Buying an Electric Car Makes Sense

Stephen Lewis

Transportation is the single biggest contributor to planet-warming greenhouse gases in the United States. Americans love their cars and trucks, and they rely on their convenience and affordability to get them where they need to go. Unfortunately for the planet, the number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States has increased by 46% between 1990 and 2017, and Americans are driving more all the time.

The last time gasoline surpassed $4 per gallon, I bought a 2010 Prius to save money and lessen my family’s use of fossil fuels. Rated at 50 mpg because of its hybrid system, I found the Prius to be a big cost-saver. I was doubly happy to be cutting my greenhouse gas emissions. Hybrids - or more precisely hybrid electric vehicles - are forerunners to electric cars because they have both a gasoline and electric motor as well as a battery pack that allows them to run more efficiently on electric power. The difference between a hybrid and a true electric vehicle (EV) is that you cannot plug in a hybrid to charge its battery. Newer model hybrids range from SUVs to all sizes of family cars. But is the hybrid really the best car to buy? That depends on your family’s driving habits. 

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In 2017 I was again car shopping, and I wanted to purchase an electric car. Like many with an interest in EVs, I had some doubts about changing my lifestyle to accommodate a car that I had to plug in to charge. I also had concerns about how far I could travel on electric power. Because of my concerns, I compromised and bought a 2017 Chevy Volt, or what is known as a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). Like my Prius, it has both a gasoline and electric motor, but unlike my Prius, it has a robust 53 miles of electric-only range. When the batteries are drained, it can drive on its gasoline engine for 370 additional conventional miles. I charge up the Volt batteries by plugging the car in overnight.

My wife and I found that the Volt was a great first foray into driving electric. 80% of her miles were comprised of her daily 48-mile round trip work commute. Most days she used only electric power. On our occasional long trips, we knew the gasoline engine would address any range anxiety. Since we bought the Volt, we have traveled 23,000 miles, and 20,000 of those miles were electric only. The reality is that most Americans drive exactly like my wife: primarily short daily commutes and around-town driving – driving that doesn’t require a big battery. We also saved money using electricity over gasoline. Electric cars convert about 60% of the electric energy to the wheels, whereas gasoline engines only transmit approximately 20% of their power to the wheels. So the Volt, for instance, gets 106 MPGe – or miles per gallon of gas equivalent - compared to the gas engine which gets 43 mpg. This is a substantial savings.

I also learned a lot about charging an electric car with the Volt. There are three levels of charging available with most new electric cars. Level 1 uses a standard wall outlet. The problem with that method is that it is slow. For example, it takes 13 hours to charge up a fully depleted Volt battery with level one charging. This may not be an issue for some, but faster charging is typically more desirable. A Level 2 charger runs on 220v 32-amp power and charges the Volt in five hours, but you need a special charger installed in your garage, like I did, to accomplish Level 2 charging. You can also take advantage of public charger networks, and some employers offer EV chargers at work. My Volt does not support much faster Level 3 charging, but newer electric vehicles do. 

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Keep in mind, your source of electric power matters as well. Not all electricity is generated with renewable sources. Charging your car with energy made with fossil fuels produces more carbon emissions than using fully renewable. In Connecticut, electric utilities offer some supplier plans with 60% or more renewable electric sources. You can also switch to a 100% renewable supplier at a cost-effective price. Or, you can install rooftop solar and produce your own 100% renewable energy to power your car. This way you are truly reducing greenhouse gas generation. 

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Once we realized how fun and convenient it was to drive electric and to leave behind frequent gas station trips, we bought our first true EV – a 2019 Hyundai Kona. We love the quiet ride and fast acceleration and no more oil changes! The Kona EV gets 258 miles of all electric range per full charge. This is a dramatic increase in battery technology and cost. It also supports Level 3 fast charging, so on a long trip you can get a fast charge to 80% of battery capacity in about 50 minutes. My wife and I have taken trips all over New England and down to New Jersey, and you quickly get used to driving electric on longer distances with the greater electric range and fast charging stations readily available. EVs have onboard maps to show you where to find charging stations on your trip.

You should also be aware that EVs and PHEVs are usually eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $7500 and a state rebate from the CHEAPR program for $2000. These incentives can bring down the sticker price of most EVs and PHEVs. When you consider your subsequent gas savings and minimal maintenance costs, your total cost of driving an EV is even better. However, you need to check on these credits and rebates before you buy as some credits are phasing out for certain brands of EVs.

Another consideration with EVs is the impact of cold weather on battery range. Consumer Reports recently tested this and found that cold weather can reduce your range up to 40%. Therefore, Consumer Reports recommends you buy an EV with more range than you need for a daily round trip commute to be sure you have enough cold weather range. More good news is that battery prices are falling and newer EVs have plenty of range to handle even winter requirements.

If you are in the market to replace a family car, you should test drive and seriously consider either a PHEV or a full EV. Commit to making your daily commuting car electric, because this is where most of your miles are coming from. If you ask any EV owner, they will tell you it is great driving electric. It is more convenient than you think, it will save you money, and you will help us all reduce climate change.

To learn more check out the Sierra Club EV Guide.

How can you help promote EV adoption?  Please consider attending, participating in or organizing a public event during National Drive Electric Week in September, of which Sierra Club is a national sponsor.

The national web site provides ample resources to organize an event and bring experienced drivers into conversation with potential buyers, which has proven to be an effective way of making people comfortable with the transition.

For more information on EVs – please contact: Jeff Gross

Stephen Lewis is a Sierra Club member and serves on the Legislative and CTFA committees of Sierra Club Connecticut.