Category Archives: Electric Vehicles

Planning the Minimalist-Eco-Leaf Road Trip

ev trip map for blog

A portion of the potential route, where back-roads will be involved to link fast chargers. The leg from Harrisburg to State College, PA, is just long enough (almost 90 miles) that a stop at a Level-2 charger midway might be required. In this case we’ll have to use the charger we’re bringing with us, because the “Level-2” spots in this case are 220-volt outlets at RV parks, some of which aren’t marked on the Plugshare site.

I mentioned the other week how there are dramatically more DC fast chargers in the US than there were a year ago, and how I could drive an EV, hypothetically, all the way to the Midwest using mostly fast chargers. Well, it might be time to put my money where my mouth is—I’m thinking about taking a long-distance Leaf ride, from here in Vermont to the far side of Illinois, to see friends and relatives. I might be crazy.

Then, to add to that craziness, the family wants to go along, less one kid who will be away for the summer. That’s still four people in the Leaf, however. We’ve done road trips like this before, with and without kids, and we usually tent camp along the way. But, let’s just contrast this potential operation with, say, a similar family outing to Maine three years ago. In that case, we had a full-size pickup truck, which was pulling a largish pop-up camper, and two dogs, and the camper and the back of the truck were packed with firewood and bikes and dog food and lawn chairs and a carpet and coolers and all manner of other items. This time—we only have the back of the Leaf. Now, the Leaf isn’t tiny, but in terms of taking it on a family camping trip, it’s going to require some minimalism.

So, here’s the tentative minimalism camping plan—we’re going to pack almost as if we’re backpacking. I’m thinking, a much smaller tent (the “sleeps-eight” tent is on its last legs, anyway), food that doesn’t need cooked or refrigerated (which saves us the stove and dishes and dishsoap and cutting boards and coolers and ice and stops to buy ice, etc.), and for each of us—a duffel-bag with a few sets of clothes and toiletries, one sleeping bag, one folding camp stool, one headlamp, and some books to read. Then some charging equipment—a heavy-duty extension cord, the Level-1 charge cord that comes with the car, and our Level-2 charger that is portable and has a 220v plug. That’s it. Should fit nicely in the back, and still leave room to see out the rearview mirror.

But, the great big question is how and where to charge the car for a trip like this. Just two years ago, when there were virtually no public fast chargers, it was quite challenging, as witnessed by the film “Kick Gas”, where a group of EV enthusiasts spent 44 days going across the US in a variety of electric vehicles, including a Leaf. It’s a great film; here’s the trailer—

Fast chargers, however, will make it easier, as they will charge a Leaf in about 45 minutes, or even less if the battery is only partially empty. So I logged onto plugshare.com, and started to map out a route to Illinois that links fast chargers together, so we could hop from charger to charger. Now, to back up a bit—a Nissan Leaf will go, in the summer when it’s warm, about 100 miles between charges if you keep your speed down a bit. So in the perfect world we’d have fast chargers nicely spaced out up and down the interstates, at 60 or 70-mile intervals (it takes slightly longer to charge the top 10% or so of the battery, so it would be most efficient, in terms of time, to charge to 80 or 85 percent each time, and then drive 60 or 70 miles and then charge again, which would also leave a bit of a range buffer). Needless to say, we’re not there yet. My optimistic prediction of hopping between fast chargers was a tiny bit premature; closer perusal revealed that not all the fast chargers that first pop up on the Plugshare maps will work. Some of them are Tesla Superchargers, so I turned the icons for them off (Telsa owners can use other types of fast chargers with an adapter, but non-Tesla EV’s can’t use a Supercharger).

Tesla supercharger station. A great deal---if you have a Tesla.

Tesla supercharger station. A great deal—if you have a Tesla.

Some other fast chargers have DC-Combo plugs, which also won’t work with a Leaf, so I turned those icons off, too. Then, some of the ones that remained and are Leaf-compatible (stations with CHAdeMO plugs, which is actually the most common setup) appear to be planned but not finished, or not turned on yet, or broken, or for some other reason not fully functional. This still left quite a few, though, and it appears that I can get to Illinois by taking a big curvy loop, from here south and east into Massachusetts and Connecticut, then across the top of New York City and down toward Trenton, New Jersey, and then due west from there, across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. But, the best charging locations aren’t exactly in a perfect line, so the route is going to end up with some zigs and zags in it.

So, a great big loop with zigs and zags, and… a few gaps. In a few cases these are just gaps where the fast chargers aren’t close enough together, where we’ll have to juice up a bit at a Level-2 station in the middle somewhere. But, some gaps don’t have any public stations at all, so for those I found a secret weapon, the…  Good Sam’s RV website, with its Google map interface. This is because if no chargers are available, a backup plan (and I got this idea from the Kick Gas movie) is to stop at, or spend the night at, a campground; they nearly all have 220-volt hookups for RVs, where we can plug in the Level-2 charger (or worst case, spent the night while charging with 110-volt charge cord).

good sam snip for blog

A Good Sam’s Club map with an overlay of RV parks—a good backup for areas with no public chargers.

One of those fast-charger-gaps is between Columbus, OH, and Indianapolis, IN. Part of that can be solved by looping down to Cincinnati and then back up, but no matter how you slice it, there is a 100-mile gap to get to Indianapolis from the east, a gap where there aren’t any chargers at all. Here’s where that campground in the image, on I-74 north of Adams, Indiana, might save the day. I’ll call them; maybe we’ll spend the night. It’s called “Hidden Paradise Campground,” and appears to be on a river with wooded banks; it might not be a bad spot to pause.

