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Going Green in My New EV

Posted @ 5:21 pm by Grady Kuhnline | Category: Technology | 0 Comments

I took my new EV camping and plugged it into a tree!

I recently purchased an electric vehicle. And I love it! I ended up going with the Ford Focus Electric because I have a long family history with Ford. Plus, I personally think it looks more attractive than the Nissan Leaf. Purchasing an electric car is no easy task, and I’ve found that many people are curious about what it’s like to actually own one.

The EV market is really new, and, as you might expect, is full of hype, partial details, and outright misinformation. I found this to be true even at the dealership itself (although their issues mostly fell into the partial details category). On the Internet it’s hard to track down the facts, making it harder to understand what you’re getting into. The only sure thing is that buying an electric vehicle in 2012 makes you a pioneer — and pioneers don’t always have it easy.

The good news is that actually owning an EV makes all of the hassle involved in purchasing the car seem like a distant memory. Range anxiety has started to feel silly, the extra cost seems worth it, and all of the excess research I did means I have lots of answers to my friend’s questions.

Types of Electric Cars

The first question I always receive is, “where does the gas go?” Most people are familiar by now with hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius, but what most people don’t realize is that cars like the Prius are basically fancy gasoline engines with an electric assist motor. There’s a great article on how stuff works about hybrid vehicles.

In the Prius, the load is shared between the gas and electric motors using a specially designed power exchanger. In the Honda Civic Hybrid the electric motor is just strapped to the front of the regular motor. So, in the Prius, sometimes the gas motor turns the transmission (and ultimately the wheels) and sometimes the electric motor does. In the Civic Hybrid, the gas motor always turns the transmission but sometimes the electric engine turns the gas engine.

The new Prius Plug-in Hybrid isn’t really any different from a conventional Prius except that it has a larger battery (with an 11 mile range). The electric motor on the Prius Plug-in Hybrid is slightly more powerful as well, to allow for all-electric driving at higher speeds.

In contrast with hybrid cars, the Chevy Volt exclusively uses the electric motor to actually move the car. The Volt is a pure electric car with a gasoline generator that can help extend the battery life significantly. The gasoline engine in the Volt is exclusively used to charge the battery. It has a 35 mile range on the battery and the gas generator extends the range to 379 miles. If you want an electric car, but you have severe range anxiety, a Volt is a good choice.

And then there’s purely electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus Electric. In these cars there is no gasoline. The entire car is run on batteries alone. The Leaf has an official range of 73 miles and the Focus Electric has a range of 76.

One important difference between electric cars vs. hybrid cars is the driving experience. Hybrids sacrifice some of the excitement of driving for supreme efficiency. With electric cars, review after review notes how well the electric cars handle and how zippy they are to drive. Those are not common reviews for hybrids.

Purchasing Process

Ford’s EV program is extremely new and their salespeople are all selling the car for the first time. Ford has only sold 97 of the cars as of June 2012. At the dealership I went to, I was a rare find — they didn’t quite know what to do with me.

I knew exactly what car I wanted to buy. I knew more about the car than the salesperson. I didn’t mind that they didn’t have a car to test drive. I didn’t even mind that they couldn’t tell me when I’d get one (somewhere around a 4 months wait).

I was amazed, though, that they didn’t even have a picture of the car. When I placed my back-order, I had to choose the color I wanted. But, when I asked to see what the color “frosted glass” looked like, they didn’t know — we looked it up on Google together. So, even though Ford went to great lengths to train its sales staff, they didn’t bother to give the poor salespeople a few brochures to show to potential customers.

Regardless, I lucked out! It turned out that a new shipment of cars was on its way to the dealer, and instead of waiting 4 months I was only going to have to wait 10 days. I finally got my Focus Electric on July 2nd, 2012.

Getting a Charger

It’s really hard to wade through the supreme lack of useful information on how things work. For instance, Ford has a much-hyped partnership with Best Buy to install a home charger. There’s hundreds of articles online mentioning this partnership and how great it is — get a $1,500 Ford-branded charger from Leviton, installed by Best Buy’s Geek Squad. What could be easier?

In reality, this partnership doesn’t play out as smoothly as the Getting EV Ready site would lead you to believe. The dealer doesn’t have any information, and refers you to Geek Squad. Geek Squad has never heard of any Ford partnership, but they’re happy to charge you $100 to stop by your house, and then they refer you to Mr. Electric for the actual installation. And no one can tell you how much it will actually cost to get the charger installed.

