I didn’t expect to be driving an EV yet due to the costs, but I was able to lease a Leaf for a very low cost. While the 2013 Leafs are supposed to be even better (lower price, longer range, better heater, etc). The lease price I got was too good. Also, I think we’re on the verge of an EV revolution and I want to encourage manufacturers to continue down the EV road. I feel very fortunate that I am able to now commute to work in an electric vehicle. I have also learned a lot so I wanted to share what I’ve learned so far in both the experience of electric driving and in lessons learned.
For many years I have wanted to be able to drive without directly combusting fossil fuels. I followed the development of Electric vehicles (EVs) by the major and not so major car companies and for a decade or more it seemed like mass produced affordable EVs were always two years away, no matter how long I waited. In the intervening years I had the opportunity to drive the famous (infamous) GM EV1, which was a spectacular car. I also drove the Solectria, which was a converted Geo. So I knew that it was not a technical barrier that we had to overcome. Finally, it seems as though we are on the cusp of the EV revolution. Nissan is mass producing the Leaf EV (over 50,000 on the road worldwide, 20,000 of them in the US). Tesla has shown that 200-300 mile range is possible (although pricy). Cities, states, and the Federal Government and private industry are building out the charging network. The perceived chicken and egg problem of cars or charging stations is disappearing.
First I want to address the range question, because that is almost inevitably the first question that people ask. And my answer usually starts with “I can’t answer that”. And then I go on to explain that range in an EV is contextual. If someone asked me how far I can go at 40 MPH on flat roads, on a 70 degree day, without a lot of stop and go, beginning 100% charge on the battery, and only discharge the battery 80%, not driving aggressively and with a new battery, etc., I could probably give them a fair estimate. I haven’t encountered those conditions yet since I’ve only had the car a month or so, but I would guess that it would be comfortably over 60 miles and probably substantially more than 60 miles. I can, however, now accurately answer range issues related to my commute. Let me take a detour now in this essay before I describe my commute and the range and conditions thereof.
I have to say that when you use this tool (the EV) for what it was designed for, it is fabulous. The EV is not presently a long distance car. However, many people in the US and elsewhere commute to work daily and most have commutes in the low 10’s of miles. So, if you anticipate commuting to a job that is comfortably within the range of an EV for the next many years, you will discover that EVs make tremendous sense. I will describe the actual experience below. However, if you expect the EV to perform beyond what it was designed to do, you will not have as satisfying an experience. But, reportedly there are millions in the US who make a commute that is perfect for today’s EVs and who also have another means of long distance travel. And, if a large portion of them switched to EVs, it would have quite a positive impact.
Now back to the range question. I currently have to commute just about 20 miles into Albany (40 mile round trip) 4 days/week. I reduced my work schedule to 4 days/week which reduced my commuting footprint, and I carpool generally 2 of the 4 days per week. The distance is longer when I carpool (closer to 50 mile round trip). And for the foreseeable future, I can’t move closer to my job. The job I work at involves protecting the environment, and they won’t let me telecommute, so it was really not making sense for me to burn fossil fuels to get to a job that is about protecting the environment. Anyway, I also live at 1500 above sea level (so basically 1500 feet above Albany). Thus far I have been able to do my roundtrip of 40-50 miles in the cold (as low as 15 degrees), up the mountain beginning at 80% charge and still having some battery charge left. I needed the EV to be able to do this commute or I would not have been able go full electric and would have had to consider a plug-in hybrid. Most of my electric driving has been the commute and all of my EV driving has been in cold weather, so that is what I can describe in most detail.
Now I’d like to tell you what it feels like to drive an electric car and then I will tell you some of the things that car dealer’s salespeople won’t tell you or don’t know. So, what is it like to drive without an internal combustion engine? If you have always wanted to drive an EV, then you won’t be disappointed. It’s soooo cool! The leaf’s basic “carness” makes it drive very much like any other small car. In fact, if you didn’t know it was an electric and didn’t have to manage your trips, it would not be all that different than a gasoline car…..except that it is quiet and smooth, rather boring in its sameness to other cars. But what puts the smile on your face is that it you know it’s different. It’s like driving around with a secret that you hope someone discovers. If you’re a data junky or an engineer, there is plenty of data and feedback to know a lot about what’s going on with the car and how you are driving it. There are multiple ways to tell how you are driving, from the gauge that indicates how aggressively you start (which also grows digital trees if you drive it well) to numerical indicators such as instant or average miles/kWh to kilowatts that you are sending to the motor and on and on. Another question that I get routinely is how does it do on the hills? The two sides of this coin are that it has all the power you could need to get up the hills due to the torque of the electric motor, but hills use up your battery charge pretty rapidly. But again, if you use it within its capabilities hills are not a problem. I live at the top of a pretty steep hill and I have no problems. I just make sure I’ll have enough battery left to handle it. In fact, the Leaf goes up the hill easier than my former little commuter car. And in power mode (described below) it’s like the hill is a flat road. So, no problem with having enough power. In fact, my steep hill only takes half the power that the motor can do (it’s an 80kW motor and I use about 40kW to get up the hill). People also ask how fast they can go. On my test drive I did 65 miles per hour for ten miles. Supposedly the Leaf can go 90 miles an hour. I don’t expect to ever try that. But seriously….going 65 mph with no fossil fuels is joyous. When you get home, you just plug it into your house and it’s ready to go the next day. Now I admit that there is some range anxiety at first, until you get to know the vehicle. I’m beyond the initial anxiety, but I haven’t pushed the range to its limits yet. Still haven’t gotten the low battery warning, so I could probably run the heater a little on the way into work or run the defroster more.
