Sparking a revolution with plug-in electric vehicles

PLUGGED IN: The Asheville Police Department's plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt charges at Brightfield Transportation Solutions' first solar-powered public charging station at the city's public works building on Charlotte Street.
PLUGGED IN: The Asheville Police Department's plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt charges at Brightfield Transportation Solutions' first solar-powered public charging station at the city's public works building on Charlotte Street. Photo courtesy of Brightfield Transportation Solutions

BY DAVE ERB

It’s not uncommon for Western North Carolina to experience problems with fuel supply. Last year’s Alabama pipeline rupture was just one case in point. Despite sufficient fuel to go around, drivers panicked at the thought of a disruption, and their subsequent run on the pumps emptied storage tanks.

One group, however, remained unfazed: drivers of plug-in electric vehicles. Whether they’re pure battery electrics like the Nissan Leaf or plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt, these vehicles offer WNC many benefits. But first we need to drain a swamp of disinformation.

Whether your preferred news sources are conservative or liberal, much of what you read and hear about plug-in electrics is incorrect at best, dishonest at worst, with more than enough “alternative facts” to go around. Stories in The Washington Post mirror those in The Washington Times. Fox echoes NPR. The public discourse has been hijacked by some very aggressive liars: oil industry shills striving to delay the inevitable and hedge fund managers who’ve shorted Tesla’s stock, among others. They’re aided and abetted by a squawking flock of unwitting parrots.

Despite all the spin about “spoiled rich EV owners,” plug-in electrics are not more expensive than internal combustion vehicles. The average new personal vehicle sells for $34,000. Plenty of new plug-ins sell for less, even before the federal tax credit. Including the tax credit and a Nissan rebate offered through Plug-in NC, a statewide program promoting electric vehicles, several of my friends recently bought brand-new Leafs for $14,000. You can buy gently used, low-mileage plug-in electrics that are still under warranty for well under $10,000. In 15 years, you’ll be able to buy a rusty plug-in with bald tires for $500, just like conventional junkers.

Dave Erb
Dave Erb

Plug-in electric vehicles cost less to operate than conventional cars. At Duke Energy’s standard residential rate, the electricity needed to drive 200,000 miles in a Leaf (which has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 290 watt-hours per mile) would cost $6,150. At $2 a gallon, the gas for a Prius (50 mpg EPA rating) would cost $8,000. And if those savings weren’t enough, grocery stores, malls and other businesses provide free electricity for plug-ins just to attract customers. My favorite is the Steak ’n Shake in Weaverville. You can find all these places nationwide at plugshare.com.

The battery in your Leaf is expected to last 200,000 miles or more; sometime after that, you’ll pay $5,500 (actually $6,500 minus a $1,000 “core refund”) to replace it. At a similar point, your internal combustion vehicle will probably be looking at a comparably expensive engine or transmission overhaul, or both. But just to get that far, even an “affordable” conventional vehicle will need two $800 timing belt replacements and $1,000 worth of oil changes.

Plug-in electrics don’t just replace oil with coal and a longer tailpipe: They significantly reduce total global emissions and energy consumption. And we’re not going to poison ourselves by tossing toxic materials into the landfill: Remember that $1,000 refund for recycling the battery? There’s also no shortage of lithium: One of the world’s major sources is right here in Asheville’s congressional district.

Plug-in vehicles won’t crash the electric grid, either: quite the opposite, in fact. Most charge at night, helping the power company smooth daily swings in demand. And according to an Electric Auto Association survey several years ago, 40 percent of plug-in vehicle buyers own enough solar panels to generate as much electricity as their cars consume, further relieving strain on the grid.

Unless you routinely run out of gas in your present vehicle, you’re not likely to run out of juice in a plug-in. Pure battery electrics show a range countdown on the dash and can be recharged using any standard household electrical socket. Plug-in hybrids can be driven on gas without ever plugging in, if you want.

So, how would plug-ins benefit WNC?

The price of gas is extremely sensitive to changes in supply and demand, which is why it fluctuates so much before and after the summer driving season and when refineries shut down to switch from winter to summer gasoline formulations. Studies conducted over several decades have consistently found that a 5 percent increase in demand or decrease in supply will cause gas prices to double; the converse (a 5 percent increase in supply or decrease in demand) will cut them in half. Every contractor who depends on a 12 mpg pickup for his living should encourage his neighbors to buy plug-in electric vehicles.

Don’t underestimate the impact of such changes. If WNC’s 1.4 million residents consume the U.S. annual average of 400 gallons per capita, it means our region buys 560 million gallons of gasoline each year. Thus, even small reductions in gas prices keep hundreds of millions of hard-earned dollars in mountain pockets.

Furthermore, North Carolina has no oil refineries and only the slightest traces of oil deposits. Almost all the money spent on gas leaves the region, most leaves the state, and a large fraction leaves the country entirely. In contrast, regardless of your feelings about the power company, most of your electric bill stays close to home.

There are also business opportunities that are well-suited to WNC’s small-business culture. Brightfield Transportation Solutions, an Asheville startup, installs solar-powered public charging stations in multiple states. They won’t be the only creative entrepreneurs who’ll benefit when more folks buy plug-in electrics.

Most important of all, WNC communities have a long, proud history of loyal military service. Petrodollars fund ISIS, al-Qaida and others who hate us. We can cut off their cash flow by driving on American electrons. Plug-in electric vehicles are the most powerful weapons we have to bring our patriotic sons and daughters home from the Middle East, alive and unharmed, once and for all.

