It is summertime. I want to take a brief respite from the horrific news that dominates the headlines and public debate, and let you in on for what many may be a secret:
Electric cars rock.
In February, I took out a three-year lease on an all electric Chevy Bolt EV (confusingly named because its cousin, a Chevy Volt, is a hybrid electric/gas car). I’ve had the car for about six months. Here is what I have learned.
It is really fun to drive. Because an electric motor rotates with much higher variability than its gas-fired counterpart, it does not need gears. This means it ramps up very quickly and very linearly—no peaks and valleys as you drive up a highway ramp and merge into traffic, for example. Similarly, the car uses “regenerative braking”—the motor takes the kinetic energy from slowing down or stopping and transfers it back to the battery. This means that the car comes to a gradual, smooth stop when you take your foot off the pedal, and when you get used to this “one-pedal system,” you use the brake only for the relatively rare unexpected need to stop quickly. Driving an EV is like ice skating rather than walking/running—easier to get torque when you start out, more like a glide when you are level speed, and a much smoother stop.
It is more, not less, convenient than a gasoline-powered car. I installed a “Level Two” charger in my garage. This required an electrician to wire an outlet for 220 volts (the same as what a typical dryer requires), and install a charger which I purchased. I charge the car once or twice a week overnight. Plugging it in takes about five seconds, and the charging takes between 4-8 hours. When I wake up, the battery is full. No more trips to the gas station. It will go between 200-280 miles on a full charge, depending upon weather (cold New England days decrease the range) and driving (highway driving uses more energy than city driving). Because of the long range, I rarely need to use public charging stations while on the road. I’ve used them five times since I leased the car, typically to add about fifty miles of range. This takes about twenty minutes of charging time, which I use to stretch, get a cup of coffee or answer e-mails. For the most part, these public charging stations are strategically located along major roadways, and easy to locate and use with apps on my phone.
It is more affordable than you think. The Chevy Bolt lists for about $37,000, which is too high a price for many to afford. However, there is a federal tax credit of $7500. Officially, that tax credit only applies if you buy rather than lease the car, but many dealers will pass the value of the tax credit on in a lease. In some states, like Massachusetts where I live, there is an additional rebate of $2500 which applies to purchases or leases. The bottom line is that I paid $2500 down for a three year lease, got that down payment back from the MA rebate program, and now pay $240/month in lease payments. At the same time, I am saving about $60/month in fueling costs, as electricity cost per mile is less than half of gasoline, even in a state like Massachusetts that has relatively high electricity costs and relatively low gas prices. And not paying for oil changes, air filters, belts, brake pads and many other maintenance expenses for a gas-fired car also saves money.
It feels really good not to cause unnecessary pollution. It is a challenge to identify things you can do in your personal life to lower your carbon footprint. For example, carbon-intensive air plane trips is a must for me, as my job requires a lot of travel. And some other options, such as rooftop solar, are not viable for me due to the orientation of my house and surrounding foliage. But according to the Department of Energy, the electricity I use for driving my car generates about 3500 pounds of greenhouse gases per year, while an average gas-fired car generates 11,500. That is a difference of about 4 tons per year of emissions. To put that in perspective, the average resident of Massachusetts has a carbon footprint of about 10 tons per year. Simply shifting to an electric car drops my carbon footprint by approximately forty percent. Or to put it another way, according to UCS data, I am driving the equivalent of a gas-fired car that gets over 100 miles per gallon.
A lot more work needs to be done to scale up and broaden access to EV’s
As UCS’s president, I was obviously very motivated to drive an electric car. But going through all the steps made me realize that we must do a lot more to persuade and assist people who might not have my level of motivation or income. Here are some of the most important barriers we must remove.
Affordability. While the Chevy Bolt EV is not a luxury car, the price is still out of reach for many Americans. And the $7500 tax credit, while very helpful for some, fully benefits only those that pay taxes of $7500 or more– i.e., families that earn more than about $63,000 per year. Moreover, that tax credit only applies to new cars; this typically is not going to reach those of lower incomes who buy used cars. And, it is set to start expiring for some of the car makers, such as GM, who have sold 200,000 or more electric cars. A high priority must be to extend that tax credit on the federal level and expand upon it at the state level to effectively encourage moderate and lower income drivers to make the switch. Many expect that by the mid-2020’s no such subsidy will be needed, as falling battery costs will allow EV’s to reach cost parity. But we are not there yet.
Practicality. What makes an electric vehicle super convenient for me is that I can plug it in night in my garage. Yet many don’t have this option. To make electric cars suitable for a larger range of drivers, we need to make a significant investment in very fast public charging stations, located in convenient places such as shopping malls, libraries, town centers, apartment buildings and workplaces, among others. Funding for some of those investments will come from the Volkswagen settlement, in which VW has agreed to settle claims over its fraudulent emissions testing by expending over $2 billion in EV infrastructure, outreach and education. Some utility companies are also starting to invest in charging infrastructure, recognizing that the growth of an electric vehicle market will add business opportunities for them. But governments will also need to play a role in making EV’s accessible, and will need to identify new sources of funding, such as revenues from a cap and invest program for transportation.
Education and One Stop Shopping. It took a lot of time to sort out all the practical aspects of owning an EV. While there are helpful websites, I still had to do significant research to figure out, for example, what type of charger I would need for my home and how to find a good electrician. I was motivated enough to overcome those obstacles, but for someone who doesn’t have my level of motivation, having to figure all this out might make an EV a non-starter. To overcome the hassle factor, we need to make EV ownership very easy. For example, just as utility companies provide one-stop shopping energy efficiency services, they can be tasked with installing home charging stations.
The past six months of EV driving has been illuminating for me. It has shown me that the technology is here now, and it is a pleasure to take advantage of it. But what is needed now is a surge of political will to make the necessary investments to scale up usage, and a stepped-up commitment from automakers to build and market a wide range of EV’s that are affordable and meet the needs of all drivers.