I couldn’t even get anyone to tell me if the fancy charger with a Ford logo was available for purchase. The dealer thought Best Buy would know, and Best Buy figured Mr. Electric would know. Mr. Electric asked me for my zip code, said they don’t service my area, and hung up on me.

What isn’t clear from any of the materials is that the much-quoted $1,500 is for the charger itself. You also have to pay Geek Squad $100 for an initial assessment, and then you pay Mr. Electric an unknown amount to actually get the charger installed. Although it makes sense that you’d have to pay the electrician for their services, that’s not at all clear from the published materials. Of course, each home is different, so the electrician’s charges will vary greatly.

After a few fruitless phone calls I decided to purchase the charger directly from Leviton , without the fancy Ford logo, and used a local electrician to get the charger installed in my garage.

All-told, I paid about $2,500 to get my charger purchased and installed. Others may have differing experiences, because there are a few less-expensive chargers available and getting work done in San Francisco is insanely expensive. Even so, be prepared to pay between $1,500 and $3,000 to be able to charge your car at home.

Getting Your Incentives

Another area of concern is getting all of the available incentives that come with purchasing an electric vehicle. Ford is telling anyone who’ll listen that there’s a $7,500 Federal tax credit available for EV purchasers. But there’s several other incentives available for EV owners in California. The only reliable incentives are the $2,500 California rebate and the decal for the carpool lane. The $2,500 rebate roughly covers the cost of the charger and the installation.

Other incentives are much less straight-forward. For instance, there’s a few rebates for charging stations but they’re either restricted to a few specific cars or overly restrictive in general, with limits on what chargers you can buy and who you can have install them.

I ended up only doing the $7,500 Federal credit, the $2,500 CA rebate, the carpool sticker and the special E-9A electrical rates form PG&E. Everything else was only owners of the Nissan Leaf or the Chevy Volt or for people living near LA.

Range

This is where things get fun. Electric cars get insanely high estimated gas mileage (there’s a formula for comparing electricity to gas) but the range on an EV is ridiculously low compared to a gas car. This comparison doesn’t get any more apples-to-apples than comparing the 2012 Ford Focus Electric to a regular 2012 Ford Focus. Both cars share nearly identical exteriors and interiors. The only major difference between them is the engines — one is electric and the other is gas-powered.

The Focus Electric gets an estimated 105 mpg, while the conventional focus gets 31 mpg. That’s a huge difference! But the conventional Focus has a range of 346 miles, while the Focus Electric has an official range of only 76 miles (customers report getting closer to 85 miles of range). That’s as if the conventional Focus only had a 2.7 gallon gas tank (it actually has a 12.4 gallon tank). Even better, with an estimated 105mpg, the Focus Electric actually has the equivalent of a 0.7 gallon gas tank — that’s not much “gas” for a 600 to 700 pound battery. A gallon of gas normally weighs 6 pounds.

A better comparison for me is that the Focus Electric’s 23 kWh battery holds about the same power as 4340 iPhone 4s or 541 3rd Generation iPads. It’s certainly more fun to think I have thousands of iPhones in my trunk than a 700 pound gallon of gas.

Range Anxiety!

In reality, the vast majority of the driving you’ll do is within the roughly 80-mile range of the car. You have make peace with the fact that you can’t easily “discover gold” in Sacramento. And, your casual weekend trip to scenic South Lake Tahoe will require 2 charging pit-stops with a total of 6 to 8 hours of waiting. You’d better find a place to plug in your car while you’re there, or you’ll never make it home!

While, on one hand, I can’t quite drive from San Francisco to Sacramento, that’s not usually a problem. I can drive anywhere within 40 miles of my house and expect to safely make it back home without needing to charge. A more common commute from San Francisco to San Jose (or vice versa) is easily within my range (although I’d need to charge while I was there.) Just this week, I drove to Mountain View and back without charging at all.

Conveniently, there’s actually a lot of public charging spots in California. San Francisco has a few dozen, many of them in the downtown parking garages where many commuters are already parking. Interestingly, Walgreens is a bit of a pioneer in this space. I’ve actually charged my car a few times at various Walgreens, and in my case, it’s the closest charge spot to my home.

