The Limits to Compassion

For hardcore greenies, one of the most well known books in one edition or another is Limits to Growth. This is the endlessly discussed, debated, and, if you’re of the denier persuasion, reviled, book first published in 1972 that used computer modeling to sound the alarm about sustainability. While I have always considered it a must read for anyone serious about sustainability or, more specifically, climate change, I typically recommend it with the sotto voce caveat that it’s an academic, some would say dry, read. For all the horrific implications of its contents, it’s not exactly Jurassic Indiana Jones and Empire of the Feedback Loops of Doom Strike Back.

But there’s one passage in this book that has always stood out for me because it’s a bright ray of humanity in the middle of a stoic, gray book, albeit one with well deserved landmark status. The text in question is on page 281 of the most recent edition, published in 2004, subtitled The 30-Year Update:


One is not allowed in the industrial culture to speak about love, except in the most romantic and trivial sense of the word. Anyone who calls upon the capacity of people to practice brotherly and sisterly love, love of humanity as a whole, love of nature and of our nurturing planet, is more likely to be ridiculed than to be taken seriously. The deepest difference between optimists and pessimists is their position in the debate about whether human beings are able to operate collectively from a basis of love. In a society that systematically develops individualism, competitiveness, and short-term focus, the pessimists are in the vast majority.

Individualism and shortsightedness are the greatest problems of the current social system, we think, and the deepest cause of unsustainability. Love and compassion institutionalized in collective solutions is the better alternative. A culture that does not believe in, discuss, and develop these better human qualities suffers from a tragic limitation in its options. “How good a society does human nature permit?” asked psychologist Abraham Maslow. “How good a human nature does society permit?”

The sustainability revolution will have to be, above all, a collective transformation that permits the best of human nature, rather than the worst, to be expressed and nurtured. Many people have recognized that necessity and that opportunity. For example, John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1932:

The problem of want and poverty and the economic struggle between classes and nations is nothing but a frightful muddle, a transitory and unnecessary muddle. For the Western World already has the resource and the technique, if we could create the organization to use them, capable of reducing the Economic Problem, which now absorbs our moral and material energy, to a position of secondary importance….

Thus the … day is not far off when the Economic Problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and … the arena of the heart and head will be occupied … by our real problems-the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion.?

Aurelio Peccei, the great industrial leader who wrote constantly about problems of growth and limits, economics and environment, resources and governance, never failed to conclude that the answers to the world’s problems begin with a “new humanism.” In 1981 he expressed this view:

The humanism consonant with our epoch must replace and reverse principles and norms that we have heretofore regarded as untouchable, but that have become inapplicable, or discordant with our purpose; it must encourage the rise of new value systems to redress our inner balance, and of new spiritual, ethical, philosophical, social, political, aesthetic, and artistic motivations to fill the emptiness of our life; it must be capable of restoring within us … love, friendship, understanding, solidarity, a spirit of sacrifice, conviviality; and it must make us understand that the more closely these qualities link us to other forms of life and to our brothers and sisters everywhere in the world, the more we shall gain.

It is not easy to practice love, friendship, generosity, understanding, or solidarity within a system whose rules, goals, and information streams are geared for lesser human qualities. But we try, and we urge you to try. Be patient with yourself and others as you and they confront the difficulty of a changing world. Understand and empathize with inevitable resistance; there is resistance, some clinging to the ways of unsustainability, within each of us. Seek out and trust in the best human instincts in yourself and in everyone. Listen to the cynicism around you and have compassion for those who believe in it, but don’t believe it yourself.

Humanity cannot triumph in the adventure of reducing the human footprint to a sustainable level if that adventure is not undertaken in a spirit of global partnership. Collapse cannot be avoided if people do not learn to view themselves and others as part of one integrated global society. Both will require compassion, not only with the here and now, but with the distant and future as well. Humanity must learn to love the idea of leaving future generations a living planet.

Is anything we have advocated in this book, from more resource efficiency to more compassion, really possible? Can the world actually ease down below the limits and avoid collapse? Can the human footprint be reduced in time? Is there enough vision, technology, freedom, community, responsibility, foresight, money, discipline, and love, on a global scale?

Of all the hypothetical questions we have posed in this book, these are the most unanswerable, though many people will pretend to answer them. Even we-your authors-differ among ourselves when tallying the odds for and against. The ritual cheerfulness of many uninformed people, especially world leaders, would say the questions are not even relevant; there are no meaningful limits. Many of the informed are infected with the deep cynicism that lies just under the ritual public cheerfulness. They would say that there are severe problems already, with worse ones ahead, and that there’s not a chance of solving them.

Both of those answers are based, of course, on mental models. The truth of the matter is that no one knows.

We have said many times in this book that the world faces not a preordained future, but a choice. The choice is between different mental models, which lead logically to different scenarios. One mental model says that this world for all practical purposes has no limits. Choosing that mental model will encourage extractive business as usual and take the human economy even farther beyond the limits. The result will be collapse.

Another mental model says that the limits are real and close, and that there is not enough time, and that people cannot be moderate or responsible or compassionate. At least not in time. That model is self-fulfilling. If the world’s people choose to believe it, they will be proven right. The result will be collapse.