So, I initially considered going all the way to Texas to see the rest of the relatives by toodling along in this fashion (informal definition of “toodle along” that I found on the internet—“to go somewhere in a rather relaxed, happy-go-lucky way. No stress, no pressure, no rush, just enjoying the journey”) (I’ve always heard this phrase used like this, but I’m still not sure it’s a real word), but it’s a bit of a charger-desert west and south of Indianapolis, so it would be pretty slow going. Even the Leaf-portion where the fast chargers are won’t be speedy, there will be a certain minimalism to the average travel day that will be required—walking around a new place, reading a book in the shade, hanging out with the kids, having an ice-cream cone, enjoying the now. I’m looking forward to it. If we do decide to continue on, it might be on a train, which is another travel mode with a low carbon-footprint. Either way, this is the year to do the adventure-trip—a year ago it wouldn’t have been quite possible, and a year from now there might be enough fast chargers, all in a line and 60 miles apart, that such a trip becomes something rather ordinary.

But this trip, this summer, might be a fun challenge. I’ll keep you posted.

The new grey Leaf, the replacement for the black one when the two-year lease was up. It's being charged with solar here at the house, and ready for a road trip.

The new grey 2015 Leaf, the replacement for the black one when its two-year lease was up. It’s being charged with solar here at the house, and it’s ready for a road trip.

Supercharger image: Steve Jurvetson, “Tesla Supercharging in Gilroy”, Flickr Creative Commons.

 

Bruhl Net-Zero Project– Early Results

enphase report switched

I overheard one of my students ask a classmate today, “Why are they doing so much solar in Vermont, when it’s so much cloudier here than in other parts of the country?” This was on my mind when it occurred to me that that her comment might be more meaningful if rephrased— “Since solar is working in Vermont (and Germany), where it’s relatively cloudy, imagine how it would work even better in other states?” Because, solar does work here in Vermont, and the data so far from my net-zero project is bearing witness to that fact, here in my little corner of the state.

When I last wrote about the project, as I was just finishing the barn panels (post: “Just in the Nick of Time“), the snow had arrived and the days were near their shortest. The snow is mostly gone now, though, the days are getting longer, and the solar production is ramping steadily up. The image above is from my March report from Enphase (the company tracks the performance of each individual invertor and panel via the internet, and sends these nifty monthly reports). The panels on the barn, according to Enphase, have offset nearly a ton of carbon emissions, and have produced well over a megawatt hour of clean, renewable power, in the month of March alone.

Enphase report from a sunny day last month-- nearly 70 kwh produced.

Enphase report from a sunny day last month– nearly 70 kwh produced.

Eventually I’ll get the whole system online, and I’ll work up the numbers for the system’s performance over the course of a whole year. But for now, it appears that my preliminary cost projections are working out as planned— the monthly savings from the project (in propane, generator fuel, electricity to charge the electric cars, and, in a side benefit, cheaper internet due to the coax we ran in with the underground power) nearly completely offset the loan payment. So it still looks like the project will pay for itself in 11 or 12 years, and then provide a large savings every month after that.

As for the net-zero aspect, my goal was to completely power the house, AND the two electric cars, with solar. I can’t quite tell on this one, but I believe we’re close to this goal. I’ll need a few more months of data—our usage for the cars will be higher in the winter months (due to using the heaters, having snow tires on, and the lower efficiency of the batteries in cold weather), while the solar production will be higher in the summer. I’m also not quite finished putting all the panels back on-line; the new ones on the barn roof are finished, but I need to reinstall all the panels we were using when we were off-grid. This should bump up the solar production another 20 or 30 percent.

So, it’s too soon for me to do a complete report, but the results so far are good. We are net-zero, we’re driving 90 miles or more every day on mostly solar power, and we’re going to save money in the long run. It’s time for everyone to jump on this bandwagon.

The Parking Lot of the Future, Today

DSCN1172 new chargers cropped

New chargers at Green Mountain Power, in Rutland, VT.

I drove the Leaf down to Brattleboro, yesterday, a 240 -mile round trip; the longest I’ve taken yet in one of the electric vehicles. But it was relatively easy, thanks to some new chargers right where I needed them (both for this trip and for driving to work). Not one, not two, not three, but EIGHT new chargers at the Green Mountain Power operations facility in Rutland, each with two charge ports, PLUS a fast charger. They are all freshly installed, and the fast charger isn’t energized yet, but that’s seventeen new places to charge, all in a line. But, it occurred to me that this is what most parking lots will look like in the years ahead; EV numbers continue to rise (post: “EV’s Everywhere“).

The trip was really fun; I had gone down to give an EV presentation at a workshop in Brattleboro sponsored by a variety of environmental groups there. Part of the event was devoted to electric-assist bicycles, and I rode one for the first time. They are pretty amazing; every time you pedal it’s as if you’re three times as strong as you would normally be, even though the bikes look almost like regular bikes, and the propulsion is silent. I also heard a thought-provoking presentation by Dave Cohen, (link to VPR story with photo) a cycling enthusiast and integrative psychotherapist, who discussed how our technologies have a not-so-good side effect of insulating us from real-world sensory input. To him, cars, including EV’s, keep us from truly experiencing the world, and he thus advocates biking (or walking) when possible. A topic for a whole blog post, when I get a chance. Very nifty video about one of the projects he’s helping with—

On the home front, the solar project continues apace, though it has kept me busy 24/7 and threatens to do so for another six weeks. I’ll post construction pictures soon. But, plenty to ponder on all fronts, and much of it, like electric-assisted cargo bicyles and 17 chargers all in one parking lot, are visible signs of movement in directions that are good for the planet. Yay…

EV’s Everywhere

Volt pic cropped

Yes, I’m still alive… I have a running list of sustainability topics to opine about, but it’s been non-stop hectic around here. Part of this is due to my new PV project, which probably deserves its own post. The short version, though—I’m putting my money where my mouth is, and should soon have enough generation to power the house AND the two Leafs.

