Sustaining Ability

Policy / Sustainability / Media

How Much of an Impact can a LEAF Have?

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Nissan LEAFNissan’s all-electric sedan, the LEAF, has green-minded consumers rushing to reserve the cars before its December debut, and recent coverage prompted me to take a look at its pros and cons.

Nissan’s hitting a lot of sweet spots for consumers:

  • a reasonable price tag — $32K+ for an electric vehicle (EV), which drops to $25K with the federal EV tax credit, compared to $40K for the hybrid Chevy Volt or $45-57K for comparable Tesla or Coda EVs;
  • 100 miles per charge for city driving (Chevy Volt gets 40 before switching to its gas engine); and
  • a cheaper operating cost than the Civic or Prius when you factor in energy costs.

The LEAF has a few warts, however:

  • Nissan doesn’t advertise a range for highway driving (which I imagine many consumers would like to use it for), though they’ve already said it’s less than the 100 miles-per-charge (mpc) for city driving;
  • In order to recharge the battery in the advertised 8 hours, one has to plunk down $2,200 for a 220-volt home charging station or have one nearby one’s workplace. (Otherwise, the recharge process takes 16 hours with a standard 110V outlet.) The federal government offers incentives covering up to half the cost of charging stations, but that still leaves consumers on the hook for at least $1,000 extra; and
  • The “zero emissions” tagline is misleading, as that depends wholly on how electricity is generated in one’s area… a consumer could be trading emissions from gasoline for those generated by burning coal.

Nissan’s banking greatly on the adoption of the LEAF and other EVs spurring the build-out of charging infrastructure. While that isn’t a wholly unrealistic bet, the pace of that build-out will dictate the usefulness of these cars (and other EVs) for anything other than commuting. For one thing, you won’t be able to drive cross-country without mapping a route that include charging stations every 60-80 miles.

LEAF Battery PackThe LEAF’s estimated 10-year battery life sounds impressive — Nissan claims efficiency drops to 70-80 mpc after that point, though I’d like to see how claim that bears out in practice — but I’ve written before on the need to address product disposal (whether recycling or upcycling) in one’s supply chain. That said, I have to wonder what plan Nissan or its battery manufacturer have for recycling the car’s massive battery pack. Lithium’s a finite resource, just like fossil fuels, and carries its own costs for mining and refinement. If there’s a plan in place for lithium reclamation and battery remanufacture, I’d feel better about being an early adopter.

Any reluctance aside, I’m excited at the prospect of EVs going mainstream and diversifying the auto landscape. These and other alternative fuel options, like biodiesel and natural gas (Honda makes a Civic that runs on LNG), will let consumers make choices based on the most responsible (and/or most cost-effective) fuels available in their area, and hopefully, reduce the impacts of transportation in areas where public transit isn’t an option (or at least a great option).

(A quick shout-out: Castlen Kennedy, a former colleague, is taking a Green American Road Trip this summer, driving her converted, LNG-fueled Chevy Tahoe cross-country from Austin to Boston. It’s a great demonstration project — showing that it’s possible and highlighting the need to build out more LNG fueling stations — and she’s blogging both the prep and the actual trip. By her projections, taking a route that has adequate refueling stations adds an additional 346 miles to her trip, but in the end, she’ll still save $53 in fuel costs. Also, CO2 emissions for a gallon-equivalent of LNG are 30% than those from burning gasoline.)

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Written by Steven

May 6, 2010 at 9:16 am

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