Greg Dennis: I Volted: The how and why of EVs
It’s foolish to think that we can buy our way out of the climate crisis. But for those of us who lose sleep over what climate change will mean for the planet, getting an electric vehicle is one way to feel like we’re doing something.
The recent U.N. report says it will take massive, systemic changes in energy to avoid the extreme heat, poverty, rising sea levels and food insecurity that will otherwise be our fate by 2030.
Individual actions — switching to LED light bulbs, adding insulation, buying fewer things — won’t stem the tide. But they matter. And when it comes to individual transportation, nothing has the impact of an electric car.
I’ve been on a quest to see if there was such a car out there for me. Perhaps my experience will help others who are wondering if an electric vehicle is right for them.
I started my quest in 2012 by leasing a C-Max, a lumpy looking but lovable Ford. I couldn’t get my hands on the plug-in version so I settled for the simple hybrid. Fun to drive with tons of room and great visibility, the C-Max got me through three winters.
When the lease expired, I decided to switch to the extra security of all-wheel-drive.
Like millions of others, I got suckered into VW’s Giant Lie: that some of its cars were a new kind of “clean diesel.” When that fraud was exposed and VW was forced to issue generous compensation to diesel owners, I stayed with AWD and got a Subaru Legacy, the boring but steady sedan version of the Outback.
But even while getting 32 mpg, I found it hard to live with the dissonance between what I was driving and what I knew about carbon emissions from transportation. (In Vermont, for example, transportation is our largest source of climate pollution.)
Could I live with an electric vehicle, or EV? And if so, which one?
Tesla has grabbed most of the headlines when it comes to electric vehicles. But so far the Tesla is a car for the top 5 percent. A Model X will run you somewhere north of 82 grand. The new Model 3 has a base price of $49,000.
EVs and most plug-in hybrids are eligible for a federal tax credit that can total $7,500. This reduces the sting of the sticker price, and even leasing these cars will net you some of the tax credit. An EV’s extra battery weight and low center of gravity also help with winter driving.
The current EV champion that combines higher range, broad availability and a (somewhat) reasonable price is, of all things, a Chevrolet.
For those of us who remember the Chevette and other disasters, GM cars have been high on the list of “things I would never buy unless forced to do so at gunpoint.”
But in a remarkable show of American engineering, Chevrolet has been producing good plug-in hybrid EV’s for nearly a decade.
Among strictly EV’s — battery only, no gas engine and therefore no direct carbon emissions — the Chevy Bolt has emerged as the best. It’s got nearly twice the range of the Nissan Leaf and boasts G-force pick up (zero to 60 in a mere six seconds).
But the range of the Bolt is 238 miles. Meaning that if you’re driving to New York City, you’ll have to plan very carefully so you can find a spot to recharge the battery. Plugging in for 30 minutes will net you 90 miles of range while you get coffee, a quick meal, and a visit to the finest restrooms on the New York State Thruway.
In the hunt for the lowest possible price, I came very close to leasing a Bolt from a dealership south of Boston. (Leasing has some advantages over buying an EV. The technology is quickly improving, and most people don’t want to find themselves three years from now with the automotive equivalent of an iPhone 4.)
But when it came time to sign the lease papers on a Bolt, I just couldn’t do it. The thought of virtually depleting the battery as I drove home induced just what the Bolt is designed to ease: “range anxiety.”
I’d occasionally had trouble finding diesel for my VW. I worried that I’d spend three years looking for a place to charge my Bolt. Charging it at home would mean an expensive retrofit.
Anyone buying a second car for local driving and short commutes should definitely consider an EV. But if you’re a one-car household, as I am, and want to rely solely on an EV, you’ve got to be dedicated to being a pioneer.
The solution? For me it was four months of teeth gnashing and internet research, followed by another visit to the Chevy dealership.
This time I test-drove a Chevy Volt. It looks like a Chevy Cruze and most of the other sedans on the road. But with nearly 10 years of road experience behind it, I found that Chevy has refined the Volt so it delivers a smooth, seamless mix of driving on the battery and, when that runs out, a peppy gas engine.
I’ve had the car for a week. Like the Bolt, it’s a rocket ship off the mark, quiet, loaded with technology, and enough range to handle all my driving in Addison and Chittenden counties on battery alone. For longer trips, the gas engine adds 370 more miles of range.
Using a high-voltage charger in downtown Middlebury, it costs less to drive off the battery than to use gas for the first 50 miles. Plugged in to my outlet at home where I have solar panels, I can get 50 miles of free driving off the panels on the roof.
I have seen the future, and it is electric.
Greg Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.