But, speaking of electric vehicles, I thought I should at least put up a short post about something that was very apparent this weekend—the number of EV’s that are out and about has increased dramatically in the last year. Sixteen months ago when we got the first Leaf, the car seemed to be something that most people in public had never heard of nor seen. Not so anymore. The other day in Burlington virtually every charger was being used, and I saw a Ford C-Max, a Ford Fusion Energi, a Volt, several Leafs, and a Smart ED. Fortunately, the number of chargers in Burlington has also increased by leaps and bounds, from perhaps 3 when we got the first Leaf (post, “Leaf Day-One Top Ten List”), to 24 or more today (including 3 fast-chargers). Closer to home, Middlebury has also gotten more chargers, including one fast charger. And, this evening I stopped by those chargers to grab some groceries and top off the batteries, and after I had plugged in all the chargers were full; a whole row of Leafs and a Volt. Good stuff world! I’ve written before about how important EV’s are to where we need to go (“The Real Reason EV’s Matter”), and anecdotal evidence would tell me that we’re on our way.

Of course, being able to drive a speedy, quiet car and power it for 3-cents a mile might also have something to do with it…

EV_RegistrationsChart_20131228

And here’s some non-anecdotal evidence—rising numbers of EV’s in Vermont.

Top image credit: Flickr Creative Commons by HighTechDad, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/hightechdad/7686093864, image has been cropped.

 

The Real Reason Why EV’s Matter

ELF2

An example of one of the many new EVs on the market; a screenshot from Organic Transit’s webpage, about the ELF. According to the company, the ELF gets the equivalent of 1800 mpg.

I was at this year’s Solarfest this past weekend, and helped present two workshops about electric vehicles. The first one was a panel discussion hosted by Drive Electric Vermont, and the second was a presentation I did, entitled “Electric Vehicles: Beyond the Basics”. I think that my thesis, so to speak, is worth thinking about, so I thought I’d recap the presentation here as a blog post.

The quite-short-version, starting with some basics—

1) Whereas a few years ago there were essentially four mainstream production EV’s, (the Volt, Leaf, Tesla Model S, and the plug-in Prius) there are now about twenty, with many more on the way. The biggest recent news is perhaps BMW’s i3, a $40,000 car that is the most efficient in its class, partly due to its lightweight carbon-fiber cabin. The car has gotten extremely high customer-satisfaction ratings, and has been successful enough that Tesla just announced last week that is would be putting together a “Model 3” that will be quite similar. And, EV’s now encompass far more than just cars. There are electric motorcycles, electric pickup trucks, buses, bikes, scooters, school buses, tractor-trailer trucks, and more.

Zero

Zero Motorcycles, perhaps the leader in electric motorcycles.

Proterra

Bus-maker Proterra already has buses operation in several U.S. cities, including Reno, NV. With “One-fifth the fuel expense and one-third the maintenance”, these more-expensive buses can pay for themselves in two to five years.

EV owners’ customer satisfaction has been quite high; the Volt and the Tesla Model S have led Consumer Reports’ rating for the last three years.

2) Adoption rates have been brisk, though not quite as brisk as some predicted in years past. The number of EV’s on the road has roughly doubled each year since 2010, and that trend is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. There are currently about 250,000 EVs on the road today in the U.S., and about 500,000 worldwide. To keep those numbers in perspective, though, EV’s currently make up less than 1% of the cars being sold.

3) Charging infrastructure has grown at an extremely rapid pace, from less than 2,000 public charging stations in the U.S. in 2011, to well over 20,000 today, with many more coming into service daily. This has included a huge rise in the number of DC fast chargers, which can charge a vehicle like a Leaf to about 80% in about 30 minutes. A year ago Vermont had zero of these fast chargers, but today we have six, with more on the way. Further advances in charging technology are also on the way, one being inductive charging, which can charge an EV without a direct connection to the vehicle. As demonstrated by a bus system in operation in Seoul, South Korea, inductive charging systems can also be embedded in roadways and function while the vehicles driving above it are in motion.

4) Most EV’s are powered by lithium-ion batteries, and the price for these batteries has fallen dramatically in the past five years, from well over $1,000 per kwh, to about $500 per kwh today. Prices are expected to continue to drop, partly due to Tesla’s new “Gigafactory”, currently under construction. Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, has predicted Li-ion battery prices in the $250/kwh range by 2015. (Nissan just announced $270/kwh prices for replacement Leaf battery packs.) Combined with economies of scale as EV production increases, I suspect that EV’s will approach outright cost-parity with gas-mobiles in the decade to come. Research is currently proceeding apace on all manner of battery technology, and these advancements have the potential to disrupt power companies, as well as automobile markets.

