OPEC’s Worst Nightmare

There’s a lot of talk about Electric Vehicles out there. People seem to be split into two camps: on one side, we have the people who snicker and point at electric vehicles and compare them to golf carts. And in the other camp, we have the people who are taking a serious look at EVs due to the combination of supply contraction and robust growth in global demand for petroleum (read: really high gasoline prices).

In this debate, it’s important to remember that the electric vehicle is relatively new technology to the mass market (GM had a working production prototype called the EV-1, which was scrapped in 1999). The early internal combustion vehicles weren’t much to shake a stick at- and in fact, the Ford Model T was incredibly prone to poor performance and breakdown issues (not to mention bad hair- early models weren’t enclosed). As such, it’s important to view EVs through that lens- new technology that will improve with time.

That’s not to say that EVs aren’t worthy of purchase today. With the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF going on sale in select Canadian markets this summer, there isn’t a lot of user feedback available yet (aside from the blogosphere and the auto reviewers, that is). The US’ EPA has released efficiency results for both vehicles, and the data is quite promising.

Nissan LEAF

Range: 117km (using the LA4 “real world” rest protocol)

Energy Consumption: 34 kWh per 161km (about 99 mpg when compared to a traditional internal combustion, or ICE, engine)

Cost per kilometer: 1.08 cents

This tells us that the Nissan LEAF uses about 0.211 kWh per kilometer driven. Armed with that data, you can expect to expend about 25 kWh over the full range of the car (an estimate, of course- actual performance will vary depending on driving habits and climate conditions just like with gasoline powered vehicles). If you plug in your EV to charge during off-peak hours (in Ontario, between 9pm and 7am), you’ll pay around $1.28 to recharge the battery fully. Even if you need to recharge the battery fully every day, that’s only $40 a month. I bet filling up your gas tank costs a lot more.

Chevy Volt

Range: 56km (again using the LA4 test protocol in battery-only mode)

Energy Consumption: 36 kWh per 161 km (about 93 mpg when compared to a traditional ICE)

Cost per kilometer: 1.14 cents (in electric-only mode)

So, the Volt uses about 0.223 kWh per kilometer driven. In other words, you can expect to use around 12.5 kWh over the entire range of the car- which is about half that of the LEAF in electric-only mode (the Volt switches to a gasoline-powered backup generator when the battery starts to run low; and the total range of the car averages 610 km). Charging the battery fully on the Volt (in Ontario) would cost about $0.64, assuming you only charged it during off-peak hours.

The economics of running these two cars on battery power alone are very comparable. Both are much, much more affordable than gasoline-powered cars at current fuel prices. In fact, the price of gasoline would have to fall to 15.6 cents per litre for a car getting 30 mpg fuel efficiency to match the cost efficiency of operating the Nissan LEAF – and that’s only considering the price of moving the respective vehicles from place to place. With an electric vehicle, the cost of routine maintenance is much lower as the wear and tear is miniscule compared to that of a traditional ICE vehicle (an electric engine has about 5 moving parts, whereas an internal combustion engine has several hundred).

The sticker price on current EVs is somewhat higher than their ICE powered counterparts – the Canadian MSRP for the Volt starts around $41,000, with the LEAF weighing in at just under $39,000. Though, the higher purchase price is offset over the life of the vehicle by the higher operating efficiency. For instance, an electric vehicle owner who drives 15 000 km in a year will save around $1,250 in fuel over the driver of a 30 mpg ICE-powered vehicle at current prices. Additionally, analysis conducted by Nissan suggests that the average driver will also save $400 annually in maintenance costs. Assuming a 15 year operational life cycle, the electric vehicle owner would have an extra $5,000 in the bank over the owner of a traditional gasoline powered car (perhaps even more- combustion engines tend to require more frequent maintenance and repair as they near the end of the operational life cycle).

So, who’s getting in line to buy an electric car this summer? Obviously, they’re not for everyone. With such a small range, people who commute long distances (or weekend cottagers) aren’t likely to hurry to purchase the Nissan LEAF. Clearly, this is where the design team at GM scores a big win with the Volt – the gasoline powered backup generator extends the range of the vehicle to nearly that of a traditional ICE-powered subcompact.

And for the people who giggle about electric cars… a 2011 Chevy Volt has 273 lb/ft of torque in electric only mode- more than double the 123 lb/ft of the similarly-sized Chevy Cruze. Hold on to your hat when you hit the pedal.


Disclosure: at time of writing, I did not own an equity position in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

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