Going Electric

Not all of us can, like the royal couple at their wedding last May, drive a vintage Jaguar modified to be all-electric. Even most Teslas remain beyond reach. Yet while 1 percent of Americans own electric vehicles (EVs), they’re not necessarily the richest 1 percent. Gas-free driving is attainable.

Many new EV models (seating up to five) are priced around $30,000, and Bloomberg reports that 130 additional models will appear in showrooms over the coming five years. More affordable still are low-mileage used EVs.

Dr. Ed Pontius of Portland told me he was “absolutely flabbergasted” to discover the relatively modest cost of near-new EVs; last summer, he bought a Fiat 500e with only 700 miles on it for $12,000 and has been “thrilled” with the vehicle and its battery range of 85 or more miles. Switching to an EV, he says, is a “far easier step to take than many of us realize.”

Chevrolet Bolt owner Allen Armstrong of Portland is equally enthused about his first year of driving an EV, in which the only scheduled maintenance has been a tire rotation. EVs require none of the oil changes, belt replacements and other service costs associated with a mechanical motor. And the Department of Energy estimates annual EV charging expenses at roughly half of fuel costs.

Armstrong acknowledges that longer trips take more route-planning (using apps like PlugShare or ChargePoint to locate fast chargers) and recalls returning from one long trip with only 14 miles left of battery range. An expanding network of chargers along major driving routes, he says, will be a “huge help” in avoiding what’s known as range anxiety.

Now that our home has solar panels, offering the potential for “free” power to fuel a car, I’ve begun looking more seriously at EVs. I recently test-drove a used Nissan Leaf and was fortunate to find a knowledgeable salesperson at a dealership, Lee Nissan, that actually promotes EVs.

That’s not the norm yet, according to a Sierra Club survey in which volunteers visited more than 300 dealerships around the country to test-drive EVs. Many sales agents failed to discuss EV charging or the $7,500 federal tax credit, and some even neglected to have the cars charged before scheduled test drives.

Being accustomed to a stick-shift car, I found driving an EV simple, with the ride smooth and – not surprisingly – quiet. A meter on the dashboard showed how much power the battery lost during acceleration and gained during coasting and braking. I never track my car’s tachometer, but I soon found myself trying to accelerate gently and coast more frequently – driving habits, I realized, that could foster a kinder, gentler experience all around if more EVs were on the road.

Of course, the real draw of EVs is that they can be gentler on the planet. A 2010 NASA study affirmed that motor vehicles are the greatest net “contributor to atmospheric warming now and in the near term.” EVs can operate with “zero emissions” if charged from a renewable source, but those using electricity from a gas- or coal-fired plant may actually generate more carbon emissions than a gas-powered car, according to researcher Dénes Csala.

Reduced emissions from greater use of EVs would certainly benefit air quality in Maine, long known as the region’s tailpipe with one of the nation’s highest rates of asthma. Public transit could also reduce emissions, but Maine is woefully underserved by those options outside city centers.

Maine is well-situated to foster EVs, having the lowest average electricity price of any New England state and having roughly three-fourths of its supply from renewable sources (some more renewable than others, as I wrote of earlier this year). If a governor more supportive of renewable power is elected in November, the state could finally leap forward in solar and wind energy generation, making EVs even more economical.

For decades, Pontius kept “anticipating we’d have better options” for greener vehicles, he recalls, before realizing last year that the battery range of EVs had risen and the price point had fallen to a point where a purchase finally made practical sense.

His timing was good, observes Tony Giambro, owner of Paris Autobarn, which sells used hybrids and EVs (brought in from out of state, he says, as that’s the only place they can be bought at auction now). In his opinion, the “market on used electric vehicles is undervalued and finally starting to correct itself.”

The price of used EVs may start climbing, in part because EVs are gaining visibility – as new charging stations appear at highway rest stops, shopping complexes, municipal buildings and more.

Some of the funds Maine received from the Volkswagen settlement will go – over the next two years – to construct fast-charger stations along major road networks.

If you’re tempted to join the growing ranks of EV buyers, experts advise giving careful consideration to daily distances logged. The trick to keeping EVs affordable, Giambro says, is “not to buy more range than you need.” If you routinely require a longer range, it may be more affordable to buy a used plug-in hybrid (where typically the first 20-25 miles run off the battery) as higher-range EVs are still pricey.

As I learn more about EVs, the choice to purchase one becomes less a question of “whether” and more one of “when.” Like one out of five respondents in a recent AAA poll, I fully expect my next car will be an EV.


© Marina Schauffler, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.