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Which Electric Car is Right For You?

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Today you can walk into a dealer’s showroom and test drive a Nissan Leaf (to left) or a Chevy Volt (below). You can place your order and take delivery in 8-10 weeks. Toyota’s Prius Plug-in will start showing up in March. An electric pickup truck by Vision Motor Car company is on the horizon, awaiting Federal certification. And Ford is planning an electric version of the Focus for the Fall. Maybe not mainstream, but we are definitely entering a new world with electric cars as a competitive and viable option.

Why buy an electric car? For me the compelling reason is that I will be able to get from point A to B without burning any fossil fuels or emitting any green house gases! That should be reason enough, but there is more! Electric cars use a lot less energy than traditional combustion engine powered automobiles do. How so? The combustion engine and braking create a lot of heat. Except for winter, this is all wasted energy. Electric car motors run a lot cooler and energy can be reclaimed during braking.
Volt w cap

How much less? Less than 1/3 the energy! For example a pretty good gas car gets 30 miles to the gallon, while an electric car gets about 3 miles to the kWh. That is about 4,168 BTUs of gasoline per mile (125,000 BTU/Gal / 30) compared to 1,138 BTUs of electricity (3413 BTU/kWh / 3) to go the same mile! The fuel cost for the same mile is $0.125 for gasoline (@ $3.75/gal) and $0.063 for electricity (@ $0.19/kWh, if you buy from the green grid) – or about half the price, saving you $0.62 per mile for fuel.

What’s more, NYSERDA allows that an electric car is an acceptable appliance for figuring your allowable solar electric power generation for the PV incentives. With the electric coming from your roof top, there is no need to send billions of dollars abroad and no need for soldiers to defend and protect our wanton lifestyle!

So, which electric car should you buy? Well, that depends! The first three electric cars to market are each designed to serve a very different buyer: The Chevy Volt has an electric range of 35 miles with a backup gas charging engine to extend the range to over 300 miles, starting at $39,000; The Leaf has an electric range of 100 miles with no trip extending gas, starting at $28,000; and The Toyota Prius Plug-in has an electric range of 15 miles and a very similar gas engine configuration as today’s Prius Hybrid with an extended range of over 500 miles, starting at $32,000.

Prius w capMy decision model is to replace as many gas miles with electric miles as I can. If I’m working out of my home and just need a car for trips to the store, then the Prius’ 12 mile electric range might eliminate a good number of gas miles, say 12 miles x 3 trips x 50 weeks/yr = 1,800 miles per year, saving me $112 ($0.62 x 1800) a year.

If I’m working in the field with highly variable trips, then the Chevy Volt’s 35 mile range could replace even more gas miles, say 30 x 4 x 50 weeks/yr = 6,000 miles per year, saving $372 ($0.62 x 6,000) a year.

If I’m commuting 35 miles each way (I’d feel like I was back in Boston) then I’d be able to save a whopping 17,500 gas miles with the Leaf or Fusion (70 x 5 x 50 weeks/yr), saving $1,085 a year! Note: All these savings are based on today’s gas prices, so I’d expect to save a lot more over the next ten years, especially if I locked in my electric cost with solar electric (PV). By the way, it will take 6,000 kWh to drive 18,000 miles a year, so start planning!

Obviously each manufacturer has a different vision of who will buy an electric car and what their needs will be. It will be interesting to see how many of each are sold in the next year. Oh, did I forget to mention tax credit? Up to $7500, depending on some details…

So there are questions. For example…Everest w cap

  • What are the details of the Federal Tax Credit?
  • What will the actual range be under my driving conditions?
  • How is the acceleration onto a highway?
  • Can you take them on a highway?
  • How does range vary if you drive at 65 MPH versus 45?
  • How will they heat the different cars?
  • How will winter driving (heating) affect range?
  • How about cooling and its affect on range?
  • How many charging stations will there be and where?
  • How much will charging stations charge for a charge?
  • How much will the at home charging station cost to install?
  • How reliable will the batteries be?
  • How long will the batteries take to charge at a “fast charge” station?
  • How often can the fast charge be used without voiding the battery warranty?
  • How long will they last?
  • How will the warranty be evaluated, if after 7 years (most are warranted for 8 years / 100,000 miles) you are not getting the range “you” think you should be getting?
  • What if you abused the battery?
  • What constitutes abuse?
  • How will they or you know the battery was abused?
  • Will you get sued every time someone steps in front of you because they did not hear you coming?
  • What will a replacement battery cost, if in 12 years you need a new one?
  • What maintenance is required? Can you do some or all of it yourself?
  • How much does scheduled service cost? What if you miss some of it?
  • How much does all the onboard computer/internet cost per month?
  • Can you charge up at mom’s with an extension cord?
  • Heaven forbid, what if you do run out of charge on the Northway?
  • Are the batteries more dangerous in an accident?
  • Are they easily damaged? What happens then?

I’m sure you have a few questions too. Please comment with them and I’ll add them to the list.

Fusion w capIf you are one of the brave and lucky few to have an electric car, please chime in with your experiences, questions and answers.

We are looking for a blogger/dealer for each car to help sort this out, answer our questions and provide insight into dealer and manufacturer plans. If you know someone you think would do a good job, please let me know and I’ll give him or her a call.

Electric cars are exciting and will be a welcome change, but they are not the same as my Jetta TDI with nearly an 800 mile range (50.7 MPG average over 3700 miles regular driving last Sept/Oct). So we need to understand the issues, evaluate our situations and see just what makes sense. Still, the advantages and benefits are huge and well worth a little change and consideration – think of all the millions of gallons of oil not needed. Think of all the CO2 not emitted. Think Electric!

Dan Gibson is the Reporter and Chief Coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community ( Previously he performed home energy audits for five years in NYSERDA’s Home Performance program and new home ratings in the New York ENERGY STAR Home program. He is currently building a 100% Solar Home. He can be reached at

Comments on "Which Electric Car is Right For You?"

  1. OEIC default avatar Don White February 06, 2012 at 1:58 am

    In the course of discussing available electric vehicles, this blog shows clearly that the incremental energy usage when driving an electric vehicle is less than for a gas-powered one and he notes the satisfying situation that electrical energy is not a fossil fuel and does not produce emissions as it is used.

    Total energy usage in driving would include two other factors in the comparison. First is the energy cost of generating the electricity, most probably by combustion of a fossil fuel. This is a valid question even were the electricity to come from solar panels, since they have an embedded energy and probable lifetime. Second is the embedded energy of the vehicle and its probable lifetime, particularly if that lifetime is battery-limited.

    The decision of when and which for a vehicle is very seldom made solely on the grounds of totally impersonal global economic or energy returns, however, but rather on the payback of personal pleasure and satisfaction within the constraint of affordability. An electric vehicle providing such payback to a green driver could be a wonderful investment indeed and this blog could be a good help in making the decision of which one to buy.

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