Guest Blog: “Time To Buy An Electric Car?”

by Terry Stopps

Prior to the climate change meetings in Paris last year, the Province of Ontario announced an increase in cash incentives for the purchase of new electric vehicles and electric vehicle chargers. In the June 8, 2016 release of the Ontario Climate Change Plan, the Province announced it will sweeten the deal by 2018, removing the provincial portion of HST (8%) applied to the purchase price. Ontario also announced that it will provide electric vehicle owners with a 4 hours per night credit for electricity vehicle charging.

All told, provincial incentives could amount to around $18,000 per vehicle (details and timing still TBA). Quite a give away. So, what’s so special about an electric vehicle and why is the province going on about it?

I may have some insights that I can share, since we bought a 2016 Chevrolet Volt in December, 2015. The Volt has an electric drive typical of a battery electric vehicle and an alternative gasoline engine that drives a motor/generator to generate electricity when the vehicle reaches a threshold of about 25% of battery capacity. Because the Volt’s software reserves this portion or the battery’s charge, the vehicle can make use of both electric motors and even the gasoline engine for short bursts (like passing a vehicle on a hill). So, the Volt shows the characteristics of both a pure electric drive (battery electric vehicle — BEV) and a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV).

Here are my impressions from experience over about 15,000 km driving my Volt.

Performance is exhilarating in most electric vehicles, since they produce great torque at low speed. In the case of the Volt, its unique mix of technology adds to its performance. The Volt has a 110 kilowatt main electric motor, equivalent to about 150 horsepower. It also has a 55 kilowatt (75 horsepower) generator that can be used as a supplementary electric motor boosting the total horsepower to 225. Finally, I am told that its 75 horsepower gasoline engine (normally used to generate electricity in conjunction with the generator) can be thrown into the mix, providing bursts of 300 horsepower equivalent when needed (e.g., passing on the way up a mountain). So far, I haven’t needed that last feature. However, I have been impressed that the electric drive makes the vehicle very quiet to drive and so smooth, since there is no ‘shifting’ as occurs in a classic transmission.

When you drive an electric car, you will find the reduced cost of energy is one of the greatest benefits. Typically, electric vehicles are very energy efficient, compared with an internal combustion engine. The electric range of my car is about 85 km per charge (actually, the range very predictably varies from 64 km to 98 km, depending on time of year and consequential use of air conditioning or cabin electric heat). Charging is normally done overnight, so charges are ‘off-peak’. When the vehicle needs a full charge, then I expect a cost of about $1.25 per charge.  Over a full year, my projections suggest my electricity charges will be about $300 for 15,000 km of electric driving. When the extended range gasoline engine is running, providing electricity for the motor, my experience shows energy consumption of about 3.7 litres/100 km. That is about the same gasoline ‘mileage’ as my wife’s energy efficient motorcycle or about half the fuel consumption of my 2005 Honda Civic.

Maintenance costs are known to be lower for electric vehicles. This makes sense, when you think about the reduced ‘wear-and-tear’ associated with the technology. First, even though my Volt has a gasoline engine, it doesn’t run all the time like an internal combustion engine must, and although it changes its rpm with the amount of electricity that it must generate, it does not undergo the same rpm changes under load that occur with stop-and-go traffic and even worse with jack-rabbit-starts. As a consequence, the vehicle does not require frequent oil changes; and I expect my first oil change (and first maintenance) to be at the end of my first year of driving (~30,000 km of driving). Brakes are the second area of low maintenance. Because of the electric motor in electric vehicles, braking can be done through ‘regenerative’ braking, where slowing of the vehicle turns the motor, causing it to generate electricity (instead of heat in classic friction-brakes), that can be stored in the battery, extending the electric range.

Did you ever wonder why the Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change made the Ontario announcements about electric vehicles? Well, greenhouse gases are a direct result of burning fossil fuels. The Province is interested because of the electric vehicle’s ability to reduce the amount of gasoline or diesel fuel consumed. When you use less gas, you generate less greenhouse gases from your vehicle use. In my case, even when I am only using the extended range gasoline engine, my gasoline consumption is only half of a very efficient internal combustion engine vehicle (~3.7 litres/km). Further, Ontario off-peak electricity is generated with virtually no greenhouse emissions. So, when you factor in electric kilometres traveled, gasoline consumption drops further, to about 2.2 liters/km with my driving. For me, the result has been a reduction of more than two thirds of my greenhouse gas emissions by moving from my 2005 Honda Civic to the 2016 Volt.

So, you might ask, is it all really so idyllic? No. For many drivers, the most significant negative is known as ‘range anxiety’ and electric vehicle owners suffer from it while internal combustion engine vehicle owners do not. Range anxiety arises because there are so few electric vehicle chargers. If you have a gasoline-powered car, you can refuel at gas stations that are placed on many street corners. Although electric vehicle chargers can be found more frequently than in the past, they are still rare. As more electric vehicle chargers become available, there can only be improved viability for every type of electric vehicle. To support just such a change, the Province has announced changes to the Ontario Building Code providing support for chargers in multi-residential buildings and grant programs for other residential and public chargers. Range anxiety can also be partially overcome by installing your own fast charger and selecting an electric vehicle that matches your driving pattern. In my case, a range of 64 to 98 kilometres (depending on season) for my Volt, is enough for me to drive to the next town and back a couple of times between charges. For longer trips, I could still use the vehicle because once it ran through its electric range, it had its extended range gas engine to provide whatever electricity I need, without electric range worries.

So, does all this make you want to buy an electric vehicle?

Many electric vehicles are somewhat difficult to find in Ontario, since large numbers are reserved for sale in California, where they are known as ‘compliance vehicles’; and are sold so automobile manufacturers can comply with state law. So, if you are attracted to the concept, then get your order in.

On the other hand, government incentives should be around for a while, since incentives are typically available while the consumer market is adapting to a new technology. In Ontario, the number of electric vehicles is very low (less than 5,000 vehicles total in 2015). Only by improving the proportion of electric vehicles newly entering the Provincial vehicle population or ‘fleet’ can the Province hope to ramp-up its greenhouse gas reduction activities in the passenger vehicle fleet. This will happen only if more of the new vehicles bought are electric and as old gas vehicles are scrapped (this last step can take a lot of time, since vehicles stay in the fleet for 10-15 years). Consequently, if you are a new car buyer, you may want to consider your role in the turnover of the Ontario vehicle population and join the ranks of the early adopters of electric vehicles.


Terry Stopps is currently the Chairperson for Cobourg’s Planning and Sustainability Advisory Committee.

About Sustainable Cobourg

Sustainable Cobourg is a citizens group in Cobourg, Ontario who advocate for more sustainable ways of living by organizing local environmental projects, educating and increasing the public's understanding of the environment and its importance.
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