A third mental model says that the limits are real and close and in some cases below our current levels of throughput. But there is just enough time, with no time to waste. There is just enough energy, enough material, enough money, enough environmental resilience, and enough human virtue to bring about a planned reduction in the ecological footprint of humankind: a sustainability revolution to a much better world for the vast majority.

That third scenario might very well be wrong. But the evidence we have seen, from world data to global computer models, suggests that it could conceivably be made right. There is no way of knowing for sure, other than to try it.

One could write at length, possibly book length, about the topics and material touched on in this sliver of Limits to Growth; I would not be surprised to find out that several people have written such books. So I won’t attempt to say anything profound or extensive about the book or what I’ve quoted above, except to offer a few brief thoughts that I hope will prod you, Dear Reader, to ponder it and your place in our situation a bit more.

  • I’m always struck by both the depth and perhaps naivete of Abraham Maslow’s question, “How good a human nature does society permit?” I find the interaction between the psychology of the individual and the emergent properties of society endlessly fascinating, but primarily in terms of the causality arrow pointing in the other direction: How good a society does human nature permit? In particular, how much does our genetic baggage, as explored via the field of evolutionary psychology, create or limit our potential as societies and even as a civilization? I am not optimistic on this point; our tendency to revert to our default settings of tribalism, greed, and myopia — programming that allowed us to survive our “nasty, brutish, and short” lives as hunters and gatherers — echoes throughout our endeavors and presents serious hurdles we must negotiate before we can effectively deal with climate change.
  • I think the three mental models the authors describe, which I mentally abbreviate as “nothing to worry about”, “we’re doomed”, and “the situation is urgent but not hopeless” likely cover virtually every person at every level of engagement with sustainability or climate change. I fall into the last group, although I can’t make a serious case for being there and not in the “we’re doomed” group based on anything but a psychological defense mechanism. If you try very hard to approach climate change like a scientist — something I’ve always advocated — most notably to go exactly where the evidence leads you and nowhere else, then you quickly wind up in a decidedly grim place. Just the well understood lock-in effects (the long lifetime of our global energy infrastructure that produces far too much CO2; the very long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere; the slow environmental response to increased atmospheric CO2) guarantee that we’ve already consigned future generations to dealing with a nightmarish scenario in which sea level rise turns many millions, possibly billions, of people into permanent climate refugees. Unless, of course, we can develop and deploy a geoengineering solution, such as sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and permanently storing it away from the atmosphere, or blocking enough sunlight to reduce warming (which would still leave us to deal with “climate change’s evil twin”, ocean acidification and the resulting impacts on ocean fish we depend on for food). It’s deus ex machina time, on a global scale and under extreme time pressure, with almost unimaginably bad consequences if we fail.
  • Climate change is often called the ultimate example of a “super wicked problem”, and if you’re not familiar with that terminology I urge you to follow that link and at least skim the Wikipedia article. I certainly agree with that classification, and it points out just how difficult a challenge we’ve created for ourselves. But beyond that grim epiphany, I think each of us has to wrestle with the fundamental question of: What am I to do about this? How can I make a meaningful contribution, as measured in real world improvements and not feel-good self-assessments that “I did more than my neighbors, so I’ve done my part”, which would be yet another reversion to our default mindset as dictated by our evolutionary heritage?
  • It is my inability to answer that question — “What can I do about this?” — that led to depression and my decision to narrow my focus to electric vehicles. I have no delusion that electrifying transportation and cleaning up our electricity supply will be enough to “fix” the climate change mess we’ve spent the last 250 years creating; we’re far too deep in this particular hole for any single solution to do that. But it is clear to me that it’s a positive, necessary step and something that we can do now, from our individual purchasing decisions to voting for EV-friendly politicians.

The EV has landed

After (seemingly) endless analysis and navel staring, and (not coincidentally) (seemingly) endless patience displayed by my wife, we’ve taken the next step in our personal part of the electrification of personal transportation. Namely, we just bought the Nissan Leaf we’ve been leasing since March 2013.

Because of the perverse complexity of what should have been a straightforward decision and transaction, and the implications of many of the details we wrestled with for anyone in a similar situation, I thought it would be helpful to share the details of our thought processes and the experience of buying this particular car.

Please note that because of the length of this post, I’ve pushed a lot of the details and explanation into footnotes.

A bit of background

As I mentioned above, we leased a Nissan Leaf S in late March 2013. This was, in itself, a major step for us. Not only was it our first EV (electric vehicle) and the first time either of us had leased instead of bought a car, but it came at the end of a long and sometimes frustrating wait. That last part requires me to drag you back even further, to 2006, when I was absolutely convinced that electric cars would be on the market in just a few more years, so the right step for us was to buy a reliable, inexpensive ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle, in other words, a plain old gasoline car, and then make the leap into EV ownership at our earliest convenience. So, in June 2006 we bought a new Scion xA, which came to be known affectionately in our household and on this blog as Space Wart. It was an excellent car for our needs, and it turned out to be an outstanding bridge vehicle. Unfortunately, the electric car market didn’t pan out according to my master plan. First, the cars didn’t arrive quite as soon as I expected, and second, they were surprisingly (to me) expensive, by quite a margin. (For more than you could possibly want to know about the Leaf, see the Leaf’s Wikipedia entry.) Even though the Leaf hit the market in late 2010 and we liked what Nissan delivered, it wasn’t a viable option for us for the simplest, most brute-force economic reason: It cost too much.

