September 16, 2015

Things You Always Wanted To Know About Electric Cars But Were NOT Afraid To Ask

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We asked: What have you always wanted to know about electric vehicles?

And you answered. You gave us questions. Great questions. Lots of them – everything from where to charge up, what to do with a used battery, and why electric cars aren’t outfitted with solar panels. To celebrate National Drive Electric Week, we’re answering some of them.

Electric Vehicle Questions and Answers:

Q: Why not slap some solar panels on the top of electric cars? Then you could drive forever. What’s taking so long?

A: We agree, a solar powered car that you never have to plug in would be sweet! But there’s a problem: There’s just not enough surface area on most cars to make this work—at least not in your traditional passenger car.

Let’s take the Nissan Leaf, the second-most popular fully-electric vehicle in the U.S. If you covered the Leaf’s entire surface, you could maybe squeeze on six square meters of solar panels. A typical solar panel generates about 175 watts per square meter, so it would take 23 hours of solid, cloud-free sunlight to charge the Leaf’s 24 kWh battery. Considering that the Leaf can only travel 84 miles on a single charge, that’s a pretty unappetizing equation: Your car would spend all of its time in the lot and none of its time out on the road.

Don’t despair quite yet. It is, in theory, possible to charge an electric car with solar. In the World Solar Challenge, held every other year, teams attempt to drive 3,000 kilometers across the Australian Outback using only the power of the sun. By minimizing weight and drag and maximizing the surface area for solar panels, these ultra-efficient electric cars can go the distance on sun alone. But take a look at the cars and it’s clear those flat, wide, beetle-esque machines are designed for efficiency, not comfort. This year’s competitors head en route from Darwin to Adelaide on October 18.


This car, the Tokai Challenger, won the World Solar Challenge in 2011. Pretty sweet ride, but not practical for most road trips or your daily commute. Credit: Kohei SAGAWA, Hideki KIMURA, used with a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike Unported License.

Q: How can I obtain a list of all active charging stations across the country?

A: The U.S. Department of Energy maintains a searchable database of charging stations. Simply enter in your address or ZIP code to find the charging stations nearest you: For example, there are seven stations less than a third of the mile from the White House. (No word yet on whether the first family is considering buying a Tesla.)

As of September 14, 2015, there were 10,601 charging stations and 26,259 outlets nationwide. Know of a station that isn’t listed here? You can fill out this form to add a station to the database.

And, yes, there’s an app for that! The app PlugShare is available on the web and for iPhone and Android. It’s a map that pulls from a database of over 26,000 charging locations in the U.S. and Canada. Some of these charging sites are actually just plugs located at a family’s house—sort of like AirBnB, except these folks are volunteering the use of their electricity, not charging money for it. How’s that for a shared economy?

Q: How much does it cost to replace the battery on an electric vehicle, and how often do you need to do it?

A: Good question. Old or damaged batteries don’t hold as much charge as brand new ones, which means an old electric car battery won’t get you very far. This is a tricky one to answer, though, because plug-in electric vehicles haven’t been on the road long enough for battery replacement scenarios to play out for consumers. The typical battery warranty on plug-in electric cars in the U.S. is eight years or 100,000 miles, and the first plug-in electric hit the market in 2011. If you own an electric car and need to replace a battery under warranty, the cost to replace it would be minimal.

But what if you find yourself in a situation where you personally have to bear the replacement costs? What if you get into an accident that voids the warranty? Or what if, during the car’s eleventh year, you decide that its performance is no longer up to your standards?

In general, car manufacturers don’t like to advertise the price tags of battery replacements. (For example, when Inside Energy called up a local Tesla service center, we were told they couldn’t reveal the price of a new battery. We’ve reached out to the Tesla press office and will update this post when we hear back.) From the information that has leaked out, the price varies widely: Nissan will install a new battery in their Leaf for $5,500, estimates on a BMW i3 battery are upwards of $13,000, and a Chevy Volt battery could run anywhere from $2,300 to $34,000.

Electric vehicle manufacturers vary in their recommendations on when to replace the battery–typically, it’s when the battery is at 70 to 80 percent of its original capacity. But the decision to replace a battery is a subjective one. If you own a smartphone, you might have faced a similar dilemma: deal with your phone going dead three hours earlier than normal, or pay the price to upgrade and get more out of your device?