Less convenient is when you need to travel somewhere near the end of your range that doesn’t have a charge station on-site. I recently drove to a meeting in Santa Rosa and had to park at a Walgreens 5 miles away, and have a co-worker pick me up. While it’s inconvenient to have to park 5 miles from your destination, I paid less than a dollar to drive to that meeting — Walgreens even gave me free electricity. My co-worker paid around $19 in gas for her Audi A3.

Making Money

Already, my car tells me (in the iPhone app) that I’ve saved $80 in gas, and I’ve only driven 525 miles! The formula for savings depends on a few factors, like the comparative miles per gallon and the average assumed gas price per gallon. But, figuring 25 mpg and $3.70/gallon, driving 5,000 miles a year would save you more than $700 even if you include the electricity costs. The more you drive in a year, the more savings you can realize.

If I compare the savings with my 2001 Ford Explorer Sport, I’m saving more like $1,200/year in gas costs. That’s actually seems ludicrous! At the same time, I’d be able to drive my old Ford Explorer for nearly 30 years before before my EV paid for itself in saved gasoline. That’s a bit of an unfair comparison; I purchased my Explorer used, for only $4,000.

Back to our earlier apples-to-apples comparison, a fully loaded 2012 Ford Focus costs around $27,000. The 2012 Ford Focus Electric comes fully loaded (as the only option) with an MSRP of around $40,000. Factoring for the $7,500 federal tax credit, the cost is around $32,500 or $5,500 more than a similarly equipped gas-powered Focus. (We’ll ignore taxes and financing for now but those costs widen the gap between the costs of the two cars.) At 5,000 miles a year, the conventional Focus uses around $600 in gasoline. It would take more than 9 years of driving the EV to make up for the difference in sticker price in saved gasoline.

Saving the Environment

Electricity isn’t 100% pollution free, but my electric car is. Additionally, electricity has a much greater potential for reducing your carbon footprint than gasoline. PG&E in Northern California already gets 17.7% of it’s electricity from renewable resources. There’s a new target to get up to 33% of electricity in California from renewable resources by 2020. In San Francisco itself, up to 60% of the electricity comes from renewable resources. By contrast, gas-powered vehicles get 0% of their energy from renewable resources, forever.

My car also claims (in the iPhone app) that I’ve already saved 500 lb of CO2. At 5,000 miles a year, a conventional 2012 Ford Focus will generate 3,225 lb of CO2 a year. In the 9-years-worth of gas it takes to make up for the inflated cost of the EV, a conventional Ford Focus would release 29,000 lb of CO2.

In San Francisco, electricity generates 0.6 lb of CO2 per kWh. Driving 5,000 miles in a year in my EV would use less than 1,000 lb of CO2. That’s more than 3 times less CO2 than a conventional car.

The CO2 produced during electricity generation can be dramatically reduced by using renewable resources. Unfortunately, many Americans live in an area that gets most of its electricity from coal. The CO2 savings in those areas are closer to that of a hybrid, but still not as bad as a conventional car. A debate about the political and environmental impact of coal vs. oil nets out to about equal, though some evidence is mounting that coal is pretty bad for the environment.

Luckily, you can offset your personal dependence on burning coal to generate electricity by investing in solar for your home. Ford is offering a “Drive Green For Life” program that will help you install solar panels on your home for $10,000. Of course, it’s hard to track down how to actually join the program. You can look up the incentives available for home solar in your area. While the money you put into solar for your home only makes your EV that much more expensive, it also increases the value of your home.

Conclusion

For the first time, marginally affordable, reasonably practical electric cars are now readily available — and electric cars are continuing to improve rapidly. However, compared to range extended cars like the Chevy Volt and plug-in hybrids like the Toyota Prius, pure electric vehicles aren’t entirely cost effective right now. At the same time, unlike the Volt or the Prius, you’ll never use another drop of gasoline to power your car. As the electric grid becomes more efficient, and more renewable resources come on-line, the effective CO2 output for electric cars will continue to drop.

On one hand, my electric car seems sort of impractical when compared to the range of a conventional car or a hybrid. My EV is certainly more expensive than a conventional car. On the other hand, because I live in San Francisco, my electric car is already making a measurable impact on the environment. I’m also helping to advance technology forward by being an early adopter. Electric cars won’t get more efficient, and won’t get any cheaper, unless people start buying them now to show that consumer demand exists for clean and efficient cars.

Of course, the only thing that really matters is that I really love driving my new car.

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