Not long after I began working with the Poor Handmaids, we had a Lindenwood guest request to charge up their electric vehicle (EV). Intrigued, we looked for ways to make that request a reality.
This of course provided just the excuse I needed to press my forbearing wife to get an electric car. “Honey, we really should lead by example!” 🙂
Well, that was a year ago already. I already touched on some EV basics, but I thought I’d recap my experience now that we’ve taken a whole trip around the sun with this car.
When considering EVs, I always encourage people to first match the right vehicle to their needs. Otherwise, in a transportation culture that values convenience above all else, one will be set-up for unnecessary disappointment.
New EV models continue to improve in quality and price-point, but for our case they were still too expensive, so we looked in the used market. Even though the EV market is growing 20-40% per year, it’s still in the early adoption phase, so the used market was limited and required some extra due diligence.
We settled on a 2013 Ford C-Max Energi. The C-Max Energi is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), meaning it can switch between gas and electric on the fly. It has a small 7.6 kWh (killowatt hour) battery in the trunk, which can propel it about 20 miles on electric alone. After that is depleted, it has another 500 miles on gasoline.
It’s electric range is short, but normally it’s sufficient for my 17 mile round-trip commute. (That’s what I mean about matching the car to your needs). If I need to add stops on the way home, or drive out of state, I don’t need extra planning. The car just switches to gasoline.
Well, the good news is that EV driving has not been fundamentally different. Turn signals, windshield wipers, braking, staying alert and driving defensively… those are the same.
It’s much quieter. If the engine has to kick on, it now feels obnoxiously loud and rattling by comparison.
It’s nice that my garage doesn’t stink anymore. Departing from or returning to the garage can be done without the gas engine pumping carbon monoxide into the house. I also feel a little better that I can navigate around my small town without making the air quality worse for people trying to enjoy the outdoors.
The instant torque of the electric motor means I squeal my tires sometimes. I’ll have to watch the tires and make sure the tread isn’t being affected.
Charging has been pretty painless. I plug into a normal 110 volt outlet in my garage, which acts as my own slow-motion “gas station.” (Some basic precaution/due diligence is warranted in regards to the outlet quality, the load on the circuit, etc). It takes me 5 seconds to plug it in. When I wake up, my “gas station” has added driving range to my car. I drive it all week and the total range on my car (gas+electric) is the same as when I started. It was a weird feeling at first. I stopped at a gas station four times this first year.
I’ve been careful with the car and after one year of driving and, based on my testing, it doesn’t appear that the battery has degraded by any measurable amount (that’s another post).
It’s a little counter-intuitive, but even with a small battery, a large portion of driving miles can be done on electric, because it depends on daily driving patterns.
Over the last year, I’ve put 6,388 miles on the car.
76% of these miles (4,881) were electric, mostly back and forth to work. My car reports that this consumed 1,268 kWh, or 3.8 miles/kWh. However, energy losses during charging are 28% between the outlet and the car, so it really required 1,761 kWh from the electric company. So for each kWh at the wall, I could drive about 2.8 miles.
24% of the miles (1,507) were gasoline. My car reports that this consumed 43.1 gallons, or 35 MPG. This is almost double the MPG of the vehicle we replaced.
But how do you compare apples and oranges? Well, 1 gallon of gas has as much energy as 33.4 kWh of electricity. It’s hard for us to visualize… we all know what a gallon feels like, but none of us have ever seen or held a kilowatt hour.
So, 1 gallon of gasoline will propel the car 35 miles, whereas the equivalent energy in kWh will move the same car 93 miles (2.8 x 33.4). This is the math demonstrating that electric motors are more efficient than gasoline engines at converting energy into mechanical power.
With some patient searching, I was fortunate to find our 4-year-old C-Max Energi (“Sparky”) at 70% off the original sale price and the battery with another 4 years of warranty left. It was a fleet car with 82,000 miles that, strangely, was apparently almost never plugged in. I knew from research that battery degradation is a concern with this particular model (although not others). Through some testing, I found that it had almost no degradation, as the battery was almost never used. A missed opportunity for them, but I had essentially a brand new battery.
For each kWh, I could drive 2.8 miles. A kWh from NIPSCO runs about $0.15 at home. That works out to 5.4 cents/mile. In my case, it was $18/month for the commute. (At The Center at Donaldson, we get bulk electric rates, which means we could drive our per mile cost to 1.9 cents per mile).
For each gallon of gas, I could drive 35 miles. Gas runs about $2.50/gallon, so that’s 7.1 cents/mile. My previous gasoline vehicle was running about 12.5 cents/mile.
All told, I’m expecting this experiment to neither cost me or save me much at all. Because electric rates don’t fluctuate like gasoline, it makes budgeting more predictable.
In sum: fully electric vehicles (BEV) are more expensive to purchase (at least for the next 7 years), but are cheaper to operate and maintain. This is why we are seeing a lot of early adoption by fleet operators, who are more focused on total cost of ownership than the average buyer.
Electric cars are fueled by rainbows and unicorns, right? Not exactly. It’s important to hold our do-gooder activity up to the light of scientific analysis and see what is actually there, not what we wish.
EVs have no tailpipe… that means zero local emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulates. This is a big win for local air quality. We underestimate air pollution’s impacts because we’ve simply accepted it as a cost of doing business. But in reality it means about 200,000 early funerals each year in America.
However, these pollutants (along with carbon dioxide) are also associated with electrical energy production. In fact, the Midwest has one of the dirtier electric grids in the country. Here’s a phenomenal visualization of electricity fuel source by U.S. state.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any data on how driving electric affects the production of most of these pollutants. But a lot of attention has been paid to carbon dioxide because of the fact of climate change.
The Union of Concerned Scientists did the heavy lifting here. They report:
The climate change emissions created by driving on electricity depend on where you live, but on average, an EV driving on electricity in the U.S. today is equivalent to a conventional gasoline car that gets 80 MPG, up from 73 MPG in our 2017 update. Based on data on power plant emissions released in February 2018, driving on electricity is cleaner than gasoline for most drivers in the US.
For our region (RFCW), the global warming pollution of the average EV is 50 MPG, which is about 50% less than average new car sold today, where fuel economy has been stubbornly stuck at 25 mpg for the last four years.
The UCS also made a personalized tool based on your zip code and car model. My results are less impressive than national averages… I’m at 35 MPG on gasoline, while the pollution-equivalent in electric mode is a 41 MPG car. This is mitigated by the solar power array on my home (yes, that’s yet another post), but that’s beyond my mathematical powers for today.
The good news is that the car will actually get cleaner each year alongside the grid, as NIPSCO and other utilities continue to close coal-fired power plants and build out solar and wind.
The sobering news is that the electrification of transportation – as daunting as it feels – is only one of several massive transitions humans will need to undergo if we are to drive climate change pollution to near-zero in my lifetime.
I went to Aldi soon after I signed the paperwork on “Sparky” and parked next to a horse and buggy. The Amish, of course, rely mostly on grass-powered transportation (horses). They have also been early adopters of solar power (as well as being solar entrepreneurs). Some of that excess “energy” was deposited in the parking space next to mine. It reminded me that technology and ecology is more than just numbers… it’s also about psychology, sociology, and culture.
What does the future hold? We’ll see.