As hinted at above, there are two drive settings in the Leaf. The default mode when you shift into drive is what I would call the power mode. This provides more power and responsiveness from the motor, but at the expense of some range. But if your trip is not pushing the range limits, it’s very fun to drive in this mode. If you shift into drive a second time it enters ECO mode which is less zippy, but maximizes range. So for my commute, I start with 80% charge, drive nearly all the time in ECO mode and I can still do some minor detours for errands.
Now I’d like to dispel some myths and tell you some things that are not readily apparent unless you dig into the online forums. First, let’s talk about charging and charging stations. The terminology is a problem here because the chargers are actually in the cars. All of the electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles come with what’s called a trickle charger (AKA Level 1 charger). This “charger” can plug into any typical 115 volt outlet in a house. In many cases you will not need a more expensive charger. For my commute, I initially wasn’t sure if I could use a trickle charger and be recharged by the time I needed to go to work the next day. But it turns out that even with the trickle charger, it only took about 11 hours to recharge from a 45 mile trip. The next level is the Level 2 charger. These are 240 volt chargers. Most public charging stations are level 2. By the way, the plug end that plugs into the car is universal for level 1 and 2 chargers. Even public charging stations made by different companies use the standard (SAE J1772) plug, so that’s good to know. There is a myth that you have to have your home charging location approved by the car company and use their contractors to install a $2000 charger at your home. Not sure if that was true early on, but it is not true now. If you want to upgrade to a level 2 charger at your home, you can buy them off the internet (or use a local company) and they generally cost around $1000. There is one brand that just plugs in if you have a 220 volt/20 amp outlet. The market is responding to the demand and coming out with all kinds of things to service the EV market. There is even a company that will convert your trickle charger to operate as either a level 1 or level 2 unit. Level 2 chargers will charge your car in less than half the time as the level 1 charger. Another reason to get a level 2 charger for the Leaf is that you can pre-heat your car in the morning using your house power. That is a really cool feature because the heater uses a lot of battery. So depending how long your commute is, you may need to take advantage of that. Last thoughts on charging stations….The Governor is spending millions of dollars to build out the charging station network. I think we are still working out the protocols for charging stations. For example, grocery stores are starting to install stations, but it is implied that you will do some shopping at their store if you use their station, even though they are “public” stations. Car dealers with stations will generally let you charge up as a courtesy, but we shouldn’t act like they have to allow it. Truly pubic stations are scarce now, but I expect they will become more common, as will employer charging stations. Destination charging stations make sense too. Imagine going to a movie at the Spectrum and charging while you enjoy the movie. (NOTE: the Spectrum doesn’t have one yet)
Now here are some things that aren’t readily known. In the case of the Leaf, if you go to test drive one it will probably be charged to 100%. And, the range #s are based on 100% (for 2011 and 2012 Leafs). The 2013 Leafs range is based on a combination of 100% and 80% charge. Nissan recommends charging to 80% most of the time if you want to maximize battery life. So figure that into your calculations. Also, batteries degrade over time. If you treat your battery very well, it may retain 70 to 80% of its capacity at 10 years. So figure that into your calculations. I am hopeful that in 10 years, this will be moot, because there will be more charging stations and batteries will be cheaper. The leaf has settings for both 80% and 100% charge. It is a new way of thinking about mileage. Instead of miles per gallon you begin to think in terms of miles per kilowatt-hour. You start to get very comfortable thinking in terms of kilowatts and kilowatt-hours. So a typical estimate is that the car uses 34 kWH per 100 miles. If you are averaging above 4 miles/kWh you are driving pretty well. And you know that you have a 24kWh battery so you can do some estimates on range. One caveat though, supposedly you can only access 21.5 of the 24 kWh in the battery (I have not seen anything confirming that yet, but that’s what the online community says). That was another thing that I didn’t know and the sales people didn’t communicate. So when I originally did my calculations for my commute, I figured on 100% charge and 24 kWh. But, yet I still seem to be able to do my commute.
The heater in the leaf uses a lot of battery charge. Although heater improvements are part of the 2013 Leaf, plan on it still using a lot of juice. Again, that is why the pre-heat is a nice feature, although, even with the level 2 charger, it is still using some of the battery. I haven’t figured out how to get around that yet. The 2012 and newer Leafs have a heated steering wheel and heated seats which don’t use much power. So between those and keeping your toes well insulated and wearing a hat, you can commute without being miserable if you can’t use the heater.
If you have really deep technical questions, don’t expect dealerships to be able to answer them to your satisfaction. Instead, there are robust online forums of EV drivers who have faced any issues you might have.
So what are the coolest things about driving an EV/Leaf…Refueling at home…preheating the car’s interior using house power……the heated steering wheel and seats……and of course driving without an internal combustion engine. If you are into techy gadgets, the Leaf has all kinds of things, including satellite radio, GPS navigation, functions that you can control from a smart phone, etc.
If you are considering an EV, I recommend talking to someone who drives one. They will have the real-world experience to answer your questions. I had the benefit of speaking with a local Leaf owner who is active in our sustainability community (if he wants me to share his name, I’ll update this) before I leased mine. It was very beneficial. Once I got the Leaf, there were questions I didn’t even know I would have. But it’s fun learning to drive electric. I am available to answer questions. I am happy to share info on EVs and also on solar thermal and electric systems. You may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kevin
Kevin Carpenter, aka Treeguy, has worked as an environmental engineer in the private and public sectors for the past 22 years, focusing on environmental remediation and the cleanup of hazardous waste and brownfield sites. He is an enthusiast of solar energy including PV, SDHW and solar hot air. Outside of work he strives to live simply and sustainably in this ever more complex and disconnected world. He can be reached via comments to this blog or his email address above.