — had a need to recharge away from my house. The Leaf reliably gets me into town and back with enough electricity stored in its battery for the entire trip with a safety reserve. Having said this, though, there are limits; I can’t do Bellingham AND Lynden or Mount Vernon in one trip. And I cannot make a round-trip to Birch Bay or Blaine from Acme. However, once the planned 480 volt chargers are installed at the rest stops along I-5 near Custer, ten minutes of charging will give my Leaf enough of a boost to allow such cross-county trips.
It is my understanding from online forums that public charging stations are not used by Leaf owners as much as originally expected, largely because most owners soon realized that their Leafs have sufficient battery capacity to commute or run their errands. Also, some enlightened businesses offer charging stations for their employees during the workday to allow longer commutes.
Nonetheless, charging stations are being installed in both public areas such as rest stops or in the parking lots of some major retailers so customers can recharge while they shop. Some of these are free, in part because electricity is cheap and they know they have captive customers while the car is recharging.
How Much Does It Cost to Recharge?
Our area is one of the best places to own an electric vehicle because we have very cheap electricity but some of the highest-priced gasoline/diesel in the state.
The most current cost of electricity on our bill from Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is about 8.9¢ per kilowatt-hour, plus we pay another 1.25¢ to purchase electricity through the Green Power program for a total of 10.15¢ per kilowatt-hour. Since I often recharge at 120 volts, I can use a meter to measure the wattage and accumulated kilowatt-hours at the electrical outlet to calculate the Leaf’s recharge after each trip.
After each of two recent 60-mile trips into Bellingham, my Leaf required about 18 kilowatt-hours to fully recharge, meaning that each of those trips cost me $1.83 of renewable electricity (and this also tells me that the Leaf only used 75 percent of its battery capacity for each trip). Since charging at 120 volts to use the meter is 10 percent less efficient than the usual and recommended 240 volts, charging at the usual voltage would have required only 16.2 kilowatt-hours and $1.64 of renewable energy. About the same as a cup of coffee from my favorite retailer — and that’s a short drip coffee at that! A real bonus for me is that this money stays here in our United States of America.
Comparing this expense to my diesel pickup, which gets 20 mpg, we can figure that the same trip would need three gallons for the round trip into Bellingham and I would add at least another 1/2-gallon, if not more, because of acceleration from stoplights and for multiple stop/restart cycles. As of this writing the diesel in Deming is $4.559 per gallon so the identical trip as the Leaf’s would cost at least $16. And most of this money goes to multinational corporations and overseas to countries that are not necessarily our friends.
How Long Does it Take to Recharge?
A full charge of 21 kWh will take around 7 hours at 240 volts. A full charge at 120 volts will take about 15 hours, a little longer than twice as long as with 240 volts.
At the freeway rest stops, charging with the anticipated Level 3 chargers (480 volts) will take much less time than at 240 volts, especially as most people are expected to top-off their charge just to get home instead of waiting for a complete recharge.
How Come You Didn’t Buy a Chevrolet Volt?
I thought about buying a Volt, but with our local terrain and the pattern of electrical consumption that I’ve seen in my Leaf, I can see in retrospect that my trips in the Volt would have been half with electric and half with gasoline. Simply halving my petroleum use was not enough of an improvement for me, especially considering the higher cost of the Volt over the Leaf — which is magnified, of course, by financing.
The Volt is without doubt the right choice for many people who will have just a single vehicle and I applaud their choice. In cases like mine, though, where I already have a family car and a pickup to drive long trips or haul lumber etc., the Leaf is a great choice for everyday transportation. I have also heard of people relying on their Leaf for everyday use, but they will rent a car for long trips and still be well ahead.
By the way, the Volt is a very safe car. The stories about the battery fire(s) in them were greatly exaggerated by those wishing ill on the electric car industry for political reasons. First, although the plural is always used, there was only one fire. Second, that fire did not occur during a road test as was repeatedly reported, but instead under extraordinarily severe laboratory conditions provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.
Since that test, the battery container in the Volt has been modified to better protect the battery (as has always been the practice in the Leaf) and existing Volts have been retrofitted to the same design. I am confident that the Volt, and certainly the Leaf, are safer than a comparable gasoline-powered car. The fact that a battery makes a car heavier than a similar gasoline car also gives electric cars a slight edge in safety during collisions because of simple laws of physics.
The Leaf has automatic disconnects which are connected to the airbags. In the case of airbag deployment, the battery immediately becomes isolated from the rest of the car. Anecdotally, and I have not been able to confirm this, the Leaf can be opened with the Jaws of Life because of this isolation. A technical manual has been distributed to first responder organizations about the high voltages to be expected in an electric car and the safest means of neutralizing them.
The Leaf’s ability to withstand damage was demonstrated when two dozen Leafs were swept up by the horrible tsunami in Japan last spring, and they suffered no damage to their battery systems.
2The miles displayed by an electric vehicle, and quoted for the car’s range, can be misleading because a “mile” displayed on the dash in these cars as the remaining range can be different from the actual road miles traveled by the car and displayed on the odometer. The car’s computer predicts the remaining miles available based on the preceding driving conditions, so it can be misleading and can vary. The variety of conditions which can decrease your expected mileage — whether in an electric car or gasoline car (such as going uphill or excessive acceleration) — can reduce the length of what I call “electric miles.” Conversely, an electric mile can be stretched, especially when going downhill.
Electric cars can — and should — play a major role in the weaning of America from our reliance on petroleum. I have complete faith in American technology and we must be the global leaders in this step forward and exploit the advantages of electric transportation. I hope this series will provide useful information to the body politic.
In part 2 I will describe more about the Leaf and electric cars in general, including: whether you need to buy a charger for your home before taking delivery of this car; the likelihood of being stranded with an expended battery; the issues about the aging lithium-ion batteries; whether lithium will become a global commodity with problems similar to petroleum; whether electric cars will be sufficiently commonplace to make a global difference; and, sources of objective information about the Leaf.
For questions or comments, please contact Ken at email@example.com.