We took the obvious (and admittedly cautious) path and continued to drive Space Wart and watch the EV market intently. Zip forward in our little saga to early 2013, and we find Nissan offering an enticing lease deal on the Leaf S. A local dealer had two in stock, we test drove one, loved it, and signed up for a lease. We got it for 24 months because we were worried about committing to a 36 month lease on our very first EV. Yes, in light of our experience with the car that sounds laughably timid, but I’m being honest here, and that’s why we made that particular decision.

Similarly, we weren’t sure if we wanted to spend the money to put an EVSE (or “charging station”[1]) in our garage. That would have cost us $1,500 to $2,000 to buy the unit itself, have an electrician run a new 240 volt line the length of our house to the garage, and install the EVSE. The Leaf comes with a 110 volt mini-EVSE, so we decided to try to live with just that plugged into a plain old wall socket in our garage. If that didn’t meet our requirements, we could always spring for the 240 volt/30 AMP version, which will charge the car twice as fast as the 110 volt version, later on. As it turned out, it’s now 27 months later and we’re still charging with the 110 volt EVSE, so we were able to spend that money elsewhere.[2]

Life with our Leaf

What’s it been like living with our Leaf, you may be wondering.

Short answer: We love it.

Long answer: We love it for all the obvious reasons, like much lower fuel/maintenance costs and carbon emissions per mile, plus some less obvious reasons, like the extremely quiet ride[3] and freedom from watching gasoline prices and dealing with the not-so-delightful smell of liquid fuel or stops at gas stations in all kinds of weather.

This is no doubt the point where a few people, no longer able to contain themselves, leap into the conversation and say, “But it doesn’t go as far on a charge as a gasoline car does, right???” Let me say this as gently as I can: No, it doesn’t, and if you absolutely have to have a vehicle with a longer range than an EV, then you shouldn’t buy one. Similarly, you shouldn’t buy a subcompact sedan if you need a pickup truck or minivan, and you shouldn’t buy a pickup truck or minivan if you need a high-miles-per-gallon commuter car, and you shouldn’t expect a motorcycle to be your only vehicle if you live in a part of the world that gets significant snow and icy road conditions. Whether you’re buying an EV or an ICE or a hybrid or a PHEV (plug-in hybrid) or a motorcycle you’re much more likely to be happy with your purchase if you match the vehicle to your needs.[4]

Right now — more on this below — most EVs on sale in the US are good for 80 to 100 real world miles on a charge, depending on driving pattern and conditions and whether you’re running the heat or air conditioning.

As I said above, we exclusively charge the car at home using the included 110 volt EVSE. I’ve never once used a public charger, simply because I’ve never had to. At the end of the day we plug in the car in our garage and the next morning we’re ready to go. Perhaps eight times in the last two years we’ve run longish errands in the morning on a Saturday and then plugged in the car during the day because we had a sporting event to go to that night.[5]

The one range-related issue is winter driving. The Leaf comes in three trim levels (S, SV, and SL), and the SV and SL use a heat pump, basically an air conditioner run in reverse, to help heat the interior. The model we have, the S, doesn’t have a heat pump and uses plain old resistance heating, like the coils on an electric stove or toaster (but nowhere near that high a temperature, obviously). The problem is that such a system really sucks electrons, which means your range takes a big hit in the winter, about a third. (During mild weather, we can easily get 100 miles on a full charge; during winter with the heater on high, that’s reduced to about 70 miles.) This requires more careful planning, especially when it’s really cold, like February 2015 was in the NE US. The more efficient heat pump-assisted system in the SV and SL models doesn’t suffer as much of a range hit, but I don’t have any first-hand experience with them, so I can’t comment on what it’s like in real world use.

As far as the other major new thing in this adventure, leasing a car, to be blunt, I hate it. Not only do you pay a high price per unit of time you have the car or mile driven, but you have to worry about how you’ll be treated when you hand the car in — will they charge you for every little scratch, etc. I’ve heard from friends that the dealer we leased from was very reasonable at lease turn-in time, but I’ve also heard some horror stories about other car dealers. Also, I hated being on the clock and knowing I had a fixed time to keep the car, not to mention the joy of potentially having to buy new tires for a car at the end of a lease and then not getting to use them. In this case, we were pretty sure that leasing was a good idea because it bought us insulation from highly uncertain depreciation issues; if Nissan or some other company brought out an EV that went a bazillion miles on a charge and cost less than our car, then ours would plummet in market value. By leasing we didn’t have to worry about that and we could blissfully ignore trade-in/resale value issues. At least that was the theory. As it turned out, this looming issue of resale value seems to have worked very strongly in our favor, as I’ll explain a bit further down.

Deciding on our next step

We were acutely aware since we signed our lease that we were on the clock and had to be thinking about how to replace our Leaf. Fast forwarding our story to early 2015, we found very few other EV options that worked for us. The BMW i3 was too expensive; the Ford Focus EV has severely compromised storage space and a dashboard that looks like the result of an illicit liaison between an Edsel and a Transformer; the Mitsubishi i was too small and too weird; the VW e-Golf was too expensive; the Soul EV, Spark EV, and Fiat 500e were intriguing but weren’t available in NY State, etc. So it seemed pretty clear that we would wind up leasing another Leaf, even though, as I said above, I deeply dislike leasing. We didn’t want to buy a new Leaf and face a massive depreciation hit when the Leaf II (and Chevy Bolt and whatever Honda’s EV will be) all arrive in 2017 with much greater battery range. But we were hearing rumors that something was afoot from Nissan, so we decided to buy ourselves some time and extend our lease by six months. When in doubt: Decide not to decide, if that’s an option.

