Climate scientists have been doing the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” for over 20 years. James Hansen who retired from an impressive career with NASA has been speaking publicly and warning anyone who will listen that climate change is a real and serious threat to humanity since the late 1980s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations to provide credible information about climate change to world government bodies. This group has been collating and disseminating comprehensive reports on a frequent basis, and each one has been more and more dire with warnings about the outcome of global warming.
Unfortunately, climate change does not present itself as a clear and present danger and thus our monkey brains do not respond with a sense of immediacy. There is no clear and present risk to life, and the concept being abstract is not acted upon in a direct way. The threat is largely conceptual until we are confronted with an extreme weather event that may or may not be directly triggered by a changing global climate. Throughout the world for the last several years there have been so many extreme weather events that it is becoming routine to hear of massive floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, hailstorms, tornadoes etc. This is the new normal and still our monkey brains have not correlated these direct threats to our lives with the big picture.
Climate scientists like to tell the story of the frog in the pot. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But, if you place the frog in cool water and then slowly raise the temperature it will never notice until it has been boiled to death. So here we are swimming around in warming waters!
But we do have highly evolved brains with the capacity to extrapolate a threat into the future. Intellectually anyone who grasps the concept of climate change realizes that it will inevitably impact their lives in some form or other. The question is what can we do about it? For myself, I have dabbled in the world of politics and years ago I supported Dennis Kucinich in his presidential campaign because he was brave enough to speak about these issues. I have also lobbied for, and testified in front of state committees in support of renewable energy legislation. And have also worked on committees in my municipality to try to effect change. I have been so thoroughly discouraged by these experiences that I have now pulled back and I’m choosing to operate entirely within the realm of civil society.
Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world”, and that is what I am doing. By investing in renewable energy systems on my property and increasing the efficiency of my home and vehicles, I am modeling the change I would like to see in the world. By writing about it in social media I am sharing the choices that I have made and sincerely hope that in some small way I will influence other people to make similar decisions. If you feel inspired to consider taking some direct action, I encourage you to visit the Sustainable Living section of my website where you will find pragmatic solutions that may resonate for you. I talk only about things that I have personally done to decrease my carbon footprint and live more sustainably, I make every attempt to keep my text clear and simple and I use lots of thoughtfully considered images.
I have been adding a few custom mods to our Chevy Volt recently. A while ago I replaced all of the interior cabin lights with LED’s that are much brighter, use a lot less energy, and have a much more aesthetically pleasing high-tech blue white color. I got them from superbrightLEDs.com using their Vehicle Bulb Finder tool. More recently, I replaced the single back up light with a higher brightness LED lamp (from SuperbrightLEDs.com or carid.com) that increases rear visibility noticeably.
Today I came across an upgrade for the roof antenna that is shorter and more pleasing, it is called the Stubby Antenna, and I have to admit it is purely an aesthetic upgrade while also being more durable.
My wife and I have also given serious thought to customizing the interior using a kit that covers all of the dashboard surfaces with real or imitation wood grain or other cool finishes like carbon fiber. The pictures make the vehicle interiors look absolutely stunning and we are considering possibly using one of the real wood veneer finishes.
We have owned our 2012 Chevy Volt for almost exactly a year now. I have been using the Volt Stats Website to track our performance and have kept a spreadsheet based on those statistics. (The Volt Stats site derives its information from the OnStar system, so I can assume it is highly accurate). I add the actual amount of electricity we use to charge the Volt monthly and do calculations to compare the cost of ownership of the Volt compared to an average 30 mpg vehicle. It turns out that over the year we drove about 17000 miles and have saved over $1060 in gas. My spreadsheet assumes we are paying full retail cost for electricity here in Maine, but the fact is that our solar power system provides a large percentage of our annual usage, including charging for the Volt.
On Thursday, May 9, 2013 we had a beautiful sunny day in which we drove the Volt on multiple trips and charged it several times. We drove a total of 70 miles and our solar power system produced all the energy we needed both to charge the vehicle and operate our home. So I guess there is such a thing as a free ride after all!
