With my daily commute, Nissan’s all-electric LEAF car isn’t a good fit for me, but GM’s extended range electric car the Volt isn’t exactly an inexpensive car. Here’s how the economics work out and why a plug-in hybrid car could be a real game changer.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Over the last few months I’ve started thinking about buying a new car. My present car is 7 years old and problems are starting to creep up. New noises appear everyday and my dash lights appear to be failing one after the other. After 120,000 miles, I’m beginning to wonder if its time to get rid of the beast.

Considering my field of interest, I’m thinking its time to get a plug-in or an electric car. I’m thinking a new Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf will go well with our second car, a Toyota Prius. I would have considered the Tesla Roadster, but the lack of a backseat is a showstopper.  And there is that little problem that it has one extra zero in the price, which I’m told is not a typo!

Considering my 70-mile daily commute and my present car’s 25-mpg gas mileage, the change should give me some green cred.

All the planets appear to be lining up. Cars with my favorite technology are coming to the market. There is (up to) $7,500 tax credit from the Feds and $5,000 more from my home state of California when you buy these cars. You have a chance at getting the coveted carpool stickers (which are priceless!). Finally, we just bought a home, so “plugging in” is not an issue anymore.

The Leaf

Considering the $10,000 price differential between the Leaf and the Volt ($32,000 for the Leaf vs. $42,000 for the Volt, before taxes), I started paying more attention to the Leaf. With the two tax credits, this car was beginning to look like something that was highly affordable.

But a quick Google search and 10 minutes later, it was obvious that the Leaf was not going to work for me. When you see reports that you could end up with 47-50 mile range (under certain commute conditions) before you spend the next 8-20 hours charging the battery, you begin to realize that you get what you pay for. With a daily commute of 70 miles in traffic, with some days stretching to 100 miles, I will need to charge at work and, as of today, there appear to be very, very few charging stations available.

I heard this week that, apparently, a typical American takes 8 long trips (greater than 100 miles) a year. Our cars need to have the energy to take us on these trips.  The Leaf will have difficulty in being anything but a second or third car.

Clearly, at least for me, the low range and the long charging time were going to be issues.  Moving on…

The Volt

The Volt gets us away from the issue of range because it is a Plug-in hybrid (PHEV). With the gas engine as a backup waiting for the battery to run out of juice, you can have your cake and eat it too. Be green for the first 35 miles and forget the range anxiety on longer trips.

But at $33,000 for the car ($42,000 base plus CA tax minus the tax credits), this is still one expensive car. The EPA tells us that once you run out of juice, the car is rated as at 37 mpg. So my daily commute of 70 miles would consist of the first 35 miles on the battery and the next 35 miles on gas.

Without nitpicking, I would use 1 gallon of gas a day. This costs me, as of today, $4.

I also need to charge the battery (12.9 kWh) at 12 cents a kWh, which means I will spend an additional $1.55 for the electricity.

Total cost $5.55 per day. Right now I spend $11.20 a day. I will save about $1,400 every year when using the Volt.

My Subaru cost me $21,000 to buy. With this yearly savings I should get cost parity in … around 8-9 years. This does not include any of the time-value-of-money calculations, which would push this out more.

I’m sort of throwing numbers here without seriously checking into them, but suffice to say, it’s not an inexpensive car.

Beyond Economics

But it’s not all about economics, is it? Being green has never been cheap (Although the corollary does not hold. Meaning, if you are cheap, you can actually pass that off as being green!).

The first blog post I made on This Week in Batteries concluded that I could not afford the Volt.  Gas prices were at $3 at that time. At $4 the Volt still not inexpensive, but it’s getting to the point where one can start to think about this.

The future is uncertain (unless you are the Wall street-type and can pretend that drawing a trend line on past data to predict future price is worth $1 million a year in compensation!) and we don’t know where gas prices are headed.  But there are a few things we can conclude.

First, at present-day battery prices and energy densities, EVs don’t make much sense economically.  They are too limiting in range for use as a primary (or even a secondary car). If you get the range up by packing in more batteries it gets more expensive and you lose a bunch of trunk space to fit the batteries. I would say that we need to triple the energy density of batteries and cut the price by a factor of 4 before we can get serious about this (but you can argue with me on this one).

Second, a plug-in hybrid makes a lot of sense, but you will need to pay for the dual power sources. If you can cut the battery costs by a factor of 2 and maintain the tax credits, the concept becomes economical.

I heard that, apparently, gas consumption would reduce by 70-80 percent if we convert all cars to PHEVs. I, for one, would ask if we even need to work on a pure battery electric vehicle. Maybe the focus of all our efforts should be on getting a PHEV on the road at an economical price.

Irrespective of your views of how the world should operate, I think it is important for us to understand whether or not batteries can actually be made any better.  I shall use this as a launching point to talk about a few issues over the next few months including why we all use lithium batteries today, and what I think will happen to battery energy densities over the next few years. I also think its important for us to appreciate what the theoretical limits are in batteries so that we can temper our expectations.

In the meantime, I’m starting to think about test-driving the Volt. But the dealership tells me that I have to put a deposit down to test drive the car. Maybe I’ll pretend to be a journalist working for GigaOm to see if that gets me anywhere!

Venkat Srinivasan is a Staff Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and writes about batteries on his site This Week In Batteries.

Image courtesy of Nissan, GM.