So we extended our lease, and then the news dropped that Nissan was introducing a 25% larger battery in the SV and SL trim levels of the 2016 Leaf, which would go on sale in the US in September. (That sales date came directly from a woman I spoke with at NMAC in April, so I’m reasonably sure it’s accurate; we’ll find out in about two months.) We still don’t know anything about pricing of the 2016 models, so we’re dealing with, at best, half of the information we’d need to make an informed decision. At this point, we grudgingly decided that our best option was to ride out our lease until September, and then lease another Leaf for 24 months, which would carry us well past the introduction of the Leaf II, which is expected in mid-2017.

Buying the car

Then news broke that Nissan was offering some Leaf lessees very sizable discounts, up to $6,500, to people willing to buy their leased Leaf.[7] Looking at our residual (the remaining value of our vehicle) and subtracting the $6,500 meant we were definitely in the ball park, even assuming that our car would drop in value quite a bit when the “200-mile EVs” arrived en masse in two years.

Let me introduce here a calculation that I found helpful in deciding what to do with leasing or buying a Leaf. I call it the “roll it off a cliff” calculation. Say that your cost to lease a given model of a car is $X per year, including the up-front money, taxes, fees, and your monthly payments. Essentially, your total cost over the lease term divided by the number of years, not including fuel and insurance. For a new Leaf S, that’s currently about $3,650[6]. If you buy a Leaf for $Y and keep it for Y/X years, then you could give it away (“roll it off a cliff”) and do no worse financially than if you’d leased a series of Leafs for the same amount of time. For a new Leaf S, assuming you get the full $7,500 Federal tax break, then your bottom line price is about $24,000, including tax and fees, which makes your “roll it off a cliff” number about 6.5 years.

So, doing this calculation for our car, which, I stress, was only two years old, had very low mileage, and had been babied by its one owner (me), we had a very favorable “roll it off a cliff” value, almost exactly 3.5 years. That convinced us to take the buyout. That’s when things took a turn for the weird, as our dealer came back to us with a price lower than what NMAC had quoted. We never got nor sought an explanation for the difference; we were happy with the price quoted by NMAC (our residual price minus the $6,500 promotion), so we weren’t going to argue with a lower one that dropped our “roll it off a cliff” number to just over three years.)

But there is one question you’re no doubt wondering about at this point: Why would Nissan give lessees such a big discount? The reason is pretty simple: EV buyers tend to be very aware of things like rapid depreciation due to looming product introductions (yes, I’m not the only one), so a very high percentage of Leaf sales in the US were actually leases, often estimated as above 90%. That meant that by this point in the life cycle of the Leaf, a lot of them would be coming off lease, and the potential buyers would be acutely aware of big changes coming in just two years.[8] So, if Nissan didn’t convince a lot of people leasing Leafs to buy them, there would be a lot of them on the used car lots, which would drop prices for used ones and create an ugly PR situation.[9]

What’s next

Right now, we’ve landed at a very good place, through a mix of patience, cautious consumerism, and plain old luck. We have a car we like and that we feel very good about driving, at a price that all but guarantees we’ll have an excellent total cost of ownership by the time we sell it or trade it in. Our plan is to hang on to this car and see what develops in the next two to three years. Between the Leaf II, the Chevy Bolt, that mysterious sorta kinda announced EV from Honda, and broader availability of the Soul EV, plus who knows what other surprises (hello, Toyota[10]) arrive, there should be more and more interesting options for EV buyers.


Clearly the EV market is in a state of considerable flux, and the breakneck pace of change won’t settle down for at least two more years, likely longer. Even though the coming changes will be overwhelmingly positive — more cars from more companies, offering longer battery ranges likely at lower prices — consumers will have to exercise a bit more caution in making buying or leasing decisions than they might be used to based on their experience with ICE cars.

Specifically, if you’re interested in buying or leasing an electric car:

  • Do the most objective analysis of your vehicle needs you can. This includes daily miles as well as all the usual issues of how large a vehicle you actually need. For many US households with multiple vehicles and a garage with an available outlet, a mix of ICE and PHEV or EV cars makes perfect sense. For example, in a two-car household you can use an ICE car for long distance travel and one person’s commuter, and an EV for local errands and another person’s commuter. That’s essentially the situation in our household; our other car is my wife’s Honda Civic.
  • If you’ve never driven an EV, then go to a local dealer and test drive one, preferably without a non-stop-talking salesman in the car, so you can experience the lack of vibration, quietness, smooth ride (no automatic transmission shifts), etc. The first few times you drive an EV it’s an almost surreal experience, albeit a very pleasant one.
  • If your situation dictates that you’ll have to use public charging on a regular basis, be careful. If you have a 70 mile round trip commute, then you won’t be able to complete it while using your heater/defroster unless you charge during the day, perhaps at an EVSE at your workplace. And if that charger goes away, you have a problem. This issue will disappear for all but the most extreme commuters when the longer range EVs arrive in a couple of years.
  • Don’t rush to install a $1,500+ EVSE as part of buying your first EV. As I pointed out above, my wife and I get by quite well without one and charge exclusively via the 110 volt EVSE that came with our Leaf, as do numerous other EV owners I’ve talked to online. If you try to live with 110 volt charging and find that you really need the faster charging that 240 volts provides, you can add it later.
  • If you get an EV soon, expect to see other drivers checking out your car at stop lights, especially if you live in an area (as we do) where you don’t see five EVs on every local errand.

