She’s gone electric

Just returned from a few days well-timed break on the mainland, firstly for a lovely week’s holiday and secondly to bring home our new car: a brand new, fresh out of the box, Storm White pearlescent Nissan Leaf. If you don’t already know, this is a fully electric car: no diesel/petrol engine; no exhaust/emissions; no oil. Just a battery (and automatic transmission). Oh, and, pleasingly, a ‘start’ button just as it appears on your computer. As far as I know, we are the proud owners of only the second fully-electric car on the Uists (though there are also a few hybrids running around – cars with both a battery and a ‘normal’ petrol engine). Here it is, sat tonight on its new driveway:

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(It seems I have become an early adopter, after all, albeit by default, when for the majority of my life I have most definitely been a laggard.) And, when researchers were talking only last week of petrol cars being obsolescent (in the US) in eight years, this was also a very timely purchase.

We’ve been researching this for some time, having been alerted to the idea by a hybrid-driving colleague some months ago – as a committed non-driver I’ve recently spent more time in car showrooms and talking to car salespeople than I really would ever want to imagine. Or indeed repeat. (Though I should also say that my recent experience of the latter is that the car salesperson is, in comparison to the legend, an unfairly maligned figure.)

There were two reasons for our purchase: clearly environmental considerations, especially in the context of the previous car having been a diesel although BMW was far from the worse performer in the emissions scandal; but also, secondly, simple economics: electric cars are far cheaper to maintain in terms both of getting them on the road (zero emissions mean there is no vehicle tax) and then keeping them there (in terms both of the ‘juice’ required to run the things and also in there being less mechanically to go wrong. With a purely electric car consuming no traditional fuels in its operation, it is as green as the electricity which is used to charge it (which may be darker or lighter green, depending on your supplier). And, of course, to manufacture and maintain it.

Early experience (a return trip from Perth to Glasgow airport – c. 71 miles in each direction – followed by a one-way trip from Perth to Mallaig yesterday for the island ferry, of about 142 miles) has been pretty favourable (we did, of course, take a similar model for an extensive test drive prior to purchasing). I don’t drive so performance questions are better directed elsewhere although it seemed to me that acceleration (from a standing or rolling start) was as you would expect from any ‘normal’ car and certainly there were no problems in building the speed required for overtaking. For someone whose earlier awareness of battery-powered cars had been with what the Highway Code used to call ‘invalid carriages’ (and now calls ‘powered wheelchairs‘: the law still calls them carriages), this was particularly notable as I did have a few doubts beforehand.

If you have any questions about electric cars, let me know below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Going electric is not entirely a worry-free experience since the range of the Leaf on a full charge is about 120 miles (although, interestingly, Nissan’s claims are for 150+). This is absolutely fine for running around the Uists but, for longer distance trips, especially those involving ferry connections, a degree of planning around the location of charging points on your journey, and a degree of finger-crossing that no-one is already there when you get there, is required. Yesterday, our return home entailed two stops (at Crianlarich and Fort William), and the adoption of a different (and longer) route in order to take advantage of more charging opportunities, when we have frequently done it otherwise in a single hop.

Here’s a few observations on our experience with charging the car so far:

1. in the course of the last two days, we actually visited seven charging stations (there is quite a lot of them around: here in Scotland, for example). For much of the time, it was raining (Scotland – and indeed the rest of the UK – does get quite a lot of rain). I have spent some time on petrol station forecourts and I have rarely got wet since they have usually managed to put some sort of canopy over them. In contrast, six of the seven charging stations we used were in the complete open air. When you also have to stop and download an app, as we did on one occasion, this is potentially a miserable experience which clearly needs sorting out (we did see one station which was encaged in a glass box: well done the  The Green Welly Stop).

2. The seventh station was in a multi-storey council-run car park in Perth so was indeed under cover. However, we did note that the charging points here were in the paid area of the car park, which did raise question marks that blue badge holders would, exceptionally, have to pay to park to use the machines since the blue badge parking bays were located on a different floor outwith the paid parking bit.

