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New study shows just how 'green' electric cars are

Switching to a battery-powered vehicle will yield measurable savings in a motorist’s energy bills, according to a new study, while also reducing global warming emissions.

But the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS, finds that the advantages vary widely depending upon where you live.  In the best regions, savings on energy can add up to more than $1,000 annually – with battery cars cleaner than anything else on the road.  But even in the worst regions, those heavily dependent upon coal to generate electricity, the UCS report says battery vehicles retain a significant advantage over traditional automotive powertrain technology.

“No matter where you live in the United States, electric vehicles are good choice for reducing global warming emissions and saving moneyon fueling up,” said Don Anair, the report’s author and senior engineer for UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program.

The organization bills the new study as a first-of-its-kind, and unlike some more limited reports, it tracked total energy use on a wells-to-wheels basis.  In other words, it measures everything from the energy actually used to pump and then refine oil to the energy used to run an internal combustion engine.  For electric vehicles, the study also considered such things as the energy used and pollution created while mining coal.

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But the advantage, reports the UCS, is clearly in favor of pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, as well as plug-in hybrids.

The study shows that 45% of Americans live in what are categorized as “Best” regions, where battery vehicles result in reduced energy costs and lower greenhouse gas emissions than even the best hybrids or internal combustion-powered automobiles – those now getting at least 50 miles per gallon.

In fact, in California and New York State, a hybrid or conventional gas vehicle would need to yield at least 80 mpg to keep up with the likes of a Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt (the latter operating two-thirds of the time on battery power).

About 37% of Americans live in “Better” regions, according to the new study, where a battery car still is likely to meet or exceed the emissions performance of a 40 mpg hybrid.  And in “Good” regions, like Midwest states heavily dependent upon coal power, battery car emissions are equal to the best non-hybrids, such as a Ford Fiesta or Chevrolet Cruze, Anair said.

  • States in the “Best” category are located primarily along the East and West Coasts and include: California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona, New York, Massachusetts and Virginia;
  • “Better” states include Texas, New Mexico, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee;
  • “Good” states are largely concentrated in the Midwest and Plains states and include Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota.

“No matter where you live,” he added, “electric vehicles save you on fuel costs.”  With the Chevy Volt, for example, the annual savings are likely to range between $580 and $890 annually.  The fully electric Nissan Leaf should bump that to anywhere from $770 to $1220 annually, according to the UCS.

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The UCS study acknowledged significant differences in the nationwide electric grid that need be addressed, said Anair, but he added that with such efforts already underway, “The good news is that as the nation’s electric grids get cleaner, consumers who buy an EV today can expect to see their car’s emissions go down over the lifetime of the vehicle.”

Consumers have a fair degree of control over how much they save on energy by choosing rate plans – as well as when they actually charge up their vehicles, noted the UCS.  Many utilities now have or are planning to offer interruptible or time-sensitive rates.  And early adopters appear to be taking advantage of these.  The study found the majority of current electric vehicle owners charge up overnight.

That not only means lower-cost power but also reduces the strain on the electric grid as there is less overall demand.  This could permit a significant increase in the number of electric vehicles on the road without forcing the addition of more generators, the UCS report suggested.

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Whether that will continue to be the case is far from clear.  Some industry analysts warn that as more battery cars get on the road – and as the number of public charging stations increases – it will become more common for vehicles to power up during daytime.  This could be especially true with the addition of high-speed “Level III” charging systems that could permit a vehicle like the Leaf to get an 80% recharge in as little as 15 to 20 minutes.

That, experts are betting, will enhance the appeal of battery technology beyond the relatively marginal audience now turning to the technology.  So far, plug-ins and battery-electric vehicles are capturing barely a tenth of a percent of overall U.S. new vehicle sales.

But Anair said the UCS is betting that demand will also increase as new models roll out, giving consumers greater choice.  Before the end of this year, a wide variety of makers will enter the market, including Toyota, with its RAV4-EV and Plius Plug-in; Ford with its C-Max plug-in and Focus Electric, and Honda, with its first battery-electric vehicle since the early 1990s, a version of the subcompact Fit.