February 22, 2010

Electric cars are on the way (plus debunking some electric car myths)

Take charge to drive green

Is America’s century-old love affair with the automobile coming to an end as we grapple with ways to reduce our dependency on foreign oil? The number of cars on U.S. roads dropped by 2 percent in 2009 as the U.S. auto industry held on for dear life.

Using his executive authority and the power of the Clean Air Act, President Obama mandated that cars get much cleaner and achieve 35.5 miles per gallon by the end of 2016. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says that will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil and prevent 950 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The driver of a 2016 model car will supposedly save $3000 in fuel costs over the car's lifespan, more than recovering the extra $1100 to manufacture it.

Get ready for plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) from major automakers before the end of 2010. The Chevy Volt, what they call an extended-range electric vehicle (EREV), and the fully electric zero-emissions Nissan Leaf will probably be the first mainstream electric vehicles to hit U.S. streets in late 2010—and not just in California.

Williamsburg’s Hudgins Holiday Chevrolet Sales Manager, John Bell, told me “We are getting calls about the Chevy Volt and the website (www.chevrolet.com/volt) is drawing lots of interest which is a good sign.” Nissan of Newport News sales manager, James Bland, said, “We are really excited about getting the Leaf in. It will be the first major 100 percent electric car in America. That means no tailpipe.” When will the Volt and Leaf  arrive in the Williamsburg area? Both sales managers said that they anticipate availability here in the fall.

BETCHA DIDN'T KNOW . . . that electric cars are actually a return to yesteryear and that there were more than 30,000 electric vehicles on our roads in the early 1900s? What happened to send them the way of the horse and buggy? Henry “Call-Me-the-Gas-Man” Ford, the invention of the electric starter, and the discovery of cheap crude oil in Texas brought us the "curse" of the gas-powered internal combustion engine.

WHAT WILL THE DEMAND FOR ELECTRIC CARS BE?  That’s hard to predict, even if motorists remember that gas prices can climb to $4 a gallon. President Obama has called for 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, but that’s only 0.5 percent of the entire U.S. fleet.

Plug In America at www.pluginamerica.org/vehicles  is a great source of info on the 60 plus plug-in electric cars in the works right now.

True, more than half of our electricity comes from coal burning power plants. So you could look at Chevy’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf as coal burning cars. On the plus side, however, will be reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. While electricity is getting cleaner and more renewable every year, even the cleanest gasoline car remains polluting. So electric cars just get cleaner over time as the grid gets cleaner.

THE PRICE? Not yet known, but both the Volt and Leaf will probably sell in the mid to upper $30s range, but a $7500 federal tax incentive will reduce that to the low $30s. Sounds a bit high, but remember that EVs require almost no maintenance or repair: no oil or filter changes, no tune ups, no smog checks. One factor is the cost of the batteries, but some industry experts predict that will fall sharply over the next decade.

That brings me to two more environmental myths that need debunking.

Myth #1: America’s power grid will crash if millions of electric cars charge at once.
NOT TRUE according to a 2007 study by Pacific Northwest, a Department of Energy research lab. They contend that we could replace 73 percent of our cars, trucks, and SUVs (about 217 million vehicles) with plug-in hybrids without building new generating plants or transmission lines. Oil consumption would fall by 6.2 million barrels a day, eliminating nearly 53 percent of our current oil imports.

Consider too that about 40 percent of our electricity capacity in the U.S. sits idle at night when most plug-in cars would be charging.

Myth #2 : Electric vehicles (EVs) don’t have enough range; you'll be stranded when you run out of electricity. NOT TRUE since many of the newest electric cars can travel up to 120 miles on a single charge, and the average American drives 40 miles per day, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Chevy Volt is designed to drive up to 40 miles on electricity alone, after which a range-extending generator kicks in to extend the total driving range to about 350 miles. Just plan accordingly. It's not different from checking your gas gauge to avoid running out of gas.

Most electric cars can charge in five or six hours on a 220-volt home current, overnight on 110-volt, and in 15-30 minutes at a fast charging (480 volts) public station. San Francisco, Boulder, and Denver have shown their belief in electric cars by making fast charging stations available.

What else can YOU do? Are you among the 77 percent of Americans who drive to work alone? Car sharing programs such as Zipcar are worth investigating. Plan your trips to avoid traffic and stop lights—not so easy along Monticello Avenue. Accelerate slowly. Limit use of air conditioning and heated seats. Walk or bicycle when you can.