Bottom line: A new battery isn’t cheap. But when thinking about the potential costs of replacing the battery on an electric vehicle, some people consider the lower maintenance and operations costs over the car’s lifespan – for example, you never have to pay for an oil change or a new clutch – as a partial offset of that possible cost.

Q: Is the disposal of used electric car batteries good for the environment. How so?

A: Generally speaking, chucking out a battery—of any type—can introduce polluting heavy metals into landfills and the air. Thus, battery disposal has a long history of regulation at the federal and state level. To govern the safe recycling and disposal of batteries, President Clinton signed the Battery Act into law in 1996.

Rechargeable 12-volt lead-acid batteries, the kind you’d find in a conventional gas-powered car, are one of the most recycled products in the world. Most carmakers and auto parts stores will recycle these batteries for you. But because hybrid and electric vehicles are relatively new to the market, there is not yet a federal law, or a commercial recycling industry, specifically for the batteries of electric vehicles.

There are, however, several public and private efforts on this front. The Department of Energy has awarded grants to spur development of lithium battery recycling facilities, and car manufacturers are starting their own programs. Some are getting creative with their  efforts: A new BMW project in Sweden is piloting a plan to reuse old electric car batteries for grid storage.

So the short answer: If the batteries are either re-purposed or recycled, that’s good news for the environment. If not, the pollution potential depends on the kind of battery. For instance, newer models use lithium-ion batteries which do not contain lead, mercury, cadmium, or any heavy metals or federally defined toxic materials. For more on this topic,, Scientific American, and the New York Times have taken a detailed look. You could also check out the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s more recent and technical study.

Want to learn more about electric cars?

Stay tuned: We’ll be diving deeper into electric vehicles in future posts. We’ll bring you the results of our drag-race test drive, and serve up interactive electric vehicle data to help answer more of your questions, like:

  • How are electric vehicles better for the environment when most electricity is produced by burning coal?

    A Nissan Leaf

    Chris Stone

    A Nissan Leaf in Boulder, Colorado. If your car runs on electricity, and your electricity comes from coal, are electric cars really good for the environment? Credit: Chris Stone.

  • What is the longest possible range for an electric car?
  • When are they going to be affordable for those of us with very low incomes?

In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you: Do you own an electric car? If so, why did you choose it, and if not, what’s your reasoning for sticking with a conventional? Send us an email with your story, to

  • RobSays

    Congrats on overall balanced and we’ll written answers. As someone who has been driving an EV since 2011 I can say from experience this is rare. I do want to add some missing relevant information to your answer about battery cost.

    Unless there is some kind of freak catastrophic battery failure, or an accident where battery cells are ejected from the car, there is never any need to replace the entire battery pack on an EV. Yes, if you want to, Nissan’s Leaf replacement battery pack is $5,500 (actually about $6k including mounting parts & labor). But you don’t have to pay that. Individual weak or bad cells can be replaced as needed. A friend of ours got his Leaf in November 2011. He drives so far to and from work every day that he fully charges twice a day most days. I think he said he has a little over 70,000 miles. Recently he’s noticed he can only charge to 97%-98% instead of 100%. This hasn’t been a problem, but he talked with a tech who told him to just replace what he needs when he’s ready.

    A few years ago I read somewhere replacement cells were around $450 installed. At that time though a full Leaf battery pack was $8,500. I don’t know how much individual cells cost now. The ‘Lizard’ batteries now are much better anyway. Hope this helps.

  • Padamson

    Jordan and Amber, great article and touches on the key areas around EVs, large format rechargeable batteries, and some thoughts on the future (solar cell cars). I would like to add some color around the End of Life options for batteries used in autos (including green buses, industrial equipment, and motive). The future of sustainability in the near term is reuse, not recycling. While I am not typically a fan of “kicking the can down the road” for future folks to deal with, in this case it makes sense. Several auto makers, beyond BMW, including GM and Toyota, are looking at ways to incorporate “spent” (i.e. less than 90% of charge capacity) batteries into consumer and small commercial energy storage. This second life will allow for the recycling community to improve collection, transportation, and recycling processes in order to monetize these was products safely.
    On a national front, the folks at Call2Recycle have key initiatives to manage these products and several commercial groups are working hard to tackle the matter through a hierarchal approach – repair, refurbishment, recovery, reutilization and finally recycling.
    Keep up the good reporting!
    #Call2Recycle #Sustainability #MonetizeWaste #GetSpinnegrated