[1] Technically, an EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment) is not a “charging station” or “charger”, as the charger is built into the car. An EVSE is nothing more than a fancy adapter.

[2] You can see pictures of Leaf EVSEs and some third-party units here. As you might expect, there’s a pretty vibrant cottage industry that’s popped up to do things like convert your 110 volt EVSE to a 110/240 dual voltage unit, plus multiple companies offering wall mounted EVSEs.

[3] I am dumbfounded that Nissan and other car companies selling electric vehicles don’t tell people in their advertising about benefits like the quiet ride. It’s a significant and very pleasant aspect of EV ownership, yet people who have never driven or ridden in an EV are almost universally unaware of it. When my wife or I ride in an ICE vehicle all we can hear are mechanical parts in motion.

[4] I am not going to get into the religious war between people who prefer a PHEV, like the Chevy Volt, vs. those who want a 100% electric vehicle, like my Leaf. As best I can tell, many Volt owners are very diligent, some bordering on fanatical, about plugging in their car every night to maximize the amount of their driving they can accomplish on electricity instead of the car’s gasoline engine. You can find stories online of people who use literally just a few gallons of gasoline per year, and if you go with a PHEV I urge you to do the same for the sake of your operating expenses and the environment. I think people driving Volts is great, but since I can live without the gasoline engine in a PHEV, a Leaf is an even better fit for my circumstances.

[5] For those who simply must know such things, on a 110 outlet the car charges at a rate of about five percentage points of its capacity per hour. Therefore, charging from 60% to 100% of battery capacity takes eight hours via a 110 volt outlet, and about half that time on a 240 volt outlet.

[6] That’s $2,500 up front plus 24 monthly payments of $200, for a total cost of $7,300 over two years, or $3,650 per year. Our initial lease, way back in 2013, was $2,000 down and $180/month, but, as I mentioned, Nissan was running a promotion, so this was an unusually low price for leasing this car.

[7] Note that when I saw “news broke”, I mean that I learned about the lease buyout promotion via the Internet. I was never contacted by NMAC or my dealer about it. In fact, when I called my dealer to tell them I wanted to buy my leased Leaf with a $6,500 discount, they had never heard of the promotion. And to make matters worse, when they called their contact at NMAC, she hadn’t heard of it, either. I had to call NMAC again, get the Nissan bulletin number announcing the promotion, and then relay that information to my dealer so they could verify I wasn’t trying to scam them out of a sizable pile of money. By the time we got this worked out, I was hearing the classic comedy routine “Who’s on First” in the background every time I talked to my dealer or NMAC.

[8] This is such a big change that I’ve been referring to it as the “EV Singularity”. GM is promising they’ll deliver the Bolt, a $30,000 (after Federal tax break) car with a real-world 200 mile battery range, for example. At that point EVs go from the “early adopter” stage to a much more mainstream friendly product, and we early adopters will have to listen to our neighbors, relatives, and co-workers tell us how wonderful EVs are. It’s the price we pay for being ahead of the curve, I suppose.

[9] I’ve read multiple times online that Nissan reconditions a lot of off-lease Leafs and ships them to Europe for resale, in countries where buyers get a tax break for buying a used EV. Assuming that’s true, it’s certainly not a cheap process, so Nissan still has an incentive to get people like me to keep our Leafs.

[10] Notice that until very recently we had no reason to think Honda had any plans to introduce an EV, yet they do, and it seems to be coming in the next two to three years. Given that the development time for a new car is normally longer than that, it seems clear that they’ve been working on whatever their new EV will be for some time. (I’m guessing that it won’t simply be a re-introduction of the Fit EV, even though I’d guess that would likely be a very popular product, based on all the reviews I’ve read of it.) Is Toyota also developing an EV and simply not telling us about it yet? Given the state and trend of the economics of vehicle-scale batteries, they better be, or they’re risking falling very far behind competitors.

EVs vs. PHEVs: The Battle of the Plugs

One of the weird little psychodramas that plays out among some electric car fans is a turf war between EVs and PHEVs.[1] At first, and perhaps even second, blush this is just silly. We’re all on the same side, and we all want people shunning gasoline and driving on electrons as much as possible, right? So why is there so often a urination-for-distance contest between fans of EVs and PHEVs?

Part of it is simply the usual internal division that inevitably crops up in subcultures. Pickup truck drivers separate into Ford vs. Chevy vs. Dodge camps, woodworkers have their favorite brand of power tools which are obviously superior to other brands in every way possible[2], and so on. There’s nothing we like more once we “find our tribe” than to subdivide it into smaller tribes and cook up some meaningless reason for a civil war. This behavior is probably a genetic afterthought we developed when making it through the night without becoming tiger kibble was a really pressing concern.