The Volt is definitely much less expensive to operate than a regular gas vehicle. The overall maintenance costs are lower since the oil and brakes rarely need changing. Below is a comparison chart showing our actual cost compared to a regular 25MPG vehicle assuming gas costs $3.50/gallon. The chart is derived from weekly logs I take of our miles driven and kWh used. Our electric rate in Maine is 13.65 cents/kWh which is above the US average of 9.83 cents. This chart does not factor in the free electricity we get from our solar power system for the sake of a fair comparison, but in the summer months we do not pay anything for electricity since we have a slight surplus. Clearly our combined electric/gas cost is more stable week-to-week and MUCH less than gas. This chart does not account for the rapid fluctuations in gas prices that would have a larger impact on an all gas vehicle’s weekly cost since electric rates are stable. We drive an average of 20% of the time in “range extender” (gas generator powered) mode at about 40MPG and I have factored that cost onto the chart. I will be updating this chart weekly every Sunday.
I update the chart weekly (click the image to learn more about our Volts energy usage)
When I take people for a demonstration drive in my Chevy Volt, I have to remind them that I am not hitting the “gas pedal”, I am using the accelerator pedal. The pedal has no direct connection to the gas engine generator that GM refers to as a “range extender. The pedal is hooked into the control computer of the vehicle and its only function is to modulate the amount of energy going to the electric motor. It is interesting to note that when you put the accelerator to the floor, my energy gauge shows around 80 kW of power going to the motor. Yes that’s Eighty. Thousand. Watts! That is a truly enormous amount of energy! And no gasoline involved unless I am running in range extender mode, in which case the four-cylinder gasoline power generator can contribute up to 50 kW to the battery to help maintain a safe battery level. There are times when that engine generator will ramp up to over 4000 RPM, and you really hear it, but most of the time it is barely audible.
Last night the temperatures here in coastal Maine dropped to -2°F. This morning I pulled up the data logs for charging energy going to the Chevy Volt, and overlaid that data onto a chart of the outside temperature. As you can see there is a clear correlation between temperature and the energy required to maintain the traction battery in the Chevy Volt:
That first spike of 2500 Watts was when we pre-warmed the vehicle remotely for 10 minutes prior to driving it. The sustained energy draw represents a full battery charge after that trip and the small spikes represent power drawn for up to 10 minutes at between 1200 and 2400Watts for thermal management. Not a great deal of energy compared to battery charging, but it does point out the value of leaving the Volt connected to that charger in temperature extremes.
While I have to admit I am very pleased and proud to own a Chevy Volt - a vehicle that has achieved the highest customer satisfaction ratings for a production vehicle for the last two years - I do feel incumbent to remind people that electric vehicles are nothing new. The Baker Electric vehicle was introduced in the early 1900s and was a very popular vehicle with women who found it much more amenable to drive due to the lack of stick shift that required double clutching which required lot of fancy footwork. Thomas Edison purchased one of the first Baker electrics as his first vehicle, and proceeded to redesign the battery to improve the range. With a top speed of around 25 mph and nominal 100 mile range, drivers were thrilled with this silent and elegant (for its day) vehicle.
Jay Leno owns 4 electric vehicles in his extensive collection, and has a fully restored Baker which he drives quite often in the Hollywood Hills. Here’s a video showing him demonstrating and driving it.
So in today’s world where we are celebrating the wonders of the new Tesla automobiles, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt and others I think we need to remember that electric vehicles are more than 100 years old at this point at all we have done is make incremental improvements in the design.
When we purchased our Chevy Volt, one of the things that I was curious about was how much energy it would use during the winter to keep the battery at a safe temperature. We leave the vehicle plugged in at all times when we are not actively driving it so that it can use “shore power” as needed to maintain the battery temperature in its comfort zone. It’s now December 1 and last night our temperatures dropped into the mid teens Fahrenheit, so I pulled up the charts from my energy monitoring systems to look at temperatures and the amount of current being drawn through the Voltec charging station to heat the battery bank in the Volt. Here are updated charts from the week of Dec. 17-23, 2012 (click on them for more info):
You can see when we plug the vehicle in that it draws about 3700 Watts for 2 to 4 1/2 hours, and the short 2500 W spikes seem to be when the vehicle is drawing power to maintain a safe battery temperature. Since my data logger samples every 10 minutes, these brief spikes represent up to 10 minutes of power draw. This is a modest amount of energy at this point, but it will be interesting to see what happens when our temperatures dip below zero (F) overnight In January and February.
It is mid October here in Maine, and the leaves are turning. We had our first frost last night and the daytime temperatures are dropping into the 50s. We are noticing that the electric range in our Chevy Volt is dropping as we begin to use the heater more. In the summer without using air conditioning we were getting an electric range of 45 to 48 miles - this is now dropping into the upper 30s as we use the heater more.
