For years I have loved my Lexus hybrid and my wife's Camry hybrid. The increase in miles per gallon wasn't spectacular (about 10-20%), but I loved the hybrid technology.
On June 11th, however, my values shifted when I took delivery of my 2012 Chevrolet Volt. Six weeks later, I have driven it 1,500 miles and used only 8.5 gallons of gasoline, but it is not just the economy of the vehicle that has won me over, it is, again, the technology behind it and, more than that, it's a damn fine automobile!
Every night, when I come home, I plug the car into a standard 110-volt outlet in my garage, and the next morning it is fully charged, ready to deliver 40 miles of gasoline-free performance. Since I average about 15,000 miles per year in my real estate practice, or just over 40 miles per day, I am probably the perfect prospect for this automobile. Even if I travel twice that between charges, however, the gasoline "range extender" engine gives me up to 40 miles per gallon, so I end the day traveling 80 miles on a gallon of gas (plus ten kilowatt-hours of electricity).
My first thought when I heard about plug-in electric cars was that, unless I generate my electricity with solar panels, all I'm doing is switching from gas power to coal power, since Xcel Energy generates most of its electricity from coal. Once my 9.7-kW solar PV system is installed, I will be using solar-generated electricity for my Volt, but what I didn't realize until recently was the relative efficiency of electric-powered transportation.
Here's the math for you. A full charge consumes a little more than 10 kWH of electricity, which costs just over one dollar from Xcel Energy. On that one dollar of electricity I can travel 40 miles. That's 2.5 cents per mile. Even my wife's 35-mpg Camry Hybrid consumed about $4 of gasoline to go that distance -- that's 10 cents per mile at today's gas prices. My Lexus hybrid costs me about 14 cents per mile for gas, and my colleague's 14-mpg truck costs him 25 cents per mile for gas. That is a huge differential in fuel cost. So, forget about waiting to generate electricity from the sun; I feel great paying 10 cents per kWH to Xcel Energy!
Looking deeper into the technological differences between electric and gasoline propulsion, I begin to understand why electric vehicles are so much more efficient. Gasoline engines, when used to propel a vehicle, are not highly efficient. A lot of their energy is wasted generating heat. (One side benefit I like is that the car doesn't heat up my garage when I pull in at night! Feel my hood - it's not hot.) Gasoline-powered automobiles expend additional energy in their complex drive train and in transporting all that steel.
In my Volt, the gasoline engine is not connected to the wheels -- it only generates electricity. The car's only "drive train" is between the electric engine and the two front wheels. There is no transmission, no wasted heat generated, and maybe one oil change every 24 months since the gasoline engine runs so seldom.
In a standard automobile, energy in the form of friction-generated heat is wasted in braking. My Volt has all-wheel disc brakes, but most of the braking is done electronically to generate electricity. For example, when I drove recently from my Golden home to a client atop Lookout Mountain, it took 4.3 kWH off my lithium-ion battery to get there, but by the time I was down the hill again, I had added back over 1 kWH to the car's battery. I used my brakes, of course, but only now and then did my braking cause any wear on the car's brake pads. It's expected that I will go over 100,000 miles without a brake job.
The Volt's electric propulsion system and battery pack are guaranteed by Chevrolet for 8 years or 100,000 miles. The battery itself is actually 288 separate lithium-ion cells which can be individually diagnosed and replaced. Even if I have to spend a couple thousand dollars on repairs after 150,000 miles, I will have saved at least $20,000 in fuel costs by then compared to driving my Lexus hybrid the same distance. This doesn't count the savings in transmission work, brake jobs, oil changes, tune-ups, air filters, etc.
One criticism of the Volt has been that if you use the air conditioning, it reduces your 40-mile range. I haven't observed that, and I drove the car through the entire heat spell from June 11th to present. To put a number on this topic, I left the car "running" for over 90 minutes one hot day with the A/C on and it used under one kilowatt-hour, decreasing my range by about four miles. That kilowatt hour cost me 10 cents. How much gas would your car consume if you were able to leave it idling for an hour? (It probably would overheat.) And how much pollution would you create?
Initially, I figured that I would want to install a 240-volt charging station in my garage, which could fully charge the car in 4 hours instead of the 10 hours it takes on 110 volts, but before I ordered it, I realized that was silly. After all, I'm always home overnight, so what's the rush? Instead, I ordered the 240-volt charging station for my office, so that I can top off my charge when I'm at my desk. After that charging station is installed, I'll burn even less gas than the 8.5 gallons I burned in my first 1,500 miles. My friend Steve Stevens has driven his Volt 2,500 miles and used only 3 gallons of gas.
You're probably curious how my $45,000 "golf cart" performs. (Base price is much lower, but my Volt is "loaded" with many features my Lexus doesn’t have.) You'd be amazed. I can literally peal out if I want, and the "normal" acceleration is superb. It's far better than my Lexus or Rita's Camry, and even better than the Lexus LS 460 which Rita now drives (a full-size V-8 masterpiece). The car's responsiveness to "flooring it" is stunning, since there's no down-shifting delay as in a gas-engine car.
The car is slightly smaller than a Camry, but bigger than a Prius. With its hatch-back and fold-down rear seating, I can carry everything I need to carry in my real estate business, including my 7-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide sign posts and my parrot Flower's large day cage. I can also carry 3 passengers in reasonable comfort. (I like to let them drive!) I thought I was going to keep my Lexus SUV for showing homes in comfort and for its carrying capacity, but I've hardly touched it in the last 6 weeks and now have it for sale. Any takers? It gets 25 miles per gallon, which is impressive when you don't compare it to my Volt's 185-mpg lifetime average.
The possibilities from widespread adoption of this technology are considerable -- and it should be noted that other major manufacturers are only months away from introducing their own EV's (electric vehicles). There is actually an oversupply of lithium-ion batteries right now, waiting for auto makers to catch up. When the Volt was introduced as a concept car in 2007, the lithium-ion batteries didn't yet exist to power it.
Given that 80% of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day, full adoption of this technology could seriously reduce our dependence on foreign and even domestic oil. It would, in turn, reduce the air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions we currently tolerate.
Our state and federal governments want to encourage adoption of the technology. I'm told that next April I can look forward to a $13,000 tax credit -- half on my federal return, half on my state return -- as my reward for purchasing the Volt. (Note, these tax credits expire after a certain number of Volts have sold, so don't wait.) And Chevrolet made my purchase easier by offering 72 months no-interest financing (which requires good credit). I literally have not yet paid a dime for the car, since my first payment isn't until July 27th.
Not to be overlooked, widespread conversion from gas-powered to electric-powered automobiles will exacerbate the underfunding crisis of American highways, since that funding comes almost entirely from the per-gallon tax on gasoline. With my Chevy Volt, I am basically a freeloader -- using our highways without paying to build or maintain them. This is a crisis we already need to deal with, and I'm happy to do my part in forcing legislators and voters to confront it.