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  1. I think the metrics of the average American commute differ with your perception – or is it a Left Coast problem with distances between work and home. The stats say most folks commute less than 40 miles per day. I don’t know of an EV out there that can’t make one day with ease.

    More subjectively, that’s why my wife has decided that – once there is more choice [like the Ford Focus EV] available – she may finally replace her ancient Volvo. The one with 250,000 miles on it and still only uses 1 gallon per day.

    Her commute round trip is 24 miles. With something capable of just 80 miles, she could forget to plug it in at home twice – and still make it. A bit extra cost is still practical since we’re the sort of car owners who pick carefully and keep a vehicle at least a decade.

  2. Felix Kramer Monday, March 28, 2011

    As a person who’s spent a decade working to put PHEVs on the map, I’m delighted with your headline. I agree and appreciate your way of thinking about all this. As you say, your first take on this is an approximation, and since my family became the first household anywhere to have both a Volt and a Leaf, I’d argue that there’s a case for your going either way. Here are a couple of points, roughly following the sequence of your posting, that argue for one or the other:
    * Looking at the Leaf, why do you have to make that your “first” car. Why can’t the Prius handle all your extended range driving? The Leaf is a great second car for most two-car households.
    * If you use the Leaf, in your case, you will need to charge at work, but that’s becoming available, and with all the resources going into charging stations in the Bay Area, I’d be amazed if Lawrence National Labs wouldn’t be one of the first to make that available to its employees. And you could probably even get away with 8 hours of 120 charging to top off your electric tank.
    * You’re right that the Volt eliminates the range problem. You should be aware for your calculations that the Volt is NOT eligible for the $5,000 state credit: to get this car on the road on schedule, GM had to use a conventional engine that doesn’t meet the highest emission standards.
    * Your assumption you’ll spend 12 cents/kWh for electricity doesn’t allow for the possibility you’ll choose a separate meter for your car and pay about half that for off-peak plug-in charging.
    * When you said “But it’s not all about economics,” I was expecting you to discuss that, but I didn’t see the case for why you might choose the “green feature” to get a car that runs on “cleaner cheaper, domestic” electricity instead of gasoline. We all know that the world and we individually urgently need to get off fossil fuels, and switching to a vehicle that runs on an increasingly low-carbon grid is a good way to do that.

    1. These are excellent points and I thank you for making them. I had thought that only the 2011 Volt had the issue with the tax rebate? And that the 2012 was expected to qualify. Is this not true?

  3. Dr. HelklkkjlabkbjlkjhgkjhgkjhgkjhgjkYou will do much better than 35 miles on your charge unless you drive high speed , in CA you will probably average more like 40-43. You gas mileage on the care will come in closer to 40 (I am getting 42). Check out the gm-volt site and I know you will find LOTS of volt owners happy to give you a free test drive and to find a good dealer who will not ask for a deposit before letting you drive one. The real-world volt is a great car and the owners are finding that it exceeds the promises made by GM.

  4. Michael Thwaite Monday, March 28, 2011

    I run two electric as the first and second cars in our family. I have a ZipCar card in my wallet if I need more. After 38,000 all-electric miles I’d say that you can do it if your commute is more normal than 70 miles each way. You’ll need to choose a Volt or be able to charge at work.

    What you also need to factor in is the upgrade in refinement and all of the time you get back when you loose the maintenance headaches of a traditional car. Sadly, there isn’t a $ value for that but, after recently driving a gas car with all the din from up-front and the herky-jerky transmission I have to say that, if that’s what you need to get more than 100 miles on a charge – it’s a compromise too far for my lifestyle!

    Try the Volt, you’ll forget the extra expense when you drive it off the lot.

  5. Richard Grahman Monday, March 28, 2011

    I think that you will find that the Volt is more than just a PHEV. It is built like a Cadillac (our other car) and is an unbelievable driving experience. We have 2500 miles on our Volt #324 and have used exactly 15 gallons of gasoline. We are retired and no longer commute but we make several trips of over 120 miles each month so many trips use some gasoline.
    This is a car that must be driven to fully appreciate.

  6. Richard Grahman Monday, March 28, 2011

    A follow-up: We installed solar power (a ground installation) three years ago and have not paid for electricity since that time (just a meter fee!). We have had the Volt for three months and have not exceeded our power generation so we are very happy with this set up. We charge the Volt from 2:00 AM until around 6:00AM. It usually only takes 3 1/2 hours to charge on our 220 charger.
    We are saving over $250 per month on gasoline.

  7. You can test drive my Volt all you want here in Santa Monica. But be careful of what you wish for. Most who drive this car have to have it. :)


  8. Venkat, glad to see you here adding your wisdom to a blog that more people will be interested in from a practical perspective!

    There must be something illegal about requiring a deposit to test drive a vehicle… somebody should take them to court.

  9. Reading this from Europe feels like you are far from your goals. Two cars? changing them every 7 years? 70 mile commute?

    1. Venkat Srinivasan Figz Tuesday, March 29, 2011

      :-) This says it all.

  10. I’m a huge fan of the volt, but hate the price, oh well, like you said, “Green isn’t cheap”

    I hear people talk about the leaf, and having it as a second car? WTF, how does this figure in being cheaper than just the volt?

    Chevy should do some serious marketing around that argument, i.e. If you own the leaf, you HAVE TO HAVE A SECOND car. I’m not sure I know any American that doesn’t drive more than 100 miles at least once a year.

    If we can bail out the banks, why can’t I get a 40K volt “loan” to save us from Foreign Oil?

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