We have two strategies that we are using to extend our electric range, one is that we can use the remote control from inside the house - well over 100 feet away - to turn the car on while it is still plugged in to the charger. This way we can use “shore power” to warm the car for 10 minutes before we get in it. We have to remember to leave the climate control in “comfort mode” when we park it and plug it in so that it will warm the car quickly when we power it up remotely.
The other strategy involves parking the car out in our parking area to the north of my solar powered workshop. This way the Volt can absorb some free heat from the sun in the morning and afternoon to warm the vehicle.
When I stopped at the gas station this afternoon, the dashboard display in our Chevy Volt showed that we had 43 miles remaining in “range extender” (gas generator powered) mode. So I put 3 gallons of gas in the tank, and did not mind a bit that I was paying $4.27 for premium. This is what the manual recommends because you don’t need to be driving around in electric mode hauling all that extra weight. They recommend you keep the tank around one third full with premium gas most of the time as an optimal balance.
If you have seen one of the Volt commercials, you will have noticed one of the happy customers saying that it had been so long since she had put gas in the Volt that she forgot how to do it. This is almost true for me since the last time I put gas in the Volt was1964.37 Miles ago - nearly 2 months. The gas filler release button is hidden away in the driver’s door above the release button for the charge port release. Since it is not directly visible, one can forget where the button is unless you bend down and look into the cubby around the arm rest - so the commercial is true!
When we first got the Volt, Becky gave me her old iPod nano so I could plug it into the USB port in the center arm rest and play my selection of music via the center console touch screen (She uses her iPhone).
So I loaded up the iPod with several favorite albums ranging from rock (Tom Petty and The Boss) to mellow stuff like Cat Stevens and early Pink Floyd. The thing is that I only want to listen to soft quiet music in the Volt because the whole driving experience is so quiet and relaxing. Playing Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell” is just not the right ambiance!
So my preferred albums are “Dark Side of the Moon” (I can hear all the quiet little details in the album like clocks ticking!), and Carly Simon and Adele etc. I have totally mellowed out. Well, except for the occasional burst in Sport Mode for the adrenaline rush of zooming onto the freeway silently!
The other thing I have noticed is that Becky and I are stingy with driving miles. We try hard to stay within the nominal 45 mile electric range. Even though we are driving for free since we charge the vehicle from our solar array, we try to keep trips short. “Range Extender” mode is hard to avoid if we need to drive down to Portland (90 mile round trip), but nonetheless we have come to resent paying money for gas! Our last (9 gallon) tank of gas allowed us to drive over 1300 miles (avg 144MPG!) The dash says our lifetime average MPG is over 132, so we are really doing pretty good…
While our Volt does have a very sexy dashboard, there are two details missing that I have grown used to from driving our other two hybrid vehicles over the last 12+ years. One is a gauge that shows the amount of energy flowing into and out of the high-voltage battery, both the Honda Insight, and Ford Escape Hybrid had gauges like this:
These clearly show the charging energy going into the battery, and the power being used coming from it. The Volt has a really cute graphical animation in the center console that shows energy flow without quantifying how much energy is going back and forth from the motor to the battery. I find this really annoying because it is dumbing information down to the user. It is also slow to respond to changing energy flow.
So I decided to install an additional gauge made by Drew Technologies, this is the Dash DAQ (above the steering wheel):
It is designed for high-performance vehicle owners so that they can view any of the information that is available in the engine computer. You can select what information you want to display and configure multipe screens to show various gauges, charts and graphs of data. I have configured my gauge to show battery state of charge on the left, battery energy flow in the center, and engine RPMs on the right:
Now I can have a much clearer picture of what is going on. Each gauge is highly configurable and I have set up the gauges to change color to advise or warn of certain conditions. For instance the center gauge turns green anytime there is a positive energy flow from regenerative braking going back into the battery. Similarly if I punch the accelerator and energy exceeds 200A (70kW!) going to the motor, the gauge turns red to advise that I’m overusing power. When the engine turns on to provide backup electric power the whole RPM gauge turns blue to remind me that I am consuming gas. The on-board engine generator is so quiet one often does not notice that it is running, and will shut off on the freeway even in “Range Extender” mode after a lot of regen from a down hill run. At $550 the gauge is an expensive toy, but one that I value highly.
