Peter Kerr and family show off their electric car, a Nissan Leaf

Peter Kerr explains the environmental advantages of electric vehicles, what they are like to drive, their many advantages and how to deal with longer trips.

Imagine for a minute that the regular car in your garage transformed overnight into a fully electric vehicle (EV). How would this affect your daily transportation routine? Could you get by driving on electrons alone?

Many people are asking themselves this question now that affordable EVs are available in California showrooms. The Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi iMiev, Ford Focus EV, and Honda Fit EV should all be available for model year 2013 and are still eligible for hefty state and federal tax credits.

The environmental benefits of driving a fully electric vehicle are clear. An electric motor is 2–3 times more efficient than an internal combustion engine (ICE) at converting energy into power at the wheels. Even in using completely coal-fired power, electric vehicles are a cleaner alternative to ICE cars. In California we have a cleaner electrical grid than most US states: 43.6% of it is powered by nuclear, hydro, and renewable sources, 36.5% comes from natural gas, and less than 8.5% comes from coal.

As our power sources are modernized and integrate a larger percentage of renewables to meet lower emission targets, electric cars now on the road will run even cleaner. Gasoline cars have tailpipes and they also have the “long tailpipe” stemming from fossil fuel extraction, distribution, storage, refinery, and delivery activities.  When you factor in these electricity needs, an electric car uses far less electricity from the grid than the average ICE automobile to travel any given distance. And unlike fossil fuels, people can generate their very own electricity from a photovoltaic system. A completely solar powered car is possible and in fact dozens of people are already driving on sunshine right here in the Davis area.

But what is it like actually owning an electric vehicle?

Well, again imagine that electric vehicle in the garage, and imagine it is a Nissan Leaf. It has been plugged in to the home charger overnight, drawing electricity when rates are low and power companies like PG&E have excess energy. A full overnight charge will have taken approximately eight hours and cost approximately $1.45 (24kWh (=~75 miles) @ $0.06 per kWh). This prices out to about $0.02 per mile, comparing favorably to even the best hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, which costs approximately $0.08 per mile to operate. Now that the car is ready, let’s go for a ride!

But wait… is it a cold morning? If so, you can contact the car via your iPhone, Android device, or computer and pre-warm the cabin temperature to your liking.  Because there are no emissions, this is completely safe to do in an enclosed space such as a garage; it only draws electricity from the plug. There’s no need to pull out your keys to unlock the doors or engage the ignition— the car detects the keys in your pocket— and once you’ve settled into the driver’s seat, the push of a button starts the car. If it weren’t for a little chime that provides feedback from the dash, you might not otherwise realize that anything has happened.

There’s no engine sound nor any engine vibrations because the motor doesn’t idle at a standstill. It just stands. Still. Once you ease on to the accelerator pedal, you might get the strange sensation, like at the start of a commuter train trip, “Oh, I think we are moving!” The electric motor delivers 100% torque at all rpms and as a result, provides a lively acceleration. So while this makes the Leaf a particularly fun car to drive, give yourself a little time to get used to it. You’ll probably need even more time to get that giddy “EV grin” off your face, however, as you head off to your destination, driving what feels like a mini monorail (it is so smooth!). Will you be going to service the vehicle anytime in the next month? Very likely not. Electric vehicles needn’t oil changes nor smog checks.

They have no spark plugs, no engine air filter, and in the case of the Leaf, no transmission fluid, either, because there is no transmission. It is a single speed. But this doesn’t mean it is slow.  Top speed is an electronically limited 93 mph (reaching 0–60 mph in approximately 8 seconds).  And of course you will never (ever!) again have to stop to pump filthy gas at a gas station or feel guilty about purchasing the services of BP or Exxon Mobil. The only regular replacement parts for the car are wiper blades and tires. Regenerative braking keeps brake pad wear at a minimum. In most EV braking, the electric motor is employed to recapture energy from the rotating wheels, slowing down the car, and saving your brake pads from extended wear (while providing extra electricity to the batteries).

“If electric vehicles sound great, it’s because they are. Ask anyone who owns one.”

Need to run an errand in downtown Davis? There are several free, public chargers available at convenient locations. There is one at the Amtrak train station and two within the 4th and G St. parking garage. Charging the car while on a short trip to Ace Hardware, for example, may add up to only a few pennies worth of electricity, but it is a morale booster. After a short trip downtown, you may end up with as much or more juice in the tank than when you left! There are also a number of chargers (>13) at UC Davis and in Sacramento (>25), and more seem to be added monthly. At the end of the day, as a ten-second routine, plug the car back in at home and you are done. The car will be fully charged again, when you wake up the next morning.

For most people, a typical day involves less than 70 miles of driving and additional daytime charging is not needed. But what if you need to go farther than this? Alas, EVs are not perfect. The Nissan Leaf is limited to approximately 80 miles on a full charge. There are several ways to deal with this, aside from giving up on EVs entirely and remaining tied to fossil fuels. Workplace charging via a standard 110v outlet (or level 2 charger) is one option available for many people. In our household, we have a two-car hybrid solution. The 100% electric Leaf covers nearly all of our driving— about 12k miles per year— while the family Ford Windstar van covers about 2k miles, mostly on trips to the mountains and coast. The other option, of course, is to go with the single car solution: an extended range electric vehicle, such as the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt goes approximately 40 on pure electrons, then gets another 300 miles using regular gasoline (like an ordinary car, @ 32 mpg).

If electric vehicles sound great, it’s because they are. Ask anyone who owns one. We will have a selection of electric vehicles on display in Central Park next month at the Cool Davis Festival on October 13, 2012. There, you can get an up-close look and talk to owners. I took the plunge into the EV world back in January, 2011, becoming the first Nissan Leaf owner (lessee) in Davis, and one of the first in the world to drive the groundbreaking vehicle. And I haven’t regretted it for a second.

I encourage you to imagine an electric car in your own garage. If rapidly changing technologies and other uncertainties (e.g., extended battery life) are still a concern, you can still enjoy the benefits of clean transportation, trouble-free. Go for the lease!

Peter Kerr is a professional biologist who does research on insect diversity and evolution and has kids in the Davis school system. By raising community awareness of energy and climate issues and encouraging minimal-impact and healthy lifestyle choices, groups such as Cool Davis are important in the fight against pollution and human-induced climate change— something Peter cares deeply about.