5) No battery lasts forever, but indications so far seem to show that EV batteries are exceeding expectations. Battery longevity is strongly influenced by many factors, such as average battery temperature, charging and discharge rates, depth-of-discharge, and the average state-of-charge during storage, and some of these are factors that owners can control. When the capacity of EV battery packs does drop below what is considered usable (typically considered to be 70% of its original capacity), power companies have working prototypes of grid-storage options that utilize used EV battery packs. Then, when EV batteries finally do reach the end of their useful life, virtually 100% of the materials in them can be recycled. Today the market value of lithium is such that it is not currently recovered, though the nickel and cadmium and other metals are. I suspect that this will change in years to come, though world reserves of lithium are quite ample, with the bulk of them in the “ABC Triangle”, an area in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. (See article “The Lithium Battery Recycling Challenge”).

6) It is becoming easier and easier to build net-zero homes (post- “Net-Zero is Possible”), but what’s really exciting is that it’s now quite possible to build a home that produces enough power for both the house AND for electric-powered transportation. In fact, I currently know of at least three houses that fall into this category. With building and transportation together making up nearly 90% of U.S. energy use, this is truly an exciting development. And since PV panels operate with DC electricity, as do EV batteries, companies like Honda are working on equipment that allows EVs to charge with DC from PV panels, which avoids the conversion losses incurred by inverters.

Leslie science house cropped

Structures that produce most or all of the energy they require are now quite common. Leslie Science Center Nature House, Ann Arbor, MI.

7) EV’s have a huge potential role with regard to how sustainable power grids will function in the future. This is sometimes called “Vehicle-to-grid”, or “V2G”. A starting point for this is charging equipment that allows power from an EV to go in two directions, either into the vehicle to charge the battery, or out of the vehicle to power the house or grid. Several companies, including Nissan, already have such products on the market. With such a connection, an EV can serve as backup power during a power outage. Then, when this technology is coupled with smart meters, EV’s can serve a key role in reducing generation costs for power companies. In times of peak demand, a power company could remotely stop EV’s from charging, in order to lower peak demand, or, conversely, turn on chargers to soak up excess generation during off-peak hours. Power companies will likely pay customers for the right to control their chargers and EVs in this way, and several pilot projects are already underway. V2G capability also opens up the possibility that EV owners can charge their cars with cheap off-peak power, and sell this power back to the grid during hours of peak-demand.

8) Now, a bit of an aside, but I’ll come back to EV’s in just a bit—as we get higher and higher penetration rates of renewable power into the grid in the years to come, the nature of electricity pricing will steadily change. In the 1970’s it was thought that nuclear power would make electricity “too cheap to meter”. That did not happen, but it has indeed happened recently due to solar. Germany, with its huge amount of solar and wind production, has already seen wholesale electricity prices on sunny days dip into the negative. As these power production curves shift, it will present challenges to power companies. A visual of these upcoming changes was recently released by California ISO (ISO’s, or “Independent System Operators”, are groups that manage grid-power in particular regions), in the now-infamous “duck graph”—

duckgraph_page_3 cropped

The infamous California ISO “duck graph”. Shaded areas represent steadily increasing amounts of solar generation.

Proponents of renewable power delight in this graph, seeing steadily decreasing peak energy prices and less fossil-fuel use, whereas Continue reading

A Sort-of Minimalism Day

mustard cover crop

Beautiful views off of Rt. 100.

Six months ago, the state of Vermont had quite a few Level-2 charging stations, but zero fast-chargers. Fast chargers, or Level-3 chargers, use 440 volts and will charge an EV like a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes. We got our first two this spring, but I checked the other day, and that number had grown to six. The new ones are all in a line right near I-89, in Burlington, Middlesex, Montpelier, and Barre.

So, last Saturday it was a beautiful day, and I decided to take a mostly-solar-powered EV drive in a big loop, and go find the new chargers. A Sunday drive on a Saturday, if you will. My wife and two of the kids went along, and we spent most of the day driving and sitting in parks reading and looking at various sights and visiting farmer’s markets along the way. I’m not sure how much of the drive was powered with renewable power—we charge with solar here at home in the summer, and some, but not all, of the public chargers are net-metered to solar panels. Though, even standard grid-power here in Vermont is partly hydro, solar, and wind. Suffice it to say that a good chunk of our motive power was renewable.

In terms of Minimalism, the walking and nature and sitting in parks qualifies, but we did go to a restaurant for lunch in Montpelier and had a nice meal. I suppose we could have had simple picnic food in the park, but we didn’t quite plan that all out. So, we’ll just call it a “sort-of renewable energy, sort-of Minimalism day”. Some pictures—

camperdown elm

A Camperdown elm in Bristol. These unusual trees are all descendants of one single tree in England. They don’t propagate naturally, and have to be grafted onto rootstock from another elm.

black walnut

A beautiful, thriving black walnut in Bristol. They aren’t overly common here; we’re at the northern edge of their native range. This is the largest one I’ve seen in Vermont.

Local produce at one of the farmer's markets.

Local produce at one of the farmer’s markets.

The new fast charger at Red Hen Bakery, in Middlesex.

The new fast charger at Red Hen Bakery, in Middlesex.

The farmer's market in Montpelier.

The farmer’s market in Montpelier.

Local and organic...

Local and organic…

The red Leaf, headed up Lincoln Gap.

The red Leaf, headed up Lincoln Gap.

One of the popular swimming spots on the New Haven River.

One of the popular swimming spots on the New Haven River.