The EPA has rated the Chevy Volt To have a nominal 35 mile EV range. I have no idea why they chose to underrate it and misrepresent the Volt’s real capacity. Perhaps they assume that everyone who buys a Volt will drive it like a lead foot in a 1970s land yacht. In reality my wife and I have found that we are getting between 43 and 47 mile range in electric mode, and occasionally as much as 63 miles. This is based on using minimal climate control and driving in L mode exclusively which yields much better regenerative charging of the battery. I suspect that our winter electric range will diminish considerably when the temperatures stay below freezing for several months here in Maine. Of course we both have more than 11 years experience driving hybrid vehicles, so we are not your typical first electric vehicle buyer. So if you are considering purchasing a Volt, do not be deceived by the EPA’s rating which is extremely conservative.
Finally I can park our Volt in the shade and out of the weather! It sure looks like the Volt is smiling - doesn’t it! I know I am now that I don’t have to worry about pre-cooling the vehicle in the heat of the summer! Of course winter pre-heating will still be an issue, but I can do that from the remote as I dig the car out with the snow thrower!
Well the construction company just finished grading the gravel in our driveway and under the new carport. It will be really nice to park our vehicles out of the weather! I had to micro-manage the 2 young guys that did the work to get it done the way I wanted and they accepted my direction with good grace.
Below is a net energy chart from MyEragy.com recorded on July 3, that shows the Volt being charged after driving about 25 miles starting from a full charge - so about 7kWh. Energy below the zero line is being exported to the grid and “banked”, above the line is being imported from the grid. This shows that our solar array now can provide all the power needed to charge our Volt in the middle of the summer. (The MyEragy site gets it’s data from my TED5000 energy monitor and displays it on the web on a user accessible page).
Owning an electric vehicle gets very interesting when you want to drive beyond the electric range. Of course with our Volt we can simply switch to “range extender” mode and burn gas at 40 mpg, but wherever possible we look for opportunities to plug in. We have had varying degrees of success in finding outlets that are amenable. Recently, my wife was in Portland, Maine (over 40 miles from our home) and saw an electric outlet outside the building she was visiting and plugged the vehicle in. Some time later she heard the vehicles alarm go off, which indicates that the charging plug had been disconnected from the car. She found one of the building’s renters had unplugged the car claiming that he would be billed for the electrical usage. He was quite upset. When my wife tried to explain that the cost would be trivial - around $.20 per hour at most, he was not swayed. He actually went to the trouble of putting a padlock on the outlet cover!
At the other end of this range is the Quaker Meeting House that I attend which is around 18 miles from my home. I proposed that I would like to install a 120 V outlet on the front of the building, with a small sign saying “Electric Vehicle Charging Station” at my own expense. They were extremely receptive, and approved my proposal immediately. Of course more than six of our members already drive hybrid vehicles, so it was not an uphill battle. When I park my vehicle in front of the building it always stimulates consciousness-raising discussions about renewable energy with the members and/or visitors.
My wife and I are very concious of the energy we use to operate the Volt and try to keep our trips within the 40+ mile EV range whenever possible. We have also become very aware that charging the Volt from our solar panels only really works on sunny days. On cloudy or overcast days we often do not generate enough power to run our home, much less charge the vehicle, so we’re paying the utility 13 cent/kWh to charge it up. Being committed to a low carbon footprint we prefer to charge from solar. Now that we have passed the summer solstice our available solar energy is declining too. I am lobbying my wife to approve installing more solar panels on the house before the end of the year. So far fiscal prudence has sway!
Yesterday we drove down to Portland to get the side and rear windows in our Volt tinted. Portland Tint Inc. installed LLumar ATC 40 film that blocks most IR and 99% of UV. It blocks about 55% of the visible light too. We drove home in 100F weather and felt much cooler. The sunlight coming through the tinted windows just did not feel as hot, and the reduced glare and brightness makes for less eye strain. The advantage is increased EV and gas range due to the reduced AC load on the battery. We’ll probably go back and have them do the front windshield with clear as well.
Today I got the rest of the structure of the expanded car port done with more help from my neighbor and friend John. John and I have loads of fun doing “guy stuff” together on our respective properties and this was no exception. The wider space will have room for our new Volt and the Escape Hybrid to keep them out of the “weathah” Plus some dry storage too.