Drive For Free

The Best Electric Car For Your Money

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted October 27, 2011 at 1:51PM

The premise of this article is that every American household with a place to plug in an electric vehicle (EV), and a place to put in solar photovoltaic system (PV), should get that EV and that PV, because then you drive for free and thereby save over $60,000.  This opportunity might apply to 100 million of America=s 256 million vehicles.  In addition to saving a great deal of money, you’ll be supporting the American economy, reducing global warming, and improving health, and even helping to bring peace to the world.  Yes, dare to think big.

According to the EPA, Americans drive an average of 12,000 miles a year, or 33 miles a day.  The average vehicle in the US gets about 22.5 mpg: that means the average car uses about 533 gallons of gasoline every year.  The average cost of a gallon of gas this year is $3.83, and so this year the average American will spend $2043 on fuel. (Yet, it’s been reliably estimated that the true cost of gas is about $15.00, not even including the dollars and blood we spend to try to ensure a supply of oil).  We know the cost of gas is only going to go up, and with “peak oil” a certainly in the coming years, it will likely go up astronomically: there is declining production and in the last survey year 30 billion barrels were pumped but only 5 billion new barrels were identified).  For the sake of argument we’ll be ridiculously conservative and simply use current figures as our basis for demonstrating savings  --  but remember, as gas prices increase, the comparative savings increase.

First, a word about the stuff in gasoline-powered cars.  While you may not think of it this way, hundreds of pieces of metal are struggling to grind each other into dust as they deal with friction and toxic gases at thousands of degrees, work to keep hot fluids under pressure, and try to contain the energy and propel the vehicle.  There are myriad shafts, gears, bearings, bushings, and rings, critically-machined designs with thousandths-of-an-inch clearances, and it is not surprising when something goes wrong.  The Automobile Association of America estimates that maintenance costs (ex: tune ups, oil changes, brakes, etc.: not including tires) is $.045/miles, or about $540 per year.  And this is not to mention catastrophic failures: have you ever had to replace a transmission?  So, the average American spends a total of about $2500 a year for the car and feeding of a gas-powered car.  

    Let’s contrast this with an EV.  The motor is the only moving part, and it turns on a couple of unstressed life-time bearings: aside from tires and windshield wipers, it may never need maintenance.  It is quieter (no engine or exhaust), smoother (no transmission), handles better (low centralized mass), is sporty (has immediate pedal response and makes its own energy when slowing), and because the brakes are only lightly used they may last forever.  No, an EV can’t handle all the trips you will ever take: but if you have two cars, think about how unlikely it is that you’ll need to go more than 100 miles in both cars at the same time.  If you don’t have a second car for long-distance occasions, then you can get a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt which will be 100% electric for the very great majority of all your trips.

    How much electricity does an EV need?  The first mass-produced EV is the Nissan Leaf (I say this with sincere apologies to Tesla, which has sold 1500 Roadsters since 2008, but Nissan is selling about 25,000 Leafs this year).  The Leaf received a government mileage rating of 2.9 miles per kilowatt-hour.  (A kilowatt-hour (KWh) is the electrical “energy” unit: 1 KWh is the amount of electricity energy needed to light ten conventional 100 watt light bulbs for one hour, and an EV batteries pack is rated in KWh.  A kilowatt (KW) is the electrical “power” unit: 1 KW is about 1.3 horsepower, and an EV motor is rated in KW.)  From my experience, the government rating seems quite conservative, as I drive my Leaf hard and yet I’m averaging about 4 miles/KWh (but fast highway travel does bring it down, and there is a small amount of loss from the plug to the battery).  However, to stay on script, we’ll use the government figure, which means that to go 12,000 miles you need about 4000KWH annually.  

    There are several ways of calculating the cost of 4000KWh.  (And, in the first place, it’s even an assumption that you will be paying for all of that electricity: there are more and more businesses and commercial locations where you can charge the car for free.)  But assuming you do pay for charging, you have three options, from the really great to the unbelievably great: you can charge the EV on your existing electricity rate plan; you can change your rate plan; or you can have PV installed (along with a change in your rate plan).  Here a quick breakdown of each.

