S. is an electric-vehicle (EV) driver, builder of a platinum-LEED home, and all-around passionate environmentalist in my congregation. He lends his EV out to everyone who’s curious (Joy, my wife, calls him an EVangelist), and one Tuesday in October, he brought it to church for me to try it for a week. It’s a Leaf. It was lots of fun. And I promised I’d write it up, which I am finally doing now that I’m making myself blog daily (except for the Weekend from Hell, which we will ignore).

The first thing you need to know is that I have a serious commute. It’s 32-39 miles, depending on the route. A car has to get me that far in heavy traffic with lots of battery charge to spare, or I’m going to be very nervous. The car had plenty of charge for the job.

It did not always have as much charge as it said it did, or maybe it’s vice versa. For example, we took a seven-mile drive to a restaurant one day. The car said it had 35 miles of charge, so that seemed plenty safe. By the time we’d gotten to the restaurant, our cushion had dwindled; the car was reporting it had dropped 14 miles. Ulp. We made it home, no problem, but this erratic behavior could hamper travel.

Plugging into the 110 outlet in our entryway was enough to charge the battery overnight, but it meant running the cable over the sidewalk, which meant taping it down each time. If we owned an electric car, that would get old very fast. We’d need a charging station in the street, or in our garage, or at least we’d want to use the 220 outlet that’s in the garage. (Our garage is not presently accessible to any car that wants to keep its undercarriage attached.)

At work, I could fully charge in 4-6 hours, because our church rocks and puts its money where its Seventh Principle is by having a free charging station. If you had a commute of any significant length and didn’t have access to a charging station while at work, an EV would be pretty impractical; however, more chargers are popping up all the time, many available to anyone who wishes to use them, for free or a small fee. Mobile apps direct EV users to the network, and there’s a great community feel to it, eco-creative types helping each other out. Our church is on the apps’ maps, and we often have visitors who are there to plug in while they’re working, shopping nearby, etc.–or they live in the neighborhood.

The other cool thing about UUCPA’s charger is that, like many Palo Alto locations, we opt for Palo Alto Green, which means that all our electricity is from renewable sources. So after I charged at work, I was driving a truly zero-emissions vehicle. Even charging at home, with plain old Pacific Gas and Electric, I’m running a much cleaner car than one with a gas engine. Joy, who is an energy analyst for the state of California, says that even if you use electricity generated in the dirtiest way available (that would be coal), driving an EV would still generate lower emissions than a hybrid, gas, or diesel engine. (S. takes care to say, “The manufacture of the EV causes emissions,” proving that there is such a thing as a rigorously honest evangelist.)

A factor that surprised me may be a major barrier to widespread acceptance of EVs around the country: they’re cold. A gas engine engenders so much excess heat as a by-product that when you want to warm the interior, you just run a little air off the engine. Okay, all that heat is part of the problem–but in Vermont, you need it. Heck, you need it in Palo Alto. You can turn on the car’s heater, of course, but making heat from electricity takes a lot of energy, and it cuts into the battery’s time quite a lot. The seat warmers, plus some old-fashioned approaches like a blanket over the lap, were good enough in this climate, even for an easily-chilled person like me, but in a cold climate, EVs will need more efficiency to get both a warm interior and a long-lasting battery.

On the other hand, S. is an early adapter and the Leaf has been around a while, so I was driving one of the least efficient EVs. I’m sure this aspect of the technology will keep improving, as will the infrastructure that is currently reminiscent of the earliest days of ATMs, when they were few and far between and of so many formats that most of them didn’t take your card. Standardization will come soon, as it usually does in technology.

Joy got to go on a tour of the Tesla factory last week–don’t ever let anyone tell you that the job of State of California Regulatory Analyst lacks in glamour and excitement–and reports that they plan to offer an EV for under $30,000 in 2017. Our Prius will be pushing 200k miles by then. Hmmm . . .

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