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 step back, let the frustration and anger subside, attend to some personal matters and interests[1], and then reassess said Big Question.

If this sounds like Dave Roberts’ famous Goodbye for now, a.k.a. the “I am burnt the fuck out” post, then you get bonus points for being observant. I’ve been totally immersed in energy and climate research, writing, campaigning, etc. for just over 135 months, during which I worked far more weekends than I took off and accomplished far less than I wish I had.

I desperately tried to find a way to keep at this without a break. Write a book, leverage my computer-related writing and editing background to find some sort of writing gig (that didn’t require me to sell my soul by becoming one of the absurd deniers, even though I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing comedy), etc. In fact, I’ve developed an outline for what I’ve half-jokingly called “the book that needs to be written”, but it’s such a huge task to begin when you’re running on the last whisper of electrons in your battery and there’s such a dismal track record of climate change-themed books actually making a difference that even I can’t talk myself into attempting to push that particular boulder up a muddy hill right now. And as my wife will attest, I can talk myself into damn near anything.

So, I was stuck. I couldn’t bring myself to walk away, given the importance of this topic to all the children of the world — and, as I’ve said repeatedly, they really are all our kids, regardless of whose DNA they carry — yet I was so thoroughly, deeply burnt the fuck out that I couldn’t do anything of use to anyone.

I decided to lean on some of my e-friends, including climate scientists, communicators, and campaigners, for ideas. Virtually every one said the same thing: Yes, the climate change mess is really bad; no one really knows how to fix it[2]; we have to keep doing whatever we can think of, just in case something strikes a spark. To say that the level of optimism among my contacts was low would be an almost laughable understatement.

My logjam-busting epiphany was triggered by a conversation with my friend Mark, who pointed out that it might be worthwhile to look at this like military service. You give it everything you have for a period of years, and then when your time is up, you hand the monumental and often unpleasant task over to others.

I am not at all ready to walk away, though. It’s simply too important a challenge, with almost incalculable consequences if we don’t get it right.

The answer, for me at this time, is to get some distance, do productive, non-climate change-related things, and when the batteries are recharged in a few weeks or months or a year, return to the Big Question and see how things shake out.


[1] Don’t read anything sinister between those lines. Neither I nor anyone in my life is sick; I’m simply going to experiment with restarting my woodworking business and finish the remodeling work on the house my wife and I bought recently, and, oh yeah, spend some more time gazing into the eyes of my college sweetheart.

[2] When I say “no one really knows how to fix it”, I’m not saying that no one thinks putting a price on carbon is a major part of the solution, or that vastly increasing the use of renewables and electric cars wouldn’t be excellent ideas, etc. Those things are trivially obvious. What’s elusive and maddeningly difficult is figuring out how we make those things happen in a country like the US where climate change denial still draws more votes than it loses in some places, and even many people who “are aware of climate change” think they can “fix it” by changing their light bulbs and driving a hybrid car. We are on the wrong end of ideological bias, information deficit, and plain old political corruption. But aside from that, everything is just peachy.