Deciding to buy an electric car can be daunting, particularly if you don’t know anyone with one. In this article I give a run down of the environmental pros and cons of an electric car and our personal experience as owners. So if you’re thinking of going electric read on.
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We bought our 2012 Nissan Leaf second-hand in June 2016. One the things I most love about it is how quiet it is. It’s completely silent when stationary and there is only a slight noise as it moves off.
I also love the display that shows you if you’re driving efficiently and I feel like it’s a challenge to drive as economically as possible. Fast acceleration uses up less fuel in an EV than in a fossil fuel car but you are still encouraged to avoid harsh acceleration and braking in order to conserve energy when driving.
Also having heating or cooling on in some EV models uses up a huge amount of energy, so we only have it on when we can’t open a window. It’d be great to see these energy metres in all cars. I think it’d really help us all use less fuel when we can.
I love that I don’t have to visit petrol stations any more, although in the beginning I caught myself checking the price of fuel every once in a while without realising.
Based on night rate electricity, an overnight full charge will cost approx €2, while average daytime charging is likely to be €4 for a full charge. There are more and more fast charge points around the country where you can charge up to 80% in about 30 minutes.
I’ll be honest, having an electric car won’t suit everyone and given the number of charge points in the city you do have to plan your car use a bit more than you do with a petrol / diesel / hybrid car.
Our car was originally made in 2012 with a projected range of 150km on it. Given it’s 8 years old now the battery life isn’t quite 100%. I estimate that the range is more like 100km in warm weather, but almost down to 50km in cold weather when heating is needed. In warm weather we generally only need to charge every 2-3 days. In colder weather it’s every evening. This suits most of our driving needs but we’re beginning to feel the need to get a longer range car.
When it comes to particularly long distance journeys we hire a fossil fuel car. We factored the cost of hiring cars into the decision of getting an electric car and found we were still better off financially with an electric car than a fossil fuel car (car tax is only €120). We did try charging on long journeys but it doubled the travel time and cost us a fortune in snacks at petrol stations. We also couldn’t rely on charge points, which were frequently occupied or out of order.
Sustainability of Electric Cars
There is no denying that using public transport, cycling or walking is far more sustainable than owning a car in the first place and before anyone decides to buy a car I would suggest asking if you really need one. If the answer is yes, then the second question is do you really need to replace the one you have. The energy taken to make a car is huge and maintaining an existing car may be more sustainable than replacing it, even with a more efficient one.
Efficiency – Electric motors operate efficiently over a wide range of speeds – 80’s to high 90% – while an internal combustion engine varies between 0% to mid 30% range. Some energy is lost during charging resulting in an efficiency rate of 70-73% for electric cars, which compares to tank-to-wheel efficiency of 16% for petrol / diesel cars. For more detailed information on this check out this article on Electric Car Efficiency.
Battery – There has been a lot of concern around the mining of lithium for use in electric car batteries. According to well-respected online journal Treehugger the environmental impact of electric car batteries is less than expected (about 15%) and the impact caused is due more to the copper and aluminium used in the battery than the lithium. Also, electric car batteries are fully recyclable, including the lithium which can be recycled and reused. This is not the case with traditional nickel batteries used in petrol / diesel. Incidentally lithium batteries are used in most tech appliances these days so this issue isn’t just confined to electric cars. Unfortunately there is often ‘backyard’ recycling of batteries, which puts people and the planet at risk.
It’s worth noting that cold weather temporarily reduces EV battery range. AAA tested the range effects of 7C / 20F degree weather on several popular EVs and found that temperature alone could reduce range by 10-12%, while the use of in-vehicle climate control could amplify range loss to 40%.
Source of Power – It’s true to say the ‘green-ess’ of electric cars is affected by the power they’re charged with. If the electricity used to charge their batteries comes entirely from solar, wind or tidal then it is obviously going to be much cleaner than if it comes from peat, coal or gas. In 2016 renewables made up about 27% of electricity generation in Ireland with the vast majority coming from wind. Also, the time at which electric cars are charged matters. Most cars are charged at night and although wind energy is generated at night, solar isn’t and so the mix of energy sources used to charge cars overnight will affect the overall emissions of the fuel source. That said on average, electric cars in Europe emit, almost 3 times less CO2 than equivalent petrol/diesel cars. Even in Poland, with all it’s coal-fired power stations electric cars produce 29% less carbon than ICE cars.