    If you pay for the electricity without changing your rate plan then electricity to charge your EV is likely to cost between $.10/KWh and $.40/KWh: there are a number of variables, including where you live, how much electricity you already use, the time of year, etc.  For instance, in California the likely cost might be about $.30/KWh (this figure is likely to be lower elsewhere).  For 4000KWh, this means an annual cost of about $1200 to charge your EV  --  a tidy savings of about 50% off the fuel and maintenance cost of a gas car.  Wow.

    But wait, it gets even better.  If you pay for electricity and have the option to change to a “time of use” (TOU) rate plan, you save more.  With TOU, you pay more for electricity when it is expensive, which is mostly during daytime when many people are not home, and less at night  --  which is when you will be charging your EV.  In a study, 75% of all Californians were found to have about a 10% savings with TOU: but, more importantly, TOU electrical rates during the “off peak” hours of midnight to 7am are only about $.06/KWh, and this is when the EV is timer-set to charge.  Therefore, if you have a TOU option, charging your EV may only cost about $250.  This is a huge savings of about 90% off the fuel and maintenance cost of a gas car.  Wow wow: how can you top that?

    You top that by paying absolutely nothing, when you have PV installed and put the TOU plan into effect.  The lone issue with installing a PV system is whether you having sufficient sunny exposure on your home or property.  And, PV obviously makes terrific sense for replacing the purchase of some or all of your utility electricity as well  --  which is why millions of people around the world have already installed PV (more on that later).

    To generate 4000KWh a year requires a PV system that can be expected to have a final cost (i.e., after rebates/tax credits) of about $12,000.  This estimate is based on a typical final cost of about $5.00/watt for an installed residential PV system, and reasonably estimating that about a 2500 watt system is needed to generate about 4000KWh/year (also: installing PV substantially increases home value, yet property taxes cannot be raised for PV).  As in all things, good shopping can yield better deals: my San Francisco PV system was installed for $3.84/watt.  Moreover, PV system costs are getting ever-cheaper, and this trend is forecast to continue.

    Now, PV necessarily generates its electricity during daytime, when under a TOU plan the value of the electricity is either peak (about $.30/KWh) or partial peak (about $.10/KWh).  Using a peak and partial-peak average of $.20/KWh, the annual generated value of 4000KWh is about $800.  With TOU, using that same amount of “banked” electricity at night to charge your EV only costs you about $250.  The remaining $550-worth of electricity that you generated goes toward paying back the cost of your PV system (you actually take the savings by offsetting some of your home electrical bill).  PV panels are guaranteed for 25 years (they will likely last even longer, albeit with some reduction in efficiency), and so the system completely pays for itself!  The net result?  You’ve been driving 25 years absolutely for free, not paying a penny for any fuel.  The savings?  $2500/year not spent on the care and feeding of a gas car, for at least 25 years: about $62,500.  

    Granted, gas cars will, of necessity, get more efficient, and therefore the comparative savings (at today’s gas prices) will seem to shrink.  Yet, on the other hand, the cost of these fancy-pants gasoline cars, with their 9-speed dual-clutch, million-moving-parts transmissions and their turbocharged, high-pressure direct-injection systems and their weight-shaving exotic material parts, will only go up  --  and remember: the cost of gas will be going up up up.  By contrast, the value, range, performance, and abilities of all EVs will only improve (still, there’s an advantage in being an early-adopter: with incentives, the net cost of my very nice Nissan Leaf was only $22,000).  

    At the beginning of the article I mentioned not only saving money, also supporting the American economy, reducing global warming, and improving health, and even helping to bring peace to the world.  I’ll start with the last of these subjects (if controversial to some, let’s take it head-on).  Here’s the thing: I hate terrorists.  Big deal, you may think: you hate terrorists, too.  Yes, but I’m doing something about it  --  I’m cutting off the terrorists at their knees by cutting off their financial support.  The majority of the terrorism in the world today is wrought by Islamic extremists who are ultimately funded by oil-selling Muslims (to quote the ironic bumper sticker: “What’s our oil doing under their sand?”).  To be clear, not all oil-selling Muslims support Islamic extremists: but those who do are doing it with your patriotic, terrorist-hating dollars.  But not with mine.  Make the world more peaceful by defunding terrorists.  EV+PV = no jihadi.