But in the case of “cars with plugs”, there really is a significant difference, and it has to do with how the vehicles are used out here in the infinitely messy and fascinating real world. And, as you probably have already guessed, it comes down to how often people plug in the vehicle, and therefore how close any one driver gets to traveling as many of his or her miles purely on electrons as possible, subject to things like daily routine. I call this a person’s ERM, electric range maximization.

When someone buys/leases a Leaf, say, you know that whatever else happens, that person will never put gasoline into that car. And no, driving your Leaf to a gas station so you can fill up the two-gallon can you use to refuel your snow blower — something I’ve done a few times while laughing maniacally — doesn’t count, no matter how much fun it is. For a pure EV, the ERM is, by definition, 100%.

But a PHEV is a horse of a different technicolor. Many PHEV drivers, like many early Volt adopters, made it their personal mission to push their ERM as high as possible, and some can amazingly close to 100%. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as the Volt’s roughly 40-mile electric range is enough to cover a lot of errands, plus many of the early adopters were somewhere between diligent and borderline psychotic about plugging in the car all the time. And I would love to hug every one of them.

I wonder about three groups of PHEV drivers: [1] those same early adopters after they’ve had a Volt or whatever for four or five years, [2] non-early adopters who aren’t as zealous about the whole “plugging in your car every night” thing, and [3] the people who buy much more expensive PHEVs.

As an example of the last group, consider the BMW X5 xDrive40e, a vehicle which is likely to be pretty expensive (the gasoline only version starts at $53,900; expect the PHEV version to add several thousand to that, I’d guess). Or there’s the announced plan from Mercedes Benz to add 10 new PHEVs to their product lineup by 2017. I’m not expecting any bargains there, either. But more to the point, I’m also not expecting the people who drive such vehicles to care much at all about plugging in overnight, especially after the first few months of ownership.[3] I would not be surprised to find out that such vehicles have an effective ERM of well under 20%, meaning there’s very little benefit to the driver (increased convenience, reduced fuel costs) and the world in general (lower CO2 emissions).

None of this is to say that I don’t want BMW, Mercedes, and other big-buck car makers to add plugs to their vehicles. I think it’s inevitable, and the sooner all car companies (and their customers) are on board, the better. But it’s also accurate to say that not all cars with plugs are created or used equally. I’m happy to see any car with a plug as opposed to a car without a plug, but I’ll also be happier to see a Volt than an electrified BMW X5 once the latter are available, and I am and will continue to be positively giddy when I see an EV on the road.

[1] Again: When I say “EV” I mean a purely electric car, like the Nissan Leaf, which has no liquid fuel engine at all, just an electric motor and big honkin’ battery. A PHEV is a hybrid that can drive for some distance purely on electric power, but has a conventional liquid fueled engine that either drives the wheels directly or runs a generator to recharge the online batteries. The most popular PHEV currently is the Chevy Volt.

[2] I’m a Bosch guy in the shop, and I will not tolerate a single word of dissent on the matter.

[3] The fact that the BMW will have a paltry 19 mile electric range means that owners will very likely still have to stop for gasoline on a regular basis. This makes plugging in more of an additional task rather than a replacement one, and therefore one that people won’t embrace quite as often. I love plugging in my Leaf, simply because every time I do it I know I’m saving money, reducing the environmental impact of my driving, and avoiding standing at a pump filling my tank and making my hands smell like gasoline.

EVs and knees in the curve and bungee jumping naked

So, where are we with plug-in vehicles[1] in the US not quite 4.5 years after the first mass market models, the Volt and the Leaf, went on sale?[0]

The situation is more than a little reminiscent of the early days of the personal computer, when there was no shortage of companies leaping into the fray, as well as plenty who though it was a flash in the pan not worthy of their attention. There were quirky market entries, like the Texas Instruments 99/4a (the Mitsubishi i-MiEV?), endless debates about alternatives, like CP/M, DOS, or UNIX (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?), and, above all, endless speculation and impatience on the part of enthusiasts.

One key difference between the PC and EVs is the areas that need improvement. Those paleo-PCs were mind-warpingly primitive by today’s standards. I had an Apple II+ with a whopping 48K of memory, a 9-inch B&W monitor and two (count ‘em, two) 137KB floppy disk drives. We microcomputer enthusiasts — the term “PC” didn’t exist until 1981 — were desperate for more CPU speed, more memory, more and faster disk storage, larger and higher resolution screens, and much better software, to name just the major things we lusted after.[2] Even with the rapid rate of advancement, we spent a lot of time frustrated, to be sure.

In the EV world, we already have everything we need except batteries cheap enough to let us buy, say, a $25,000 Leaf with a 200-mile-per-charge range. I’ve driven a Leaf for nearly two years, and I love it. It drives great, it’s delightfully quiet, and it’s stupid cheap to refuel compared to gasoline. And I most definitely don’t miss the experience of standing out in the elements while I put liquid fuel into my car’s tank and then wind up smelling like gasoline. Plugging my car in via an outlet in my garage is a gigantic improvement in both cost and convenience. The only thing keeping EVs out of nearly every garage in America (and elsewhere) is price/performance, which limits the applicability of EVs.

