Charging into a greener future with a Leaf and a Volt

By Jayson Jacoby January 07, 2011 11:28 am

The year 2011 could turn out to be the most significant in America’s love affair with the automobile, an infatuation well into its second century and showing no sign of abating.

The reason is a Leaf.

And a Volt.

Now I’m neither brave nor foolhardy enough to profess any keen, unimpeachable insight into the predilections of my fellow drivers.

It pains me to consider how many vinyl-topped, marshmallow-suspension behemoths we bought during the 1970s, to cite one egregious example of our widespread affinity for designs which aren’t merely banal, but actually malevolent.

(And lest you think I’m exaggerating, have you seen a picture of a 1978 Thunderbird lately?)

Still and all, I think it’s plausible that, some decades in the future, automotive historians will recognize 2011 as the distinct demarcation between vastly different eras in how Americans get around.

The Leaf, which is a battery-powered electric car from Nissan, and the Volt, a Chevrolet “plug-in” hybrid that has both batteries and a gasoline engine, are assuredly technological marvels.

But I suspect this pair is quite a lot more than that.

That this pair of vehicles will soon be for sale at dealerships across the land proves to me that the oil-free (well, sort of) future we’ve heard about is no fantasy.

I believe, in fact, that it’s likely I’ll live to see the day when electric motors rather than internal combustion engines will spin most of our wheels.

In the short-term, say the next decade, the Volt will have the greater effect.

That’s because, although it is an intimidatingly complex machine, in the ways that matter most to drivers, the Volt is a perfectly ordinary automobile, with all the disarming utility of a Camry or an Accord.

You can twist the key and drive the Volt 350 miles without stopping, assuming no mutinies from your kiddies.

(Or, more likely, from your kidneys, which are immune to the charms of a portable DVD player.)

But where the Volt is a long-legged thoroughbred, the Leaf is more like a colt tied to a picket line.

It’s a pretty long line, though.

The Leaf, unlike many vehicles that replenish their fuel supply from a three-pronged outlet, is a real car, not some glorified golf cart.

Car magazine testers, a breed not known for treading gently on accelerators,  have amassed 80 miles or so in a Leaf before making a pit stop to take on kilowatts.

And that included a mixture of freeway and city driving (the Leaf will go plenty fast enough to draw a triple-digit speeding ticket, so police agencies need not fear a plummet in revenue).

The Leaf, then, can handle most daily commutes. But it won’t get you from Baker City to La Grande and back. And if you’re heading to Boise you’d better figure on a lengthy layover in Ontario — reviving depleted batteries takes from seven hours (220-volt outlet) to 20 hours (standard household 110-volt).

Also, it’ll cost around $2,000 to install a dedicated 220-volt charging station at your home.

Nissan says a 480-volt set-up will give the Leaf’s battery pack an 80-percent jolt in half an hour, but tapping that kind of voltage is hardly as easy as finding a gas station.

(Of course horse riders probably had hearty laughs in their day, too, cantering past hapless drivers standing beside a Model T with a dry tank.)

The Volt, though superficially similar to the Leaf, both being four-door hatchbacks, is an altogether different vehicle.

Like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, the Volt has both an electric motor and a gas engine.

But unlike the two Japanese hybrids, which use both their motor and engine for propulsion (the Prius can travel short distances, at city street speeds, purely on electricity), the Volt, assuming its batteries are topped up, starts each trip as a purely electric car, just like the Leaf.

And the Volt, in contrast to the Prius, can zip along at freeway speeds without firing up its four-cylinder gas engine.

The Volt’s electric-only leash ranges from 25 to 50 miles, depending on your speed and whether your motoring style more resembles “Driving Miss Daisy” or “American Graffiti.”

When the Volt’s batteries have gotten through about 70 percent of their juice, the gas engine starts, an event hardly perceptible from inside the car, according to the magazine writers.

But the engine doesn’t power the drive wheels, as in the Prius.

Instead, the Volt’s engine — more accurately described as a generator — stands in for the depleted batteries, producing the electricity that moves the vehicle.

(The mechanical situation is a bit more complicated, in that the Volt’s gas engine can also briefly contribute a small amount of horsepower to propulsion rather than to spinning the electric motor; still, the system differs greatly from that used in the Prius or the Insight.)

The gas engine adds another 300 miles or so of range to the Volt.

When you run low on gas you can either refill the tank, as in a conventional car, or, as with the Leaf, plug it in to recharge the batteries.

(Actually you can do both; your choice, obviously, would depend largely on whether your trip was over.)

The Volt’s batteries are a bit quicker to revive than the Leaf’s.

Recharging the Volt takes about 10 hours with a standard household unit, or about four hours on a 220-volt circuit.

The Volt’s obvious advantage, then, is its versatility, or, rather, its normality.

Ground-breaking technology aside, this is a regular automobile, as capable as any other modern family car.

The Leaf’s utility, by contrast, is significantly limited by its range and by the time needed to rejuvenate its batteries.

But it doesn’t burn gas.

Of course both the Leaf and the Volt, despite their environmentally responsible credentials, do consume energy.

And critics point out that energy doesn’t just arrive, magically, at your home’s circuit breaker box, pure as spring water.

(Nor, come to that, does the lithium in the Leaf’s and the Volt’s batteries.)

Quite a lot of America’s power supply — a bit more than 69 percent — is produced by burning a fossil fuel: coal (45 percent) and natural gas (24.2 percent), accounting for most, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And those power plants spew vastly more carbon dioxide than does the entire national fleet of Hummers, which, if you believe the more hysterical of the propaganda, chew through an acre of Amazon rain forest with every jaunt to the grocery store.

But here’s the thing:

If you want to extract maximum self-righteousness from a Leaf or a Volt, Baker City’s a great place to be.

Our electric utility, Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, buys all its power from the Bonneville Power Administration.

And that federal agency produces almost 90 percent of its electricity from dams on the Columbia, Snake and other Northwest rivers.

Hydropower isn’t universally beloved, of course.

(Salmon, to name one interest group, harbor a long-standing grudge.)

But as far as greenhouse gases go, Bonneville and the other big federal dams are pristine compared with, say, PGE’s coal-fired plant in Boardman.

Buy a Leaf, feed it only from an OTEC trough, and you can proclaim that the only nasty emissions your car is responsible for are those that came from making the steel and the batteries and the other parts that workers assembled at the Nissan factory.

Those emissions aren’t trivial, but at least they were singular. Pilot a Leaf, or a Volt on an electric-only voyage, and you’re not tossing nasty ingredients into the atmospheric stew.

Neither the Leaf nor the Volt is cheap.

The Nissan goes for $33,000, the Volt $41,000. Federal tax rebates (and in some cases, state incentives) are available for both, but the bottom line tab for either still exceeds what you’ll pay for any of a couple dozen conventional gas-only models, many of which boast admirable efficiency.

Revolutionary technology is always dear, of course.

But prices always drop, and in most cases precipitously, once the product reaches a certain level of ubiquity.

(It wasn’t so long ago, recall, when meeting someone who had an iPod or an HDTV was a noteworthy event.)

I suspect that, 15 or 20 years from now, when we watch a Leaf or a Volt rolling past we’ll chuckle at the anachronism, much as we do today when we see one of those 1980s cell phones with an antenna that could, in a pinch, double as a bayonet.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.