Finally, the electric car

Published Tuesday, April 1, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for electric vehicles for a long time.  Thankfully, our wait is over: the past few years have seen a flurry of developments, and the electric car has arrived.  Here’s a quick overview of the latest technology, the benefits and the challenges.

Types and models

There are two types of electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs).  

PHEVs are powered by a battery, but also have a small gasoline engine that will automatically charge the battery when it runs low.  (In some models, the engine also powers the wheels directly.)  Perhaps the best known PHEV is the Chevrolet Volt, but others include the Toyota Prius Plug-in, Ford Fusion Energi, Ford C-Max Energi and Cadillac ELR.

PHEVs don’t absolutely need to be plugged in to operate – they can be charged on-the-go by their engine.  However, the best fuel economy and greatest range are achieved when they are plugged in.  

BEVs are powered entirely by batteries and must be charged regularly from the power grid.  Because their battery is their only power source, they tend to have shorter ranges between charges. BEV models presently available include the Ford Focus Electric, Mitsubishi I-MiEV, Nissan Leaf, Smart ForTwo Electric and Tesla S.

Many more models are under development by virtually every major car company. 

Benefits

For owners, the biggest benefits of PHEVs and BEVs are enormous fuel savings – at least two-thirds and perhaps even more, depending on the vehicle and how you drive it.  For example, according to Natural Resources Canada’s EnerGuide ratings, the annual fuel cost for a conventional Ford Focus is about $1700; for the electric (BEV) version, it’s just $384, or about 2 cents per kilometer.

BEVs offer the biggest savings because they run exclusively on electricity.  For PHEVs, the more the battery is charged from the power grid, the better the savings.  

As well, operating costs are lower because oil changes and tune ups aren’t needed.  And there are more benefits: a quiet ride; the convenience of fewer (or no) trips to the gas station; and less susceptibility to changing gas prices.

For the environment, the biggest benefit of PHEVs and BEVs is greatly reduced emissions.  Electric cars do take more energy to manufacture, but that is offset many times over by their efficient operation.  They do run on electricity, but electricity is typically far less emission-intensive than gasoline.

Challenges

Electric vehicles are not for everyone; some barriers still stand in the way of widespread adoption.

First, there’s the range they can travel between fuel-ups.  That’s not so much an issue for PHEVs, which can travel over 500 kilometers between fuel stops.  However, it is an issue for BEVs, which can only go 100-150 kilometers between charges.  Improved battery technology is expected to boost that. 

Secondly, NB’s network of public charging stations is thin; a map on the CAA’s website indicates we have just 18.  However, that number is growing steadily, and apps and websites will help us find them.  Also, in a pinch, electric vehicles can be charged from any conventional outlet; it just takes a bit longer.

Finally, the higher cost of buying PHEVs and BEVs and installing home charging stations can be intimidating.  However, most of the extra upfront costs are offset by far lower lifetime operating costs.  Ontario and Quebec offer incentives of $8000 or more; no such luck here, at least not yet.  

The bottom line

Personal transportation makes up a large part of the typical Canadian’s carbon footprint.  If you enjoy being an early adopter and you’re looking to do the right thing, you’ve got to be excited by today’s plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs).