If you are someone who watches your dollars and cents, you probably don’t own a plug-in hybrid. Sure, they deliver good gas mileage but it’s not good enough to offset the higher sticker price needed to cover the costs of the battery. (That’s why I own a Honda Fit.) Cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are expensive ways to say, "I’m green."
Electric cars are another story, and that’s why the arrival of the Nissan Leaf (left) and the Chevy Volt (below) in just a few months could become a watershed moment for the auto industry, as well as for the environmental movement. Unlike the Prius, the Leaf and Volt are not aimed at the early-adopter, eco-conscious, well-to-do niche buyers on the coasts and in places like Amherst, Mass., and Ann Arbor, Mich. They are being built for the mass market.
The economics make all the difference.
That, at least, is my takeaway from a discussion about electric cars held at a Washington Post Live event called Energy Now. (Video will be posted on the site, the newspaper says.) The panel was stacked with electric-car enthusiasts — Tony Posawatz from Chevy, Carlos Tavares of Nissan, David Crane of NRG Energy, David Vieau of battery-maker A123 Systems and a lone skeptic, Alan Crane of the National Research Council. But with the exception of Alan Crane, they all argued that electric cars will be not only fun to drive, not only convenient (because you don’t need to drive to a gas station to refuel) and not only good for the climate and for U.S. energy security, but also cheaper to own over the life of the car.
That’s essentially because (1) electric car engines are more efficient than internal-combustion engines and (2) generating electricity from a big coal, natural gas or nuclear plant is more efficient than burning gasoline in millions of cars.
This isn’t a new argument. I’ve heard it from people like David Sokol of Berkshire Hathaway and BYD, and from Shai Agassi (See "Electric cars: all systems go") but David Crane’s explanation today laid out the math in clear terms.
Describing NRG’s plans in Houston (see "Even Houston, the 'Petro Metro,' Loves Electric Cars"), Crane said the NRG-owned utility company, Reliant Energy, is working with Nissan and plans to offer Leaf owners an all-you-can-eat model for buying electricity to power the car. Here’s the selling proposition:
First, NRG would buy and install a Level 2 car charger for the home. Those are worth $1,500 to $2,000, Crane said, and they can fully charge a Leaf, which has a range of about 100 miles, in four to eight hours. “You come home from work, you plug it in, and in the morning it’s ready to go again,” he said. Second, NRG will build a network of charging stations around the city of Houston. “At no point will you be more than five miles away from a fast charge,” he said.) The business model for sustaining the stations remains uncertain.) Third, NRG will offer unlimited mileage for three years at a price still to be determined, but estimated at $70 to $80 a month, added to the utility bill. After the three years, the price would drop because by then NRG will have recouped the cost of the charging station and would only need to pay for the electricity.
So how does the math look? At $80 a month, fuel costs for the Leaf would be $960 a year. By comparison, assume that you drive a conventional car 15,000 miles a year and get 20 mpg. You’ll buy 750 gallons of gas. At $2.58 per gallon, the current average price on the Gulf Coast, you’ll pay just under $2,000 a year.