    PV and EV help our economy in so many ways.  You can install American-made PV panels, mounted on American-made racking systems, connected to American-made inverters, all of it installed by American workers.  Renewable energy is the fastest-growing source of domestic employment.  Also, American manufacturers are all developing EVs, and the main Nissan EV manufacturing facility is in Smyrna, Tennessee.  I take pride in knowing that I have employed my fellow Americans.  Further, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on oil each year, and the export of all that money weakens the value of the dollar.  Lastly, and again let’s be real about this, we have spent trillions of dollars fighting multiple wars halfway around the world because that’s where the oil is.  EV+PV = better economy.

    As to health and global warming, the benefits are obvious.  Gasoline is a terrible toxin, poisoning our water, our air, and our bodies.  The estimated health cost attributed to fossil fuel pollution is $120 billion annually.  PV+EV = healthier me.  Finally, global warming is of course caused in largest part by carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels: in only a couple of hundred years, burning fossil fuels has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by nearly half!  --  and our carbon dioxide pollution is increasing faster than ever (and our planet’s population of 7 billion humans has added the last 5 billion within the past century and has ever-more acquisitive people).  Observation: if we do not quickly evolve from a scavenger species to an intelligent species that can engineer for sustainability, we’ll use up the earth’s resources until we’ve gnawed the bark off the last tree.  Finally, to bring this home as objectively as possible: the cost of global warming is estimated to be $2 trillion annually.  Replacing just one gas vehicle with an EV running on PV will prevent over 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution a year.  If 100 million vehicles took advantage of this, it would reduce America’s carbon dioxide production by a whopping 1 trillion pounds  --  nearly 10% of our CO2 pollution. EV+PV = survivability.

    Tidbits:  Products coming to market will let the EV charge from an induction mat lying under the vehicle, so the driver will never need to ever again touch anything to fuel the car.  Products coming to market will let your EV run your home electrical system for a few days: much cheaper and better than buying a generator.  There are thousands of charging stations being installed and doubtless hundreds of thousands to come.  We are starting to install fast chargers that allow EVs to charge in less than half an hour (and there is a new patent for a product that purports to be able to charge EVs in 5 minutes).  With far more competitors in the field, much greater manufacturing volume, and considerable attention to research and development, batteries are seeing dramatic improvements in cost, performance, and lifespan, and all signs indicate that batteries will continue to dramatically improve.  EVs can be as fast as any vehicle, and motors are more efficient as they grow more powerful.  If you think about it, for EVs this is like the era of the Ford Model T one hundred years ago: we are at the leading edge of huge technological advances.

    An important concluding note about residential PV: logically, when installing PV to offset EV electrical use, one would also install additional PV to offset expensive home electricity use.  Think of it as locking in your electricity cost at about $.12 per KWh for the next 25 years, and really much much less when you consider the positive implications of Time Of Use metering.  It is absolutely certain that the cost of utility electricity, typically higher than $.12 per KWh now, will be significantly higher in the years to come: for example, in California the cost of electricity is projected to increase an average rate of about 7% annually (at an annual increase of 7%, in 25 years the rate will be over 500% higher!).  Generally, residential PV pays for itself in electricity cost savings in about 10 years  --  this really means about the same thing as this article proves regarding PV for fueling an EV, but without getting too involved in the calculation of the annual increased cost of electricity.  Also, residential PV can be obtained through a lease arrangement that does not require the homeowner to spend any money at all: in net effect, the installer pays for the system and simply charges you less for the (clean) electricity then the utility would charge you for (dirty) electricity.  No matter how you look at it, this is a good deal  --  obviously, this is why people install solar, regardless of whether they were considering EVs.  And as we’ve seen, with an EV, you drive for free.  In fact, I undersold the whole thing: it’s really, EV+PV = a win-win-win-win-win epiphany.  But that’s a clumsy headline; “free” gets right to it, don’t you think?


** Jason Jungreis is a San Francisco clean technology attorney.  You can read the original version of this article here. And you can read more about Jason here. **