So, we drove about a hundred miles on mostly solar power, got sidetracked on some dirt roads outside of Warren, found all the new chargers, and juiced up while we were eating lunch. In the end, a nice day, and some signs of progress on our collective road to more sustainability—charging stations, renewable power, and farmers markets full of organic, local food. Not a bad day.

DSCN0724

(Note, 20 Jul 2014— I’m removing references to cover crops in this post. While mustards are sometimes planted as cover crops for pest control, I’m not sure the mustard in the top image was planted intentionally. I don’t know enough about the subject; I plan to look into it.)

Photos: Me.

Not So Complicated

Castleton charger

The new Level 2 chargers at Castleton State College, grid-tied to a 10 kw PV array.

A quickie post here, in the middle of writing a more complicated one. Today I needed to attend an unexpected event in a town an hour from here, and didn’t quite have enough charge in either of the cars to get me there and back. I went anyway, with the idea that on the way home I would go find the new charger I had read about that has been installed in the beautiful, tiny town of Castleton, VT. Bingo; this worked out perfectly. The installation is an impressive setup. Quite a few chargers are grid-tied to solar arrays, but this one has the array directly behind the charger. It makes for quite a visual statement—there’s no doubt where the power’s coming from, and no doubt what it’s being used for. Sunshine, propelling vehicles. The system was installed, in this case, by Castleton State College (with grants from Same Sun of Vermont, and Green Mountain Power), but here’s the kicker—a system this size would fit on virtually any average-size house, or in any average-size backyard. And, with a system this size, most American households could power their houses, AND an EV. It’s just not that complicated. Other than an inverter, which is about the size of a suitcase and isn’t visible in this picture, that’s the whole system.

So, no thorium reactors needed, no superconductors, no not-yet-invented gizmos. And on the other extreme, no horses and buggies and kerosene lanterns needed, either. Just some PV panels, an inverter, and an EV. Yep, not so complicated.

Nissan Leaf: The Snow and Ice Report

Leaf in snow cropped

For those of you that have been following along, in the past year I’ve posted a number of times about owning the Nissan Leafs, and I’m pretty sure that an objective person would have to characterize them as glowingly positive reports. If you happen to be new to the blog, here are some links–

Turning Over a New Leaf” — My first ideas about possibly getting a Leaf.
Leaf Economics” — The test drive, and thoughts on the economics of driving an EV.
Leaf Charging” — Figuring out how EV charging systems work.
Leaf Day One Top-Ten List” — Our first day with the car.
We’re Not Actually Rich” — Leasing the second Leaf, and my first real review of the cars.
and, “Leaf Update: I Cannot Lie” — My unvarnished reflection after six months.

So, now it’s almost March, and we’ve had a fair amount of snow, a fair amount of ice, and we’ve had many, many nights that were well below zero, including one night approaching 20 below. But, though winter isn’t over by any means, we probably are on the slow and gradual warmup that leads to spring, so I feel confident in issuing my wintertime report. I’m still extremely happy with the cars, but for the first time, I do have some caveats. This isn’t a “good news / bad news” report, but perhaps a “good news / things-to-keep-in-mind” report.

On the good side, it’s the same great car in the winter that it is in the summer. In some ways, better—while the two gas-mobiles both failed to start multiple times at 15 below, the Leafs (obviously) have no engines to crank, just a button to push. The car makes a little chime, and away you go. In that sense, the car doesn’t care whether it’s 15 below or not.

In terms of handling on snow and ice, we need to back up a hair here. My previous daily driver was an all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza with studded Hakkapelitta snow tires. In terms of winter driving, this is just about as good as it gets—the Suby could go virtually anywhere, and chew through 12 inches or more of snow. So, compared to that, the Leafs are front-wheel-drive only, and, as a cost savings and curiosity experiment, I decided to see how they would do in the winter without the expense and effort of buying and switching to snow tires twice a year. (Why add maintenance to a maintenance-free car if you don’t have to? Snow tires for two cars would have been well over $1,000, plus $60 per car per change to put them on and take them off). One Leaf, the red SL, came with all-season tires. The black SV model came with “summer tires”. I was really curious, first of all, about the difference between the two. My verdict—as best I can tell, absolutely no difference, even in below-zero temps. Both cars are amazingly “grippy”; I think it’s due to their slightly-heavier-than-normal weight, and perhaps modern tires do better in cold weather than they did decades ago. Even on solid ice covered with water, the cars do better than I would have expected. In the very worst of conditions (during heavy snow, before roads were plowed), I’ve found hills that I barely made it up. But, in these same conditions other vehicles were having trouble, too, and tractor trailers were jack-knifing. All told, I’d put the Leafs on par with other front-wheel-drive vehicles, or even slightly better. If I had put studded snow tires on, I think they would have rivaled the Suby.

Charging at the first Level 3 charger in Vermont, at Freedom Nissan in Burlington. Level 3 chargers will fill a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes, though it was taking a few minutes longer in near-zero temps.

Charging at the first Level 3 charger in Vermont, at Freedom Nissan in Burlington. Level 3 chargers will fill a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes, though it was taking a few minutes longer than that in near-zero temps.

