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:
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.
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?
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.
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, Edmunds.com, 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?
- 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 Insiders@InsideEnergy.org.