3. Longer distance journeys are going to require the installation of more rapid charging opportunities if electric cars are going to take off in the way the US researchers suggest. A typical charging station is composed of one or more petrol pump-style installations having a number of different connectors also with a resemblance to petrol pumps (some electric cars use AC, some DC – and, of course, different manufacturers are using different connectors: the joys of the riotous nature of innovation under capitalism). One of these will be a ‘rapid’ charger which is capable of charging the Leaf’s battery to about 80% of capacity in about 30 minutes. But you wouldn’t want to wait around for someone else’s charge to finish, still less be in a queue to do so. And neither would you essentially want to double the length of your journey time every time to allow for planned, and potentially extended, charging stops (we did allow 7 1/2 hours yesterday – for a journey of 140 miles, that is a little excessive). That by itself is likely to limit the extent to which ‘normal’ cars do become obsolete in the medium-term. (However, I can easily foresee a situation in which people have electric cars for everyday use and the ordinary commute, and then simply hire a ‘normal’ car when required for a longer trip.)

4. People are likely to want to have something to do, or to eat or drink, when charging. This is likely to indicate some opportunities for retail sellers to engage in providing charging facilities alongside their existing outlets, and make a little extra money when doing so. From my limited experience so far, a lot of charging stations are council provided and that is of course absolutely fine – but they do tend to be located around council buildings or sites, including recycling areas, park and ride schemes and other public car parks, as a simple public amenity and it seems not so much thought has yet – at that level – gone into providing attractive additional facilities.

5. Meanwhile, on our journey we were waved at a few times by other electric car drivers; and one other driver – not noticeably having gone electric – gave us a double thumbs-up. That’s unexpected.

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6 thoughts on “She’s gone electric

  1. Excellent stuff but when is the wind turbine going up in the garden in order to charge this beauty on a winter’s night?!

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  2. “People are likely to want to have something to do, or to eat or drink, when charging”… and also, in the winter months, somewhere to keep warm!! I have visions of a proliferation of Golden Arches – would you like fries with that electricity, sir? Just wondering on that score – are you able to remain in the car while its battery is being boosted? I’m also surprised that they haven’t learned from the mobile phone industry with regard to the different connectors!! Congratulations on your purchase, really hope it works out for you and look forward to hearing more about the project.

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    1. Thanks! Yes, it all looks a bit anarchic at the pumps. You can stay inside the car while it’s charging: and rest, snooze, read, munch, scroll, etc. And watch the battery charge with a front seat view (if you leave the start button on). Only, it’s then not so much of a break, which really should mean getting outside the car and going somewhere else. The change of air involved in going from door to pump and back again isn’t really enough – which is a potentially serious issue as regards driving safety.

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  3. as far as the charging stations go, given that motorway service stations always inflate their fuel prices by a huge factor, is the same true for the electricity cost?

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  4. Well, it does indeed vary quite a bit.

    Our Nissan Leaf model has a battery rated at 30kWh and we’ve been told we should be able to charge it to full from home for about £2.50 (obviously, tariffs vary).

    Outside the home, there’s a plethora of charging options ranging from free (council-provided facilities tend to be free, although not necessarily the quickest) to the unknown (we have a charge card provided through ‘Charge Your Car’ which, for a £20 annual fee, provides pay later access against the credit card you register with them. They allow charge point owners to set the tariff although, so far, they don’t seem excessive though it is a bit early to tell.). Other models I’ve seen include an ‘honesty box’ arrangement for a community-provided station, on the basis of a suggested payment; to a 15p/kWh facility, subject to a £1 (or £2.50) minimum fee; to a rather excessive £6 flat rate charge (indeed, at a motorway service station!) although this would have been free had we been customers of Ecotricity, the provider.

    There tends to be enough nearby alternatives – and plenty of information around as to where they are (subject always to a good data connection…) – to keep prices fairly honest. If you’ve allowed yourself to get desperately short, you’ll (be happy to) pay whatever the cost – and, I have to say, these things are relative: when your coffee and cake at your refuelling stop comes to more than the cost of your fuel, then quibbles about the price variability are going to be fairly restricted…

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