When in Doubt, Doubt

By Bill Moore

Posted: 08 Oct 2010

The venerable old "Gray Lady," otherwise known as the New York Times, is running a feature entitled, "Will Electric Cars Finally Succeed?" The subtitle reads, "Are plug-in cars the future, or will high cost and other technologies eclipse their promise?" They asked six specialists to comment: Jamie Kitman with Automobile Magazine; Maryann Keller, an auto industry analyst; Chris Knittel, an economist for UC Davis; Peter De Lorenzo with AutoExtremist; Mike Smitka, another economist with Washington and Lee University; and Peter van Doren from the Cato Institute. Presumably these six were selected for their unbiased views.

However, as a whole, virtually all remain skeptical about the fate of electric cars for various reasons: the low price of gasoline in America probably the chief excuse. Their reasoning, which has some validity, is that until the price of fuel in the United States is comparable to that in most of the rest of the developed world, there's little incentive for U.S. car buyers to switch to electric. That's certainly a conclusion I could buy, as long as we assume Americans don't care about their jobs, national security, international trade imbalance, loss of global technology leadership, the environment, or the health of their children.

Here's a quick summary of each "contributor's" opinion:

Kitman: "Nissan LEAF is a game changer"

Keller: "Electric vehicles are impractical novelties in the U.S."

Knittel: "Subsidies better spent on more research."

De Lorenzo: "Price of gasoline in U.S. will thwart adoption of electric cars"

Smitka: "Electric, plug-in hybrids will fill limited niche."

van Doren: "Electric cars no more efficient than a 38 mpg gasoline model."

Now to be fair, I don't know any of these people. I've never met them. We've never corresponded and they probably don't read EV World. But more importantly, I haven't any idea whether or not any of them have spent any appreciable time in the driver's seat of an electric or plug-in hybrid car. My sense is that maybe with the exception of Jamie Kitman, the most upbeat of the bunch, the rest are simply speaking from theory, not experience. If any of you ladies and gentlemen read this, please feel free to correct me.

Well, I can speak from experience. Exactly one year ago, Kim Adelman and Mike Dribble converted our restored 2009 Prius to a plug-in hybrid, which we licensed here in our state under the vanity plate LIVN GRN, in part because the car is painted green and to reflect the view that it is indirectly powered by renewable energy: wind principally, through an extra $15 a month we pay to our local utility, OPPD.

After 12 months of operation through one of the coldest, snowiest winters we can recall, and an uncomfortably hot August, both of which impacted the amount of gasoline we consumed, I can report that in terms of the gasoline we purchased for the car over this period, we averaged 70.5 mpg. Measuring the amount of electric power we also consumed is a bit more difficult since we don't have a separate meter for the car. (Len Beck has generously ordered us a device so that I can now track actual power consumed when recharging the car). But my best questimate is that Judy uses about 260 watts hours of energy per mile on her daily 11 mile commute. Using that as my reference number, we would have consumed over the last year about 1.3MWh of power or around $87.23 worth of electricity at local residential power rates. We also spent $194.24 on gasoline over that period, for a total of $281.47 (electricity estimated) in fuel costs.

To give this some perspective, it would have cost us $321.31 to drive the same 5,164 miles as a normal Prius hybrid at 45 mpg on $2.80 gasoline. In our old Honda Accord, at around 27 mpg average in the city, we would have spent $535 on petroleum, more than half of which would have come from outside the United States, further exasperbating our international imbalance of trade, lost jobs and national security concerns. Compared to a normal hybrid, and I suspect our actual average would have been lower than 45 mpg, we didn't save all that much: about $40. Compared to the non-hybrid, it was more than $250.

But more importantly, we reduced our annual gasoline consumption for the Prius by 45 gallons, and compared to the old Accord by 118 gallons. We substituted locally-generated electric power, which in our corner of the Great Plains is about 65% coal with the rest nuclear, hydro, natural gas/methane and a small fraction of renewable. But because we also buy approximately 230kWh of renewable energy credits per month through our power company, we are effectively offsetting with green energy more than what we consume on a monthly basis to recharge the car.

I suppose we can argue that at $40 or even $250 annually, it will take a long time to recoup the investment in upgrading the Prius to the equivalent of a PHEV20 if you're strictly concerned about the economics of the issue. But the issue of our over-dependence on petroleum is larger than just our personal family budget, which some of the people commenting on the NY Times feature point out with more clarity and eloquence than I. My favorite is by "leptoquark" from Washington, D.C. in commenting on Mr. De Lorenzo's "Range Anxiety Remains."

The argument that "Gas is cheap, so why worry?" always amuses me. It was interesting to think about on the last price spike, and will no doubt be lamented on the next one. Having been through several spikes, as I'm sure Mr. De Lorenzo has, I've become tired of being played for a fool. After I get my Leaf, my mantra will be "I drive electric, so why worry?"

LIVN GRN lets us worry a lot less, and its only first generation. But, if you're an guest commentator of the New York Times on the topic of electric cars, your email signature apparently must read, "When in Doubt, Doubt."

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