The return of the electric car

Photo courtesy of ReVision Energy

By Travis Ritchie

It seems that 2017 is the year for the return of the electric car in America, with the release of three mass market high-range vehicle models that offer the opportunity to go more than 200 miles on a charge. Look around—a hybrid can be spotted at every stoplight and you’ll probably see a full-electric car at most busy intersections as well. What is it about the addition of electric motors to our beloved automobiles that is such a big deal? What will these new technologies mean for our bottom lines, and the environment? We’ll answer some of these common questions in the next few paragraphs.

What is an electric vehicle, and how do they differ from hybrids?

Hybrids

Hybrids occupy the middle ground between fully electric and gasoline power. They have a combustion engine on board— which typically runs on gasoline—coupled with an electric motor. Because of this, hybrids offer the advantage of being a familiar experience to drivers, with the ability to drive long distances with great fuel economy and to re-fuel within minutes at any gas station.

Hybrids get better fuel mileage than fully gas-fueled cars thanks to the extra work the electric motor does. Most hybrids do not plug in, and you can’t choose when the car operates in gas or electric drive. Some disadvantages of hybrids are that they generally have less interior space due to batteries being added and the fact that unlike their all-electric cousins, they still require the maintenance of normal gasoline cars.

There are two types of electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric (PHEVs) and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs).

Plug-in hybrids

Plug-in hybrids, also called PHEVs, can plug in, as their name suggests, and charge their battery without resorting to the gasoline motor. They also offer the ability to drive in electric-only mode. Owners of plug-in hybrid cars usually do their local driving in electric mode to save money and use the gas engine for longer journeys. Because they have a gas engine back-up, plug-in hybrids have unlimited range. And because they have a charging component, they offer the added ability to charge via solar, further reducing both their cost to operate and their carbon footprint (see Driving on Sunshine on page 52).

Battery-electric

A fully electric vehicle, also known as a BEV, uses an electric motor exclusively and has no gas engine on board. Modern BEVs have powerful lithium-ion batteries that can be charged anytime, meaning you can “top them off” just like you would a gas-powered car. The advantages of BEVs are numerous, one of the most immediate being the ability to refuel at home. And it is far cheaper to drive with electricity than it is to drive with gasoline. BEVs regularly get an equivalent of over 100 miles per gallon, according to the EPA. Put another way, the equivalent cost of an e-gallon is around $1/gallon. Compare that to the current national average cost per gallon of gas at $2.25 and you can see how the savings can add up quickly! There is little to no drivetrain maintenance—no tune-ups, no oil changes, etc. And they are quiet, smooth, surprisingly powerful and incredibly reliable.

What is it like to drive an electric vehicle?

The first thing most people notice when they drive an EV is how quiet it is. The smooth acceleration will be the second. And since there is no transmission, there is zero lag when you step on the accelerator pedal. While driving up a steep hill, your motor doesn’t suddenly lose power and “lug” before having to make a dramatic down-shift. The electric vehicle isn’t fazed at all. There’s no vibration from an idling motor and it will never skip or misfire. From full-stop to wide open, the electric vehicle replaces guttural wail with a faint and pleasant whine, clunky gear changes with solid linear acceleration and controlled mechanical chaos with electric peace. Ahhh….

There is a downside to driving in cold weather, however. Battery efficiency and range are reduced. Using the heater takes energy, too. A gas car produces a massive amount of heat as a byproduct that—with the exception of winter —is blown away as waste. Electric cars don’t make a lot of heat waste, so in order to keep the driver warm, they take electricity from the battery to heat the cabin. The battery loss from using the heater depends on the type of car but can be substantial on the coldest days.

But, there is an upside to driving an EV in the winter. With most of the weight distribution down low, thanks to batteries that go under the floorboards, most EVs handle great in the snow. Smoother acceleration curves mean less slippage and more acute traction control. Tesla even offers fully electric cars with all-wheel drive to help deal with the elements even more.

How far does it go on a charge?

The answers to this question vary widely. The least expensive and most readily available all-electric cars usually offer between 50-110 miles of range, depending on the weather, the age of the vehicle and of course, the size of the battery. Studies have shown that most short-range EVs will fulfill the daily drives of 85% of the American population.

However, 2017 brought the release of several new models of long-range EVs for those who need more mileage. The newly released Chevrolet Bolt has an EPA-rated range of 238 miles. The 2018 Nissan LEAF—due out in fall 2017—is expected to offer a range well over 200 miles. And every vehicle Tesla has produced boasts well over 200-mile range, some over 300 miles. These new generation high-range EVs are game changers and are expected to catapult EV sales. At the same time, numerous companies are working on 400 mile-plus battery packs. In the next few years, we will see “range anxiety” disappear as battery and charging technology develop even further.

Charging an electric car takes more time than filling a gas car. But you also adopt different fueling habits, so it is not an apples-to-apples comparison. A gasoline car doesn’t fill its tank every night by itself in the garage, but electric cars do. Most EV drivers never stop to refuel. If you find yourself in need of a charge on-the-go, you’ll have access to a growing network of public charging stations. And many EVs have navigation units that will point you toward a charging station. There are three types of chargers for electric vehicles, each with a different level of power. See Charging EVs in Maine on page 61 for more information on this topic.

Aside from time to charge, the biggest difference between fueling with electricity and gasoline is the cost. Popular fast chargers charge a premium for the convenience of filling up on-the-go—often around the same cost as driving a gasoline powered car. However, since most EVs are charged at home, that means paying significantly less for most of your driving. If you pay .15 per kWh for your home electricity, a short range EV like a Nissan LEAF will cost $3.60 to fill up and travel 80 miles, and a vehicle with a larger battery like the Chevrolet Bolt will cost $9 to fill up for 238 miles, or about four cents per mile.

Along with the reduced maintenance, cost of ownership is clearly a win for electric vehicle owners. Meanwhile, the average gas-powered car costs around 13 cents per mile to operate.

What are the environmental impacts of electric vehicles?

Driving an electric vehicle minimizes environmental impact in numerous ways. First, electricity as a general rule is a cleaner fuel choice than gas. Studies show that even if an electric vehicle is fueled by electricity generated in a coalfired power plant, it still pollutes less than a gasoline car—by a third to a half. In Maine we are lucky to have some of the cleanest electricity in the country, thanks to our abundant hydro and natural gas electrical generation. This means an electric vehicle in Maine has an even further reduced impact on the environment.

Another environmental advantage is the significant reduction in toxic chemicals on board an electric vehicle. Most EVs have no oil, transmission fluid or power steering fluid to leak in case of malfunction or an accident.

As for batteries, modern EVs use lithium-ion batteries that are less harmful to the environment than nearly all other types of batteries. It’s rare for an entire EV battery to go “bad;” rather, they lose capacity until the vehicle’s range becomes less than optimal for driving. Since the amount of energy they can store is still relatively large, these battery packs can be re-purposed and used in power storage for solar or wind power. There are also numerous efforts underway to fully recycle these batteries down to their individual components.

Why is now the time to get an EV?

Electric vehicles have come a long way in just a few short years. The infrastructure to support them has come just as far. There are numerous public charging stations available in Maine, with even more on the horizon. Acquiring an EV is easier than ever and leasing options are numerous. There are makes and models and battery ranges for all needs. And if you’re in the market for an inexpensive short-range EV you will find an abundance, with used models often available for as little as $10-14k. These used short-range EVs are now so inexpensive, they make a perfect second car for running errands and commuting for work, sometimes even paying for themselves with the fuel and maintenance savings of keeping the gasoline cars at home.

With all the options, the time to transition from the old world of internal combustion is now. Between the increased reliability, reduced operating cost and environmental impact, and the slew of other advantages, electric vehicles are poised to be the transportation of the future. G&HM

Want to learn more about EVs? Check out these other articles from the Special Section, It’s Electric, from the fall/winter 2018 issue of Green & Healthy Maine HOMES:

Driving on sunshine: the EV/PV connection

Is that an electric car?

Charging electric vehicles in Maine

Driving electric: cleaner air, better climate down the road

 

This article was reprinted from the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Green & Healthy Maine HOMES magazine. Subscribe today!

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