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.
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.