I am of course intrigued by the Chevy Volt, which is about to be introduced to a limited distribution of show-rooms next month. For those living under a rock the last few months, here's the basic facts:
The Volt is a four-passenger, compact hatchback. While there's considerable controversy over whether or not to call it a plug-in hybrid, that's how we'll be referring to it, following the lead of the Federal government. GM prefers "extended-range electric vehicle," which is somewhat misleading, since the Volt is only an electric vehicle for the first 25-50 miles. In EV mode, the Volt's electric drive system draws power exclusively from a 16 kilowatt-hour battery pack, at all speeds up to its 100-mph maximum. Once the battery gets drawn down to 35 percent of its capacity, the Volt's gasoline engine fires up, spinning a generator to produce more electricity.So for people with a garage to charge it in (or preferably a barn, as I hope will be my case :-), and a moderate commute, the big appeal will be that daily activities will be pretty much independent of oil, foreign or otherwise. You'd plug in your car every night, just as you probably plug in your phone every night. Then, as renewables are added, the climate profile of normal driving will also greatly improve. Only long trips need be powered by gasoline (but unlike most true EVs, long trips are quite convenient).
The price of this is having a big battery and two propulsion systems and thus a heavy and expensive car ($41k, or $33.5k after a government tax rebate).
Now, personally, I sold my car before moving from CA and have been fairly happily 100% bike over the summer and fall in Ithaca (well maybe 90% bike given that I borrow my wife's car for the odd errand). But I have been figuring that as the mercury fell, there was going to come a point where that got miserable, particularly the 6am trip to my blogging cafe which tends to take place at near the overnight low temperature. I had been somewhat leaning to getting a VW Jetta TDI for winter use and longer errands over the next few years - till a full electric became practical. However, now I am tempted by the Volt.
As one component of this, I was curious whether the fuel savings are likely to justify the higher up-front cost. Obviously, this kind of analysis depends on a variety of factors that vary individually. One is the price of electricity, which the EIA shows as follows by state as follows:
To simplify things here, I take three cases, a New York case of $0.17/kWh to represent the highest prices in the nation (except Hawaii), a California case of $0.13/kWh for a mid price case, and a mid-west case of $0.07/kWh, which seems to be where a bunch of states at the lowest end of the spectrum come in. If you then assume $3/gallon gasoline, and an annual mileage of 15,000 miles, you get the following annual fuel costs:
You can see that, for folks like me who'd probably be over 90% driving on electricity, the fuel savings amount to something like $600-$800, a year, or $6k-$8k over a ten year vehicle life (versus a 33mpg compact with no electric drive). So this, combined with the government incentive, mostly, but not entirely, offsets the higher initial cost.
One argument for the Volt worth mentioning here, however, is that gasoline prices have much more potential to be volatile than electricity prices. Even if we set aside the more extreme peak-oil doomery, it's certainly not hard to imagine another mideast price shock, in a world with accelerating oil demand in the developing world and very limited spare oil production capacity. In that scenario, given how inelastic oil demand is, prices could easily hit $6/gallon, or even $10/gallon. Here's how the mid price California electricity case looks then:
(I've also added a $15/gallon case). You can see that the Volt now is really excellent oil shock insurance. If you think a year or two of oil shock prices are quite likely at some point during the next ten years, then that's probably enough to justify the initial price just on narrow financial grounds alone.
Indeed, this suggests to me that the sweetest spot for this car might really be in Europe. Not only are Europeans somewhat more serious about climate change than Americans, but the differential between gas prices and electricity prices are much greater. The bigger European countries have gas (petrol) prices of around $6-$7/gallon already now, but electricity of only around $0.15-$0.20/kWhr (similar to the upper end of US prices).