Op-Ed: Are electric cars really a smart economic and environmental choice?

There is much discussion as to whether it is wise to buy a new electric car or another gasoline one. Which kind of vehicle best suits our needs? Is a suitable electric vehicle even available? Which option is most cost efficient? Which is truly better for the environment? What is the current state of electric vehicle incentives in Vermont?

First, what do we really need to function during a typical month? If we live in a rural place where the snow and mud ruts are deep or we haul large items, we need a utility vehicle, which, until recently, has eliminated an electric car from consideration. Starting this year, several manufacturers will be releasing new electric pick-up trucks and SUVs. If we only need such a vehicle on occasion, it is worth considering the purchase of a smaller, lighter, less expensive and environmentally beneficial vehicle and renting that truck or SUV for the few times per year you actually need one. The long-term savings could be significant.  It might actually be financially wise to add a small electric second or third vehicle that can be used for the majority of our daily travel miles.

Is an electric car more expensive than a comparable gasoline powered car? Actually it is not when all things are considered, even without the inclusion of any tax incentives. If we compare two cars with similar specifications, a 2019 Honda Accord ($34,000 including a 6.5% sales tax, 3,208 lbs., 25 MPG and $3.00/gallon) with a 2019 Tesla Model 3 ($42,500 including a 6.5% sales tax, incentives excluded, 3,552 lbs., 3.70 miles/KW-Hour at $0.169/KW-Hour – plus Rate 1 daily charge – or 4,054 KW-Hours/year) over 15,000 miles per year and 15 years of ownership. At 600 gallons/year, the Accord will cost $61,100 to buy and operate over 15 years of ownership. The Model 3 will cost $53,000 to buy and operate, or 13% less. The operational energy required for the Accord would be equivalent to 21.98 MW-Hours/year compared to 4.1 MW-Hours/year for the Model 3, or 5.4 times as much annually. With no transmission, exhaust system, emissions controls, internal combustion engine component complications, reduced brake system wear due to regenerative braking and simplified service maintenance, the cost of electric car ownership can be very attractive. Any federal, state, local or utility incentive rebate would make it even more so. Performance benefits of electric cars can include faster acceleration, less noise and the convenience of home charging.

Interestingly, the $150/month gasoline expense for the Accord could be a monthly payment on a 15-year term, $17,600 Vermont State Employee Credit Union (see www.vsecu.com) Green Energy Loan at 5.65% APR, allowing the purchase and home installation of a 5.4 KW solar photovoltaic system. This system would provide all of the required electricity to power the Tesla (a 3.1 KW system would do the job), plus a 43% surplus for powering a portion of the owner’s home. All for the same $150/month spent on polluting gasoline. In addition, there are federal, state or local incentives available for the solar PV system, which could allow an even larger solar array with the same monthly payment. The clincher for electric car economics is the fact that once the loan is paid off, the owner that charges at home then has free vehicle and some home use electricity for the remaining life of the solar PV system. Current technology solar PV systems costing about $3.25/watt (installed) are often warrantied for 25 years, but in reality, last 40 to 50 years without major component replacements or significant production degradation. This is of great benefit to future retirees who may someday be on a fixed income.

Many of us understand the environmental need to immediately move to a non-polluting method of transport.  Our transportation sector is the largest contributor to atmospheric pollution in Vermont. The climate math shows us that we need to globally get to near zero human-made carbon dioxide by no later than 2025 in order to avoid the fateful level of 450 parts per million (PPM) of atmospheric carbon dioxide. While efforts to improve our clean energy mass transit systems are our first order of business, lightweight, small, clean energy cars will also be important for our short-range trips in rural Vermont.

Climate resolution urgency is clear, but are electric vehicles actually a good environmental choice in this effort? Some say the embodied energy and material resource processing to build an electric car makes them more environmentally impacting than a conventional gasoline car. Comparing our Accord versus Model 3 comparison, it turns out that is not true. A gallon of gasoline makes about 19.64 lbs. of atmospheric carbon dioxide while making a KW-Hour of electricity from a natural gas-fired utility plant makes about 1.3 lbs. of carbon dioxide. Including the pollution created from manufacturing and assembling a solar PV system, it makes about 0.125 lbs. of carbon dioxide per KW-Hour and large-scale wind power about 0.03 lbs.

It takes about 36,400 KW-Hours to collect materials, process, transport and assemble the Honda, which makes about 47,300 lbs. of carbon dioxide. Fabricating the Tesla consumes about 62,500 KW-Hours of energy to fabricate and makes about 81,200 lbs. of carbon dioxide from a similar process and plant, or 72% more due to the more exotic materials required to make the battery systems. This, however, does not tell the whole story. The carbon dioxide produced by the Accord over our 15-year ownership example, including vehicle production, fuel refining/transport and fuel burning is about 247,800 lbs. of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide produced by the Model 3 for vehicle production, natural gas-fired utility electricity creation and charging is about 160,300 lbs. of carbon dioxide, or only 65% of the total carbon produced by the gasoline car. Fabricating the Tesla from their new solar powered plant in California and charging it from a home-based solar photovoltaic system would significantly reduce the carbon footprint of owning the car even further.

There have been some attractive changes in the availability of federal, state and utility incentives to purchase plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicles (see Drive Electric Vermont website www.driveelectricvt.com/why-go-electric/purchase-incentives). None of these incentives have been included in this cost comparison. Considering your own personal situation, vehicle need, income, tax status and incentive options could yield an electric vehicle cost reduction as high as $14,000 and a free Level 2 charging station.

Although our sanest future transportation investments will still be in long-range, energy efficient mass transit systems, these incentives help make an even stronger case for making our next personal vehicles electric. Then, of course, there is that inconvenient 6-year carbon elimination issue that is the responsibility of all of us.

Written by Keith Dewey. Dewey is the Principal of Dewey + Associates, Architects and Planners in Weston, Vermont and a technical advisor and Core Group member of West River Valley 100% Renewables, a group dedicated to helping a 7-town region of southeastern Vermont provide 100% of their consumed energy from self-generated and pollution free sources by 2025 in order to do their part to avoid reaching 450 PPM of global atmospheric carbon dioxide.

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