Monday, March 6, 2017

Sustainability Update: Electric Car with Backup Gas Generator

Our 2017 Chevy Volt
Lifetime MPGe: 96
We were in no hurry to replace our old Chevy Cavaliers--modest, reliable cars that suited us fine, even if car-lovers don't find much to celebrate about them. We had no car payments for years, and we loved that. James's car finally died for good when we were on a date in a snowstorm on Valentine's day.

When it did, we finally had an opportunity to buy a 2017 Chevy Volt (we vowed for an EV when the time came). We live in rural Indiana where there are few charging stations. With an all-electric range of 43 miles in the winter to 76 miles in the middle of summer, the Volt with its backup gas generator seemed the most practical option for us.

After one year, we have traveled 11,641 miles on about 21 gallons of gas. That's three fill-ups of the 7-gallon tank and mostly all-electric miles. In a year, we've traveled roughly 554 miles per gallon of gas. But of course, electricity also has an energy cost.

The handy metric for overall energy usage, MPGe (miles per gallon gasoline equivalent), is a measure of distance traveled per unit of energy consumed. MPGe combines the total miles and figures how much gas and how many kWh of energy were used to cover those miles. After all, setting our solar panels aside, electricity still has a carbon footprint (at least on cloudy days and at night for us). One gallon of gas is equivalent to roughly 33.7 kWh (EPA formulation).

Back when we only had one row of solar panels on the barn, 33.7 kWh was about the entire solar output on a good day. Now we have doubled our solar output, but still: a gloriously sunny day produces for us the equivalent of two gallons of gasoline. This should put the power of oil in perspective. No wonder we built our civilization on it--where else can we find that much bang for our buck? Alas, there are consequences.

Our lifetime MPGe so far on the Chevy Volt is hovering around 96. In pure EV mode, in town we get up to 150-160 MPGe, and our highway MPGe is around 100. This is one of several things that's counterintuitive when you're used to conventional cars: the car is actually more efficient when there's a lot of stopping and starting, and especially coasting (with the regen-on-demand feature). When using the gas/hybrid (the technology is apparently some kind of blend), our MPG is anywhere from 35-55, which brings down our average quickly, even though we rarely use it. Apparently this is why some green people aren't doing cartwheels over the Volt, but it's all in how you use it. If you avoid gas as much as possible, you can get respectable numbers.

In our case, we can still get decent numbers because my husband and I rarely drive. He works from home, commuting by foot from bedroom to office most days. The grocery store is five minutes away. I only work during the spring and fall. It used to be that I taught a class once a week that was ten minutes away. Now I teach two days a week further away, but in good weather, I can still make the round trip on a full charge. We carpool with my parents (our neighbors) to family events.

A 2015 Chevy catalogue advertised that Volt users who charge regularly go 900 miles between fill-ups. (The 2017 Volt is much-improved.)
The most we have gone in summer is 5848 miles on one tank of gas (recall, 7 gallon-tank).
This past winter, the gas engine kicked on whenever it was below freezing, giving us our lowest fill-up yet at 1085 miles. That's probably the most disappointing feature: in super cold weather, you can have a charge of 40+ miles but not use it because the gas engine overrides to keep the battery warm (and possibly other things). But lest we lose perspective, the Cavalier took us maybe 300 miles on a 12 gallon tank. The Volt is much better!

If this information is helpful, I'm glad. We are pleased with the Volt, though not thrilled with the winter performance.

There's also Apple Car Play for your iPhone, which is fun but a little buggy. (It's just such a step up from the 2004 Cavalier; we're easy to please.)

Hey, maybe next time we'll get a Tesla Model 3 at just $35,000.