Transportation’s future is accessible today. We can travel the electric vehicle road of our own free will: Neither OPEC nor Big Oil has veto power. If you’re hesitant to go, you’re welcome to wait; it’s a free country. But if you’re one of those folks who reflexively shout down plug-in electrics, despite having no actual experience with them, please turn up your hearing aid and merge right. You’re blocking the fast lane.

In 36 years as an automotive engineer, Dave Erb has developed vehicles using gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, alcohol, natural gas, electric and (since 1986) hybrid electric powertrains. He teaches mechatronics engineering at UNC Asheville. For contact information, visit engineering.unca.edu.

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14 thoughts on “Sparking a revolution with plug-in electric vehicles

  1. bsummers

    “They’re aided and abetted by a squawking flock of unwitting parrots.”

    3… 2… 1…

  2. Boone Guyton

    Nice article. Disclaimer I am a Leaf driver and like it. I got a 2012 for under $10k and have a 12 mile commute each way to Asheville. Does fine though I do look forward to an elec car with a few more miles of range. I charge mine via a 2.5kw solar array and that covers most of my miles.

  3. Grant Millin

    The inability of folks to answer this question is surprising:

    Is Asheville a strategic location for one of North Carolina’s first hydrogen fueling stations supporting on-road fuel cell electric vehicles?

  4. Pana Columbus

    Just purchased a 2015 Nissan Leaf and am loving it!!! It’s exhilarating driving past gas stations! Everyday I read on the news another reason to transition of of fossil fuels. Feel grateful and joyful to take a step in that direction.

  5. The Real World

    I think you will find ALOT of people willing to switch to electric cars when the prices come down $8,000 to 10, 000 and they can achieve a range of 200+ miles on a single charge.

    The current scenario just isn’t competitive yet.

    • luther blissett

      The “city car” is an easier sell in denser countries with shorter commutes, where if you drive 200 miles you’re in another country.

      It’s the same psychology that leads people to buy an SUV or a pickup “to haul stuff” even though 95% of the time they won’t haul stuff. The pragmatic choice might be to go smaller, accept the limitations, and rent a bigger vehicle when needed with the money saved on gas, but the convenience (and not having to worry about scratches) typically wins out. There’ll be a tipping point for range and price, and I hope there’s an upgrade path for existing owners when the time comes to swap out the battery.

      “Plug-in vehicles won’t crash the electric grid, either: quite the opposite, in fact. Most charge at night, helping the power company smooth daily swings in demand.”

      That’s more contentious in WNC right now, given the grid impact of new-install heat pumps that draw on backup strip power on colder nights. But the path forward there is probably domestic solar and batteries.

      • bsummers

        Couple of encouraging related stories. Bloomberg says that non-subsidized wind and solar is now competitive:

        “After years of being supported by subsidies, prices have plunged so much that renewables can compete with fossil fuels.”
        https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-28/trump-s-order-on-emissions-to-have-little-impact-on-clean-energy

        And Westinghouse, the driving force pushing nuclear power for the past half-century, is declaring bankruptcy:

        “The filing comes as the company’s corporate parent, Toshiba of Japan, scrambles to stanch huge losses stemming from Westinghouse’s troubled nuclear construction projects in the American South.”
        https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/business/westinghouse-toshiba-nuclear-bankruptcy.html?_r=0

        “the American South”. That’s us. Westinghouse was the prime contractor for Duke’s proposed Gaffney plant, just southeast of us. Duke was signalling trouble for those plans even before Westinghouse went belly up. Look for Duke to shift even more of their production plans towards wind and solar over the next few years.

      • Alan Ditmore

        If they would cut a bigger break on low mileage 2nd vehicle insurance and registration, then more people could own an old truck themselves to drive only when needed. Perhaps more like farm plates.

  6. Alan Ditmore

    Junkyards are greener than hybrids and no neighborhood can ever be green without a junkyard within walking distance, especially Montford and Beaverdam. Greenies have one for bicycles, the Recyclery, but not for scooters or hybrids. Newfangled technology is no excuse to ignore the 2nd R, reuse, and aggravate the throwaway society by scrapping thing before they wear out like the polluting Cash for Clunkers did.
    I believe I drive the greenest car available in America, that being the 3 cylinder, 1 liter Geo/Chevy/Suzuki Metro, which has a smaller internal combustion engine than any hybrid I know of. I will not accept hybrids as being a mature technology until they make them with internal combustion engines less powerful than mine, which at 213 K miles probably produces around 45 hp. At least 3/4 of the power should come from the electric motor in a hybrid, which is needed for hard regenerative braking.
    Teslas are too upscale. I do respect the Nissan Leaf for big cities, but not here, and they need to make a bike-rack generator for it for long trips. Can they design one that preserves hatchback function? Perhaps by mounting to a receiver hitch?

  7. Alan Ditmore

    Contraception is greener than either hybrids or junkyards by a mile.

  8. Alan Ditmore

    Also, no hybrid or electric cars are locally made, but plenty of older cars are locally repaired, making repair jobs local jobs, especially with used parts.

  9. Robin S

    I like the idea of an all electric car but until the range improves (I like to take road trips). I’ll stick to my Chevy Malibu Hybrid that I average 45 mpg.

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