Related to traction, the cars also have computerized traction control. It kicks in at the obvious times, on ice or snow when accelerating, whereupon it limits motor power until the tires grip. This is really effective, and I think it’s part of what enables the cars to climb hills fairly well in the snow even without studded tires. But, here’s the part that surprised me—when driving fast down our ice-slick and curvy driveway, I purposely put the car into a drift/slide. In a split second, the traction-control somehow activated the anti-lock brakes on select wheels to immediately jerk the car back into a non-sliding orientation. I’ve played with it multiple times since then, and it nearly always fixes the skid. In fact, between the ABS brakes and the traction-control, it really feels like the computer is working with me to drive the car, like we’re double-teaming it. Or, like I have an R2-D2 in the copilot’s seat. It’s really impressive; and a glimpse of self-driving cars in the future.

And, also related to traction, the “B-mode”, which is enhanced regenerative braking, works fantastic when going down icy hills. It puts a nice steady drag on the car when you take your foot off of the accelerator, without the traction-breaking effect of actually applying the brakes. In fact, not once all winter have I slid going down a hill. Comforting, as it’s one thing to not make it up a hill, and an entirely other thing to start sliding whle going down.

In the end, the try-to-avoid-winter-tires experiment has been a success, I think (though not particularly related to Leafs, specifically). Here in Vermont they’re Johnny-on-the-spot in terms of plowing the roads, so if you can’t quite make it on unplowed roads, you can just wait an hour or so and then go, or take a route that avoids steep uphills. It’s not quite like having studded tires on, but hey, I didn’t have to spend the $1,000. Even my wife, who was pretty leery of the no-snow-tires plan, seems to have gotten completely used to driving the Leafs without them. I might buy some quicky strap-on “emergency” single-loop tire chains, they can be put on in minutes, and at $50 a set they would enable the car to handle just about anything. Peace of mind for way, way less money than snow tires, in case we absolutely had to get to the hospital in the middle of a blizzard (though in reality, if that happened I’d just take the four-wheel-drive pickup with the plow). Mr. X has some of these chains, and likes them.

 

The Level 3 CHAdeMO connector. Currently there is a bit of a standards war going on with Level 3 chargers, with some manufacturers using a modified Level 2 fitting called a "Combi" plug.

The Level 3 CHAdeMO connector. Currently there is a bit of a standards war going on with Level 3 chargers, with some manufacturers using a modified Level 2 fitting called a SAE “Combo” plug.

So, I’m sure you’re impatiently reading along here to find out what it is that I don’t like about the Leafs in the winter. In short, just like I’d been told, the range really is reduced in really cold weather. Between the battery holding less total power in cold weather, and the added loads of the heater, in the very worst case the range on a full charge was only about 45 miles; less than half of the pleasant-dry-70-degree weather range. Now, I say “very worst case”, which only happened once—15 below zero, windows iced up and requiring defrost, car sitting for 24-hours-plus without being driven or charged (both charging and discharging the batteries is slightly less than 100% efficient, and the difference manifests itself as heat, warming the batteries to some degree), and taking multiple short trips. Other trips in similar conditions were better, with a wintertime very-cold-weather average of perhaps 60 miles to a charge. If one had a heated garage, I think wintertime range could still be quite high (and the Fleetcarma results show that, too, with some users reporting more than 80 miles of range even at near-zero temps. See graph below.) For us, with no garage, we saw similar range improvements when we departed from the Level 2 charger at my wife’s place of work, with the cabin preheated while the car was still plugged in (which can be done from home via the cars’ internet links). I’ve driven to work every workday all winter, a 45-mile trip each way if I leave from the Level 2 charger, and the most I’ve used was 82% of the battery (long single trips result in better range than multiple short trips, as the batteries warm as you use them). I only use Level 1 to charge once I’m at work, and in temps near zero this has meant that on the way home I need to stop in Middlebury at the Level 2 chargers for about 10 or 15 minutes and get a bit of a boost to make it back. Not perfect, but not a horrible inconvenience, either.

Fleetcarma's Leaf winter range test results.

Fleetcarma’s Leaf winter range test results. Note the wide range between the best and worst test result for any given temperature—quite a few variables affect range, and fortunately, some of these are within a driver’s control.

The other factor that affects range is how you use the cars’ heaters. The 2012 and newer Leafs use a heat pump for cabin heat, and they are really quite efficient. But, in temps near zero using the heater with abandon does use battery power at a noticeably higher rate (4,000 watts or more on the energy readouts). What works better for me is to set the fan manually to “low” (as opposed to using the “auto” button), and the heater temp to 60 degrees (which is as low as it will go). With the mode button set to deliver some of the air to the defrost vents, it keeps the windshield clear and only uses about 1,500 watts; far less than it would on “auto”. I keep my gloves on when I drive, but I’ve always done that in the winter, so it’s pretty normal, and I seem to stay comfortable on my way to work. In non-commuting situations, where I know I’ll soon be to a charger, I just crank the heat right up like I was in a gas-mobile. And it works great—you don’t have to wait for the engine to warm up to get heat; it’s almost instant.

A few other points—freezing precipitation can freeze the charge door shut. Now, freezing precipitation can also freeze gas-mobile’s gas-filler doors shut, too, but the Leaf’s charge door is fairly horizontal on the front of the car, which makes it a bit worse. The times this has happened, a glass or two of warm water poured over the charge door frees it right up. Another point—if the cars are kept overnight outside without being plugged in, they will turn on an internal battery heater to keep the batteries from going below 14 degrees. This has only happened when the ambient temperatures were below zero overnight. The times I’ve checked, it has used about 6% of the battery over the course of the night, with one case (the day one of the cars didn’t get driven for over 36 hours) where it used 12%. Not too bad, but something to keep in mind if you’re going to park a Leaf in an airport parking lot in below-zero weather without it being plugged in for a week. Again, for most people not living in our unusual off-grid situation, I think this would only rarely be an issue.

