Pros and cons of owning an electric vehicle

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Should I buy an electric car? This question has been on my mind for the last year or so, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned about the many pros and cons of owning an electric vehicle (EV).

Let me first acknowledge that buying a car is a highly personal choice, a complex decision involving numerous factors including style, utility, performance, cost, safety, etc. Everyone has different preferences, leading to a nearly endless variety of choices.

These choices now include electric vehicles, which are available in all possible styles, from affordable hatchbacks to luxury SUVs, from sports cars to pickup trucks. While I would love to engage in a lively discussion on all these factors, I will focus on two key issues: What are the environmental benefits, and what is the cost of ownership, compared to conventional gas-powered cars?

Let’s start with the environmental benefits. Driving an EV means switching from gasoline to electricity. Gasoline comes from petroleum, and burning it in a car engine results in carbon emissions as well as other pollutants that contribute to poor air quality. EVs are essentially pollution-free at the car, but utility electricity comes from a mixture of fossil-fuel, nuclear, and renewable energy power plants; the electric utility is not free from environmental impact. How do we compare the two?

As an energy engineer trained in this sort of analysis, I decided to perform my own calculations. For comparison, I chose two small SUVs offered by Chevy—the gas-powered Trax, and the electric-powered Bolt EUV. The Trax gets an average of about 28 miles per gallon of gasoline, which I think everyone understands is pretty good for a gas car. The Bolt EUV has a rating of 29 kWh of electricity per one hundred miles, which I know doesn’t mean anything to anybody.

I calculated the amount of gasoline, and electricity, required to drive 15,000 miles in a year. (536 gallons and 4,350 kWh respectively.) The carbon emissions from gasoline are a straight chemical conversion—20 lbs CO2 per 1 gallon of gasoline— but what are the carbon emissions associated with utility power?

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Energy carefully tracks the emissions of all utility power generation in the country, and annually publishes a report of the emissions by utility, state, and region. The power grid is not the same across the country. In fact, the utility grid in the Northeast is among the cleanest, lowest-carbon grids in the nation, due to a high percentage of nuclear power, very little coal power, and an increasing, though still very small, portion of renewable energy. For comparison, utility power in New England generates 533 pounds of CO2 per 1000 kWh of electricity, while utility power in Indiana generates nearly three times more.

The result of my calculation is that driving a Chevy Bolt EUV in New England will save about 80 percent on your carbon emissions compared to driving a similar gasoline powered vehicle—a savings of over four tons of CO2 per year. This savings drops to 40 percent in Indiana. The percentage savings of smog and asthma-causing air pollutants is on a similar scale.

It’s worth noting that many people are concerned about the environmental impact of manufacturing the lithium-ion batteries at the heart of EVs. I share this concern. But a true comparison of gas and electric vehicles also needs to account for the impact of the petroleum industry. I don’t have the time, or quite frankly the knowledge, yet, to tackle this topic here.

Now what about the cost of electricity versus gasoline, especially considering the massive 50 percent increase that Eversource just announced? Using the same comparison of small SUVs above, a gas price of $3.25 per gallon, and today’s (unbelievable) electric price of 34 cents per kWh, I calculated that 15,000 miles of driving would cost $1,741 in gasoline versus $1,479 in electricity, a savings of 15 percent. When the electric rate comes back down to a normal rate of 22 cents per kWh (and it will in July, mark my words), the savings increases to 45 percent, or $784 per year. When you add reduced cost of maintenance—no more oil changes, it is clear that EVs are less expensive to operate.

This reduced cost of ownership is offset, however, by higher sticker prices on the EV windows. Lucky for us, both the federal and Connecticut governments have credits designed to make EVs more affordable. The federal tax credit is up to $7,500, depending upon vehicle and personal income level. The state rebate is up to $4,250 ($2,250 for the Chevy Bolt EUV). These incentives can make EVs equal to, or even less than, the cost of an equivalent gas model.

As I said early, there are many other considerations, not the least of which is charging, both at home and on the road. If you’re interested in more information on all topics EV, I recommend starting at the EVConnecticut website, which I found to be very helpful.

And now for my decision. Well, it turns out I don’t actually need a new car; I bought a hybrid last year, and love it. But I’m nearly convinced that my next car will be an EV. For me, they seem like the more affordable, responsible and, quite frankly, fun option.

Editor’s Note: Kent McCord is a member of the Granby Conservation Commission and a Certified Energy Manager