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July 24, 2012

How I Chose Which Plug-In Car to Buy

Electriccar--reshapedI'm pleased to say that I finally bought a plug-in car! As the lead electric vehicle (EV) advocate on staff at the Sierra Club and as someone who cares deeply about the need for our country and my family to slash emissions and dependence on oil, I was giving serious thought to switching to an EV. I was definitely feeling guilty about driving a gas-guzzler. Sure, a lot of my trips were by foot, bus, or train. But there were many car trips too, and they were dirty ones.

Maybe you're in the same position I was in a few months ago. You want to switch from a gas guzzler or even a hybrid gas sipper, and you're intrigued by all the new plug-in vehicles on the market.

Which one should you buy? There are a lot of appealing options. After studying this issue thoroughly, I'll tell you that the ideal plug-in vehicle is different for each person and depends on a lot of factors.

How many miles do you drive your car each day? The majority of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day. The Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, and Honda Fit EV go 70-100 miles on a full charge. The Mitsubishi iMiEV goes 60+ miles. The Tesla Model S can drive about 265 miles. Certain factors such as heat, air conditioning, and hills may reduce these distances, so give yourself some wiggle room.

If you need to drive further than these distances on rare occasion, purchasing an all-electric while renting or car-sharing a gas-powered car (ideally a hybrid) may be a good option. If you take frequent long trips and rely on one car, a plug-in hybrid like the plug-in Prius (electric range of 11-14 miles) or an extended range EV like the Chevy Volt (electric range at about 35 miles) might be the best choice, given the back-up gas engine.

How many vehicles in the household? If you have more than one vehicle in your household, one of those vehicles is gas-powered, and your typical daily driving is 70 miles or less, then purchasing an all-electric may be the best choice -- and you can rely on the gas-powered vehicle for longer trips.

Want to slash oil dependence?  Devastating oil spills, the disturbing influence of Big Oil on our political system, the fact that the U.S. expenditures on foreign oil equal half the federal deficit, the extent the U.S. military will go to protect oil interests, and the alarmingly high amounts of carbon we send into the air from burning oil are just a few examples of the need to move beyond oil. In fact, a recent report by Environment America shows us that the U.S. can save 2,634,747 barrels of oil in 2015 if just 469,000 plug-ins are sold by that year (many think this is more than achievable). All-electric plug-in vehicles rely on no oil, and plug-in hybrids rely on very little.

Concerned about emissions? We all should be. The cars and light trucks on the road today account for about 20 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. When it comes to reducing emissions from driving, switching to a plug-in can make a big difference. Driving on electricity generates zero tailpipe emissions. In most parts of the country, the average greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity used to charge plug-in vehicles are significantly lower than those from extracting, transporting, and burning gasoline for conventional cars, especially given the increasingly dirty oil coming from the Canadian tar sands. Of course, charging using solar power is the cleanest way to go. For those without solar, emissions from electricity use will vary by the grid sources in your area (though most grids are getting cleaner each year). The Union of Concerned Scientists recently came out with a report on the places that are "good, better, and best" for using electricity to charge EVs.

As I reported when I blogged about test-driving the Chevy Volt  last fall, emissions from electricity to charge plug-ins will also depend on city versus highway driving. I recommend you visit the Department of Energy's calculator, where you can plug in which vehicle you're considering, where you live, and what your driving patterns are -- and it will help you determine estimated emissions.

Where and how will you charge? If you buy an all-electric car, you will probably need to rely on a "level two" charger that you will need to purchase and have installed for $1,000 to $2,500 and that will take 3-8 hours for a full charge. For the Volt and plug-in hybrids, a regular 110 outlet should suffice. If you have your own garage or driveway, this will likely not be difficult.  Most EV drivers charge at home overnight. For condo or apartment dwellers with either no dedicated parking spot or a multi-car garage, finding a way to charge may be possible, but more challenging.

A growing number of people are also charging their EVs at work and at public locations. There are more public chargers on the West Coast, but many public chargers are popping up nationwide.

How much can you afford? Of course, price is a factor for most consumers. However, with a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 and many state tax credits too, most EVs are in the $20,000s and $30,000s, which is affordable for many. Additionally, fueling your car with electricity is about five times cheaper than fueling with gasoline. With much lower anticipated repair costs too (fewer moving parts), EVs are significantly less expensive to fuel and maintain.

So which did I choose? My husband and I usually drive 10 miles or less a day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, carting around ourselves and our two daughters. However, we frequently take weekend trips of 200 miles or more visiting family throughout New England (where there are currently a small number of public chargers). In fact, the majority of our car trips and driving days are local, but the majority of our driving miles are long-distance on the highway. Except for a brief period right now (long story) we are a one car family.  All these factors actually added up to a pretty clear choice for us of the plug-in Prius (the lowest in oil use and emissions, given our lifestyle patterns). For you, the choice may well be another plug-in.

In an upcoming blog post, I'll describe our experience with this extraordinary new car.

-- Gina Coplon-Newfield, Sierra Club's Director of Green Fleets & Electric Vehicles Initiative

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