So, there you have it. I still love the cars, I really enjoy the paradigm of leasing instead of buying (no maintenance, no repairs! (all under warranty if needed)). They’re still quick and fun and better for the environment. But, if you live someplace fairly cold like we do, just remember that in those few weeks of bitter cold each year, that your really fun car isn’t going to go quite as far between charges. All told, for me, it’s been a small price to pay.

Photo credits: Me.
Range graph: Fleetcarma.

 

Leaf Update—I Cannot Lie

Leaf fall shot

Still my favorite car.

It’s fall, we’ve had the Leafs for six months, and Mr. X thinks I should write an unvarnished, completely-unbiased review of the Leaf and what it’s like to drive an electric vehicle. I agree. Unfortunately, it’s going to be really hard to distinguish this from a varnished, biased review, because I really LOVE this vehicle. Well, vehicles, plural, since we have two of them. In the six months since we leased them we’ve racked up almost 10,000 miles between them both. (Or, to put it another way, we haven’t burned about 350 gallons of gasoline. As in about seven 55-gallon drums’ worth…)

My shortest review—these cars are smooth, quick, and quiet. (Plagiarism alert—I actually saw something similar to this three-word description in another article about a Leaf, but I couldn’t agree more). They have no transmissions, and therefore, unlike ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars, no powerband to speak of. The power is there, any time, all the time, for as long as you want it. In “B-mode” (extra regenerative braking, available in the SL and SV trim levels) the braking begins as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator. It’s true one-footed driving, and it’s fantastic. In fact, the cars are so fun to drive that it’s hard to drive them around slowly in a fashion that saves energy. There’s enough power that if you accelerate hard they will almost break the tires loose, especially if you’re turning. (On one occasion I caught up with, and then stayed even with, a souped-up pickup whose driver had it floored, from dead stop to 86 mph, up a hill, at which point I slowed down; didn’t want a ticket going 90+).

And, all of this quietly. No noise, no rattles, just slight road noise and an occasional low whine from the motor or regenerative braking. Oh, and the “Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians”, or VSP, which is a speaker tone that emanates at low speeds. More on that in a bit.

The cars are efficient, too. Their range on the highway is respectable, averaging 80-100 miles per charge, but they go even farther in town, despite all the stop-and-go. When stuck in traffic they don’t use any power to speak of, likewise for, say, going through a drive-through lane. When coming down a mountain you can actually watch the “fuel” gauge fill up. They’ve both been absolutely, 100% reliable. Which, when you think about it, is probably easier to achieve in these cars, because they really only have a tiny fraction of the moving parts of a “normal” car. The shaft of the (brushless) AC electric motor connects directly to the drive axles on both ends—this motor really only has one moving part, vs. hundreds in an internal combustion engine. And, with no transmission, it has zero transmission parts, compared to the hundreds of moving parts in a typical automotive transmission. (Update— I just realized that the Leaf does have a single reduction gear at a ration of 7.9:1, but a fixed gear isn’t something that will normally ever wear out, so my basic point it still valid, I think.)

Adapting to an “EV lifestyle” hasn’t been difficult. Most days in the summer I was able to charge enough each day from our solar power at home to go 20 to 40 miles on that power alone, and my wife and I can both charge at work. Shopping hasn’t been a problem, though I see a shift in our shopping habits where we tend to frequent establishments that are within walking distance of public chargers. The cars do get noticeably less range from their batteries when the outside temperature drops into the low 30’s, and this did put me squeaking into work on an almost-empty battery on one morning the other week. Nissan Leafs have a “turtle mode” that they enter when they are almost completely out of battery power; in this mode motor power is limited and a turtle icon appears on the dash. This mode reportedly gives a half mile or so of range before the car turns off completely, but even on that morning I didn’t run it down quite that far. It’s difficult to know exactly how much you have left at the very bottom of the gauge, because when you have about 8 miles left the “Miles to Empty” display goes to “—“, and after the battery percent falls below 5%, it does the same. Here’s a slightly blurry picture of the dash—

Leaf dash

I think Nissan did this on purpose to get you to really pay attention to getting to a charger when the battery gets low, but I think I’ve figured out one way to tell how much battery is left. There are twelve battery bars in that right-hand gauge when the battery is full, and each one represents 8% of the battery. They each stay lit until that 8% is gone—so as the battery goes from 92% to 91%, the 12th bar turns off, then the 11th bar turns off as the battery goes from 85% to 84%, etc. But, what this means is that when the last bar turns off , the car still has about 4% of the battery left (12 bars x 8 percent = 96 percent of the battery), plus the 1/2 mile or so in turtle mode. Together this is probably about 4 or 5 miles of range if you were driving slowly, and maybe more. I haven’t had occasion to experiment with this, but I will sometime soon; I’m pretty curious about how far I can creep along at lower speeds after that last battery bar turns off. I’ll find that turtle pretty soon, but I need to be right close to a charger when I do, lest I embarrass myself by purposely running my EV “out of gas”. 

I’ve also noticed that when the weather is cooler the cars use the battery up quicker at first, but then after about 30 minutes they start getting more efficient again (to me, “really efficient” is one mile per percent of battery charge, or 100 miles to a full battery). My conjecture is that this is because the batteries work better when they’re warm, and the internal temperature of the batteries goes up, even on cold mornings, as you drive and use them.