This is why I and so many of my fellow plug-heads are so focused on advances in batteries. The price of batteries, usually expressed in terms of dollars per kilowatt-hour of energy storage ($/kWh), has been declining steadily and fairly swiftly for years, and it’s set to to keep doing so, thanks in no small part to Tesla’s Gigafactory, currently under construction near Reno, NV. (But one word of caution: If you follow EV news, you’ll likely see about one article per week about some university or corporation making what sounds like an immense battery breakthrough, only to be disappointed when none of them make it to market. These things take years to develop, test, etc.)

Perhaps the surest sign that things are changing in a major way is the pair of recent announcements from GM and Ford. GM announced the Bolt, a 200-mile EV, and Ford seemingly had (and then tried to retract?) a quick “me too” announcement of their own 200-mile EV, both scheduled for shipment in 2017. Plus, it’s widely known that the next-generation Leaf, commonly called the Leaf 2.0, is coming around the same time frame, with a big increase in battery range. As I like to say, look around at the current EV and PHEV offerings and tell me which ones will make sense once those 200-mile EVs are shipping? They won’t all suddenly become obsolete, to be sure, but expect a fair amount of marketplace carnage and product repositioning and price adjustments.[3]

I also expect that it won’t be much longer before some of the holdout companies — yes, I’m looking at you, Toyota and Honda — cave in and ship, say, a Prius EV and a resurrected Fit EV, respectively. My guess is that it will take a bit longer for those two companies to give up their bizarre, compliance-credit-driven fetish with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, as good an example of an automotive technology looking for an application as one could imagine.

So, where does this leave us?

As batteries improve in price/performance, we will greatly expand the portion of the general public that can buy and use an EV. Once the up-front acquisition cost of the vehicle is close to parity with an equivalent gasoline vehicle, things will get very interesting, to say the least. Add up the total expenses of car ownership, including fuel and maintenance[4], and you quickly reach a point where even if you somehow dismiss the better driving experience of an EV, the brute-force economics become very persuasive.

I can’t tell you when we’ll hit this knee in the curve/tipping point, but I suspect it’s no more than a few years away. A large component of this looming phenomenon is nothing more than technology-driven economics — the battery thing — but there’s also a non-trivial portion that’s plain old ignorance and mule-headedness. I still run into many people who don’t even know that EVs are mainstream products that have been on the market for years. And many of the people who do know they exist have these weird notions that they’re not “real cars”; they think EVs have crippling limitations, like an inability to drive on highways or up hills or in snow, carry more than one or two adults, etc. They’re still mired in the “EV = golf cart” mentality.

That cognitive hurdle will also fall over time, and I’ll have more to say about the role we early adopters of electrified transportation can play in accelerating that process in this naked bungee jump in future posts.

[0] Yes, Tesla beat GM and Nissan to market, but I don’t count them simply because they sold in very small quantities and were not readily available across the entire US.

[1] As always, we have to get our terminology straight. Here’s how I refer to electrified cars:

Plug-in vehicles include plug-in hybrids and 100% electricity-fueled cars. This includes all EVs (I detest the term BEV as I think it’s pointless nitpicking) and any vehicle that can be propelled using electricity brought into the vehicle via a plug. It does not include the traditional hybrid, like the Prius and the Insight.

EVs are purely electricity driven, like the Leaf, Teslas, the Ford Focus EV, the VW e-Golf, etc.

[2] For most of us, a modem of any kind wasn’t even part of the mix, so we hadn’t progressed to the point of having connectivity and then wanting much faster hardware.

[3] This will extend into the market for things like the Leaf 1.0, and could make for some interesting times. As we approach the ship date for the Leaf 2.0, it will be quite difficult for Nissan dealers to move the older Leafs. And Nissan will have a problem with a large number of Leafs coming off lease deals (like mine) that will take a big hit if resale value. I think there’s a good chance Nissan will offer some sizable incentives to get people to buy their Leafs coming off lease.

[4] In very round terms, I save about 10 cents per mile on fuel costs, and the maintenance costs and hassles on an EVs are much lower than they are for a gasoline-powered vehicle, simply because the

It’s aliiiiive! Well, sort of…

And by “it” I mean this blog and my interest in the climate change issue. Since it’s been quite some time since my last post, roughly 250 days, let me take a minute or three to explain where my head is at with respect to said Big, Ugly, and Urgent Topic, as well as where I plan to go with this site.

First, the bad news.

I have very grudgingly, as in “it took me over a freaking decade to get there”, come to the conclusion that there simply is no hope that humanity will take anywhere near the steps needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change until we actually start to feel those effects. We are, collectively, the obstinate child who simply will not believe adults who tell him or her that a glowing red stove is hot until it is touched. Clearly, there are many of us who get it, who understand at varying degrees of sophistication and therefore with varying degrees of urgency just how awful this brewing shit storm will be. But we are so out numbered by the deniers and those who simply choose not to think of the monster under our bed that there’s nothing we can do. All the concentrations of power, mostly in the form of politicians and executives at large corporations, have exactly the wrong incentives to deal with a problem like climate change. All they see is a problem that requires them to incur pain now for gain after they’re out of office or dead. So they do far too little, or, in the case of fossil fuel companies, do things that make this colossal mess far worse. They are literally getting rich(er) by selling out future generations.