Of course the more renewals used in energy production, the closer to home batteries we manufactured / recycle batteries and the better we get at storing energy, the greener electric cars become. Even so, current research by Yale University found EV’s blow combustion cars out of the water when it came to carbon emissions.
It’s also worth pointing out that unlike petrol cars, electricity loses energy as it is transmitted across the grid to customers. According to Wikipedia transmission and distribution losses in the USA were estimated at 6.5% in 2007, i.e. the discrepancy between power produced (as reported by power plants) and power sold to the end customers. That said I’m sure there are inefficiencies in the extraction and processing of oil so I wouldn’t imagine that transmission losses render petrol / diesel cars more efficient than electric cars.
Particular Matter Emissions – I have come across research that would seem to indicate that because of their heavier weight, electric cars may produce more PM emissions than petrol / diesel cars. These emissions include tire wear dust, brake pad dust, tiny road particles, and road dust re-suspension and are created by all vehicles, including bikes. Having looked at the figures it seems that it’s the re-suspension of road dust (i.e. throwing up dust already on the road) that gives electric cars a higher reading in this regard. Now PM emissions don’t affect CO2 levels, but they do impact on health. Obviously as electric cars get lighter their scorecard in relation PM emissions will improve. Here’s an interesting article defending electric vehicles in light of this issue.
Regardless of the type of car you have it’s worth investing in tyres with a high efficiency rating as these allow you to reduce fuel consumption.
If you really want to delve down into the nitty-gritty of the sustainability of electric cars here is a very thorough and well-research review of electric cars versus fossil fuel cars by Carbon Brief, a UK based science climate news outlet funded by the European Climate Foundation.
If technical deets aren’t your bag, then the website Fully Charged, which seems to focus on the sexier side of electric car design might tickle your fancy.
On a more practical level here are some personal and practical pros and con’s I’ve found having an electric car.
- I refuse to freeze in the car so have the heater on practically every day in winter, even though it eats up power. With the school runs and errands during the day this means that we have to charge our 2012 Nissan Leaf every evening, which is fine as long as you don’t forget and have to spend 20mins of your morning charging your car at a fast-charge point! But trust me, you don’t do that twice
- Travelling long distances where you’ll need to charge your electric car more than once just isn’t worth it in my opinion. Although the ESB map is great at showing you which charge points are out of action, it’s of little comfort if it happens when you’re on route and there isn’t another charge point in range! As said above we hire fossil fuel cars for long journeys.
- As electric cars become more and more popular the wait at charge points on popular routes becomes longer and longer.
- You need to install a home charger unless you’ve reliable access to a public one close to your house. If you want to avail of cheaper electricity rates during the night you’ll also have to get a night-time metre installed. Unfortunately your daytime rates for electricity are higher when you have a night-time metre, but only marginally so.
- I don’t tend to need to recharge away from home now but once I was once locked to a charge point that crashed and the ESB couldn’t reset the machine because someone else was charging at the same charge point. They said they’d send out an engineer who’d be there in under an hour! Thankfully the other driver came back so they could reset the charger and release me. That said this has only happened once and I’ve been told that they’re replacing first generation chargers with more reliable ones.
- The battery becomes less and less efficient over time. It is possible to upgrade the battery in an electric car, as this very lengthy post on LinkedIn confirms, but it’s a process that’s not for the faint hearted. You can either get a battery from a newer car from the breakers yard or buy an upgrade pack from Muxsan in the Netherlands. The EV owner, Eamon Stack, in Ireland is offering to buy these packs and bring them back to Ireland for people.
- I can set the heater to come on in my car at a predetermined time so the car is warm when I get into it.
- I still adore how quite it is. I’m like a silent ninja.
- Charging the car every night during winter does put up the cost of the car but overall our ‘fuel’ costs are still much lower than fossil fuel cars.
- You get free parking in the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Council area when you’re charging and I’ve heard that other councils offer free parking in any space to EV drivers.
- Even though we now have to pay to charge our cars at public charge points it’s still far cheaper to run than a fossil-fuel car, especially when you factor in the reduced road tax on the cars themselves.
- You can get a 20% discount on insurance for electric cars from Zurich.
- You get 50% – 75% off toll charges in an EV with e-flow.
If you’re interested in getting a plug-in hybrid you might want to read this article about their potential inefficiencies.
Also The Society of Irish Motor Industry has some good info on the difference between electric, plug-in hybrids and hybrids, and this EV Database ranks new EV’s by a range of metrics.
Before I go let me just add the most sustainable car is the one that doesn’t exist with the next being one that already does. So check out my article How to avoid buying a car before making a final decision.