A Year With the VoltKevin Tofel
It’s hard to believe that it was a year ago when we added a Chevy Volt to our garage. A key factor in that decision was that we were generating excess electricity from the 41 solar panels we put on our house in 2011. With a year of driving and the odometer just over 15,000 miles, would I change that decision? Not for a second; having a plug-in vehicle has worked out tremendously well for us, mainly because we’re the right target audience for such a car.
Clearly it helps that we effectively prepaid for most, if not all of our electricity with the solar panel project. You can view the real-time and historical statistics of the system here but long story short: The system generated 12.9 MWh of electricity from this time last year to the present. Even with the addition of the Volt, we’ve only paid our energy provider around $370 in the past year and that figure includes mandatory account fees of $7.08 per month.
So in our particular case, adding a plug-in car doesn’t hit our monthly cash flow for the electricity requirements; it actually helps us recoup our solar panel investment a little faster. Even if it did, I wouldn’t mind. I figure it costs us $1.20 to recharge the Volt’s battery. Let’s say I’m overly conservative on that and it’s $1.50 to recharge the car, which we do each evening.
For that money, we can drive between 30 to 50 miles; it varies based on the weather as cold temperatures aren’t kind to batteries. Let’s split it down the middle and say it costs $1.50 in electricity to drive 40 miles. You can’t do that on gasoline. At today’s gas prices—I’ll be generous and say gas is $3 a gallon—that $1.50 only gets you 40 miles of driving if your car gets 80 miles per gallon. In most cases, it’s more cost-effective to drive on electric power.
I mentioned prior that we’re the perfect target audience for a Chevy Volt. Why is that? Because we both work from home so there’s no lengthy commute. And when we do have to drive, most of our trips fall into that range of 40 miles or less, meaning we can get around without using gas on most days.
The few very long trips were me driving from our home in Pennsylvania to our New York City Gigaom office—and in those cases, I saved some battery power to get around in the city on electricity only. Overall, 61 percent of our total miles have been on electricity; in 2014, I hope to boost that figure.
This driving pattern has helped us go for a long time between fill-ups. The average Volt owner typically fuels up every 900 miles or so. In one extreme case this summer, we went just over three months and 2,528 miles on a single tank of gas! It’s pretty amazing when you think about it, but again our driving habits fit this type of vehicle. If you have a 50-plus mile commute and no access to recharge a car at work, I wouldn’t recommend a Volt, although other electric vehicles offer more range that could work.
There is one thing I’d do differently and still may: upgrade the charger in our garage. The Volt came with a 120V charger that plugs right into a standard electrical outlet. That’s convenient in one sense, but not ideal in another. It takes roughly 10 hours to recharge the Volt battery from zero to full with this charger. There’s an optional 240V charger available that costs around $500 and recharges a “dead” battery in just four hours.
I opted not to get that charger last year mainly because I didn’t think we’d need to recharge the car quickly. And we really don’t “need” to. However, since it’s more efficient for us to drive using electricity instead of gas, there are times when a fast charger would be helpful. We’ve done some morning driving, for example, and exhausted the battery by early afternoon. Going out for dinner or evening shopping then only gives us a partially charged battery. I may spend the money for the quick charger—and the 240V upgrade to my electrical system—this coming year as a result.
I can’t reinforce this one point enough: The Chevy Volt, or any electric car for that matter, isn’t a “one size fits all” solution that works for everyone. For multiple reasons, however, it works really well for us and the only car I can see replacing the Volt is either another Volt or similar plug-in car.
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