How can the rich and power be so callous, one might ask? I think you need not look any further than their perception that their wealth and power and status will let them and their loved ones escape the impacts of climate change. So they have no personal incentive to do anything about it, and in many cases, they can further enrich themselves and thereby distance their loved ones from pain by selling or burning more fossil fuels, getting paid handsomely to lie to public — again, I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to read “Merchants of Doubt” — or, in the US, becoming willing mouthpieces for various industries in the incessant fight for political campaign donations.

To say that we’re outgunned would be howlingly funny if we weren’t racing toward one hell of a cliff at breakneck speed, at night, with our headlights off.

My conclusion about how the impacts will play out hasn’t really changed. I said for years online that the primary vector for climate change’s impacts on human being will be water: Most obviously and painfully floods, droughts, rising sea levels, coastal storms. This is one of the fundamental flaws in how we’ve communicated about climate change with a mass audience: There’s far too much emphasis on what seems to lay people like a trivial change in temperature and not nearly enough emphasis on the knock-on effects of that “little change”, mostly to the hydrological cycle and how that translates into floods, droughts, etc.

So, where does this leave me?

For now, meaning from today until we have our mass, pain-induced epiphany, the best individuals can do is minimize their own carbon footprints. Sign up for 100% electricity, if you have the option, drive an electric car, if that works for you (and in combination with the green electron thing can make a big difference), put solar panels on your house, if that’s an option, and generally modify your consumption patterns to “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, etc. You know the drill.

I sincerely hope I’m wrong about how utterly blockheaded we are, but I doubt it. Given the nature of CO2 emissions — “love is fleeting, but CO2 is forever”, as I’ve said numerous times online — the sooner we have our mass epiphany, the better it is for us. Sooner translates to more pain that can be avoided, at less cost, and by employing less drastic measures in terms of adaptation, mitigation, and geoengineering[1]. So I find myself looking at the Arctic sea ice extent map and actually hoping for a big plunge this summer, hoping that it will accelerate our awakening, even though it would be very bad news for the overall climate change situation.[2] It’s probably a sign of laughable naivete for anyone to think that an Arctic melt-out will be more than a 30-second tidbit on the nightly news, or just one more link online competing with singing dogs, people hurting themselves in stupid and highly kinetic ways, and the usual flow of celebrity idiocy. Again: I go back to the most fundamental view of human nature and economics: People will not lead our elected leaders in the right direction, and our “leaders” have all the wrong incentives, so nothing significant will happen to combat climate change until enough people feel enough pain that it forces the hands of lawmakers.

But I digress.

What’s ahead

I do want to stay involved with this topic, but I’m through trying to fight the Big Fight of pushing people toward that mass epiphany about climate change. You can try to push that boulder up a muddy hill only so long before you realize you’re wasting your time, and I’ve had that particular personal epiphany.

So, I will likely post here from time to time on one of the areas where we could see very significant savings in terms of reducing our carbon footprint: Electric vehicles.[3] EVs are an exciting field, and one that’s more than a little reminiscent of the early days of the PC, for reasons I’ll expound on in future posts. I drive an EV, a Nissan Leaf, which I’ve leased for almost exactly two years, and my wife and I both love it. I plan to lease another one this summer, highly likely for two years, before I buy a Leaf 2.0 in the summer of 2017.[4]

Administrative stuff

The name and address of this blog will stay the same, even with the shift in focus, as it’s close enough for now.

I don’t yet know how much of the infrastructure of this site I will replace (links in sidebars, etc.); last summer I stripped the site down to the bare studs with an eye toward killing it off altogether. But since it will/might live on with the new mission, I will play it by ear.

[1] Adaptation is responding to climate change, e.g. moving coastal communities farther inland to escape rising sea levels. Mitigation is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Geoengineering is exactly what it sounds like — using things like aerosols or orbiting mirrors to slightly reduce sunlight hitting the ground, or using biological or chemical means to pull CO2 out of the air and then sequester it.

[2] When we see a “Blue Arctic Event”, meaning a nearly complete melt-out of Arctic sea ice, even if for only a few days in late summer, it will be a major milestone in humanity’s relationship with the environment, and not merely a symbolic one. The loss of such an immense reflector, even briefly, means considerable additional warming takes place in the Arctic simply because snow and ice reflect much more sunlight than does open water. This effect, variously call Arctic amplification or albedo flip, is a major feedback that amplifies warming, and that’s without considering the additional carbon up there, about 1.7 trillion tons, that gets liberated as CO2 and methane when permafrost melts and microbes feast on the previously sequestered biological material. (Plus, there’s offshore methane hydrates to worry about. Can’t forget that float in our parade of awfulness.)

[3] The big three areas for improvement: LED lighting, renewables, and electrification of transportation. There synergies here, to be sure — convert lights from incandescent or even CFLs to LEDs and you greatly reduce the demand for electricity for lighting. As you clean up your electricity supply, something that needs to be done regardless of how we make light, LEDs mean less green generation is needed. And electric cars have the potential to deliver huge reductions in CO2 emissions, especially as we make our electrons greener.

[4] Yes, I’m already counting down the months. My wife, as you might expect, is thrilled beyond words with this state of affairs.

Administrivia note: Time to heal and reassess

Beginning today, I am taking a sabbatical from this blog and my involvement with climate change for a currently undetermined period.

After wrestling for months (years, my wife might say) with the Big Question of what I can or should do in the climate change fight, I’ve decided that the best next step for me is to . . . → Read More: Administrivia note: Time to heal and reassess