Other things I really like—because the heater doesn’t depend on engine coolant getting warm, the heat is near-instantaneous (Leafs use a heat pump, as it is more efficient than resistive heat). This is fantastic on cold mornings—with the heat and defrost on, and the steering wheel and seat heat on, it only takes a minute or so to be completely comfortable, AND have an ice-free and defrosted windshield. Not so with my Subaru—I’d be sitting in the driveway for quite some time trying to get the windshield clear enough to drive. And, you can access the cars via the internet, and check on your state of charge, or to turn the heat or air-conditioning on. (This feature enables you to use wall power, instead of the battery, to get the car to a comfortable temperature, and to get it there before you even get to the car.)

charge screen

The on-line screen to remotely check on charging status and to control climate control settings.

There are a few tiny things I don’t like, but they’re really just quibbles.  Continue reading

Cloudy Day Pause

snowy DC

Gray days to deal with.

Mr. X thinks my vision of a future without nuclear power is “too hard” (“Needed: The Hard Path“). I was all set to write a post arguing about it, but something that’s not too uncommon here has given me pause—a dark and cloudy day. This is because a big part of the entire argument of whether we need nuclear power hinges, for most people, on whether or not we can make enough power from renewable sources. And THAT entire argument hinges on the question of intermittency, which is what the cloudy day reminded me of. Solar arrays can make plenty of power on a sunny day, and wind turbines can make plenty of power on a windy day, but what about all those other times? If we depended entirely on wind and solar and hydroelectric, what would we do on short winter days when the entire East coast might be having a cloudy and windless day? Or worse, a week of such days? If the energy constraints in such a system were dramatic, or if such a system was too difficult to build, it might result in that path that would be “too hard”.

So, Mr. X had a variety of points, but his main ones, including whether or not I was being consistent in my thinking, hinge around this “too hard” piece. In general, there are two broad lines of thinking here-

Line-of-thinking #1—We will need nuclear power as we move toward carbon-free sources, because wind and solar and other renewable sources are intermittent, and we will need nuclear power for baseload power. Or, related, we will need nuclear power as a transitional power source, until we build out enough wind and solar and/or develop grid-scale storage capacity.

Line-of-thinking #2—We can indeed switch over to renewable power, and the intermittency problems can be solved, and the money we would have had to spend developing safer “Gen IV” nuclear power would have been better spent on developing the truly safe and sustainable renewable system that we will need for the long term.

So, who is right? Could we make the system work with just renewable power? After some contemplation, I’ve decided that we probably can, though I admit that it will be difficult, as it will involve some fundamental changes. Some factors that make me lean in this direction—

— I think we need to undergo a paradigm shift with regard to how people expect their electricity to be delivered; the new systems will not just mimic the old. Customers today expect electricity to be generated by the utility and made continually available, in any amount, at a set rate. The system of the future might function dramatically differently from this, with the utility companies buying power from thousands or tens of thousands of producers, aggregating that power, and then making it available at a continually varying spot price. Consumers will be able to monitor this price via smart meters, and will be able to use this information to shift their demand.  And, they will indeed shift their demand, because prices might vary dramatically. (And, because the generation is so dispersed, it will help moderate demands on transmission infrastructure.) This change alone would go a long way toward solving the intermittency problem—we might someday see tremendous electricity consumption during sunny hours, as people choose that time when power is plentiful (and cheap) to charge their EV’s, heat or cool their homes, run their water heaters, run their air conditioners, or, factories choose that time to conduct energy-intensive operations.

— Wind and solar complement each other really well. Germany is a good example of this—the country has 32 gw of installed solar, and about 30 gw of wind. Their solar peaks in spring and summer months, when daily solar production is about eight times higher than in December and January. But wind production is nearly the exact opposite, and the seasonal fluctuations largely balance out. (For a visual of this, see pages 13,14, and 16 of this presentation. It takes half a minute or so to load this page, but worth the wait.) Other factors also help, such as the fact that daily demand peaks in most systems during midday hours, and seasonally during the summer, exactly when solar production peaks.

Kaprun hydro-electric dam, Salzburg, Austria.

Kaprun hydroelectric dam, Salzburg, Austria.

— Hydroelectric power could be held back during the day, when solar power is at its maximum, and used during nighttime hours. In many locations it can even be held back seasonally, if required. Pumped-storage systems are used in similar ways; filled when power is cheap, then used for generation when power is expensive. Other forms of utility-scale storage are being developed at a rapid rate, from compressed air storage in abandoned mines, to grid-scale liquid-metal batteries, to ideas about lifting whole mountains (TEDx Talk here), or putting together used EV battery packs in stationary locations for grid-scale battery storage. In all storage situations, the higher the difference between low and high electricity rates, the more profitable the storage—another prime situation where market-forces will help to solve a problem.

— Roofs everywhere need solar panels, even if they don’t have optimum orientations. Panels facing east and west on rooftops (and not just south) spread solar production more evenly across the course of the day (…though in the Southern Hemisphere they put solar on the northern sides of their roofs).

— The larger the geographic area that is tied together by a smart grid, the easier it is to balance power and loads. Over large areas, solar insolation averages out, as does wind production. DC transmission lines are capable of delivering power for well over 1,000 miles, and such transmission corridors could link the production from the windiest areas in the Midwest and offshore to urban centers where it would be needed, and from the sunniest parts of the country to the less-sunny (see post “This is Interesting…“). Continue reading