Car shopping: electric vehicles and my carbon footprint

By Dorothy Phillips

Before the pandemic, I was considering replacing my 20-year-old Toyota Camry. After a few afternoons of shopping, I set five criteria to sort among the thousands of choices: I wanted a new car, an SUV with an electric motor that would minimize my carbon footprint, at a reasonable price.

New: I am a senior and keep my cars for a long time. Although I’ve been driving since I was 16, I have never had a new car. This might be my last chance.

SUV: Easier to get into and higher off the ground. Since I drive to the cottage in rural Quebec over gravelly rutted roads, an SUV would avoid scraping bottom.

Electric Vehicle: Either an electric motor (EV) or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), which has both an electric and an internal combustion engine (ICE). I have considered only for comparison purposes a hybrid vehicle that does not plug in.

Carbon Footprint: Best would be having no car at all and taking public transit, biking and walking. But I am not ready to give up driving my own vehicle, and there is no public transport to the cottage.

Price: I can buy a perfectly reasonable new gas-guzzling SUV for about $35,000. Electric vehicles are more expensive. I set my top price for this search at $50,000 including tax.

My five criteria brought up many questions:

  • will an EV get me to my cottage – about 100 km – on one charge?
  • could I then charge it at the cottage?
  • how long does it take to charge a battery?
  • are there charging stations in other places nearby or on the highway?
  • how much would it cost in electricity and repairs?
  • by driving an EV or PHEV SUV, will I reduce my carbon footprint?

I found only three EV SUVs within my price range and available in Ottawa (Table 1). They will all get me to the cottage on one fully charged battery, maybe with enough left to get me back. But the amount of electricity used depends on factors like temperature (colder weather takes more), acceleration, how often I have to stop. So I probably need to charge my battery at the cottage before heading back to town.

A Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption guide provides data for Le/100 km (litre of gas equivalent per 100 km) as well as CO2 emissions for various vehicles. However this guide from 2018 did not include the Hyundai Kona or the Kia Niro EVs, so the data for them are estimates based on other cars.

The charging station has a maximum current it can provide, and the car has a maximum current it can accept. When the car is plugged in, the vehicle and charger communicate, and this information is usually displayed on the vehicle’s dashboard. While there is an industry-standard connector on your EV or PHEV, commercial charging station equipment may vary, and adapters may be needed.

The range for full electric use varies among vehicles. In town, much of the driving can be electric but on the highway, the internal combustion engine would kick in automatically. Braking adds electricity to the battery. The process is called regenerative braking: the vehicle’s electric motor is used to assist in slowing the vehicle and to recover some of the energy normally converted to heat by the brakes. So city driving increases the range of EV, PHEV and hybrid vehicles.

Charging Time
Level 1: Household electricity (120V) can recover six to eight km of range per hour. At the cottage, recovering the full 100 km could take 13 to 17 hours, so overnight would not be enough. Since the battery would not yet be empty, a shorter time might suffice for my return trip to the city. But what if I need to go into town that day? Making the 30-km return trip to town would not only deplete the battery but also limit charging time.

Level 2: I could purchase level 2 charging stations (240V) for the house and cottage, including an upgrade of the electricity, for about $2,500 at each place. Most vehicles would take about three hours for a full charge. Some commercial charging stations also provide Level 2 charging.

Level 3: There are some level 3 charging stations around the country. Petro-Canada offers stations (mostly on the Trans-Canada Highway) where you can recover up to 30km/minute on your battery and pay only for the minutes you use at 33 cents a minute. Other stations charge a dollar an hour, and some are free.

Many charging stations are located in places with restaurants, restrooms, shopping and sometimes cinemas, so you can spend your time and money with them. Some networks of charging stations exist where you join on a monthly basis and use only their sites.

In my search I found three PHEV SUVs with prices around $50,000. In Table 2, I have also included the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid (not plug-in electric) and the RAV4 (non-electric vehicle) for comparison.

Fuel: Costs for the EV fuel include only the electricity. My average of 12,000 km/year using average of 2 Le/100km gives total annual electricity of 2136 kWh. At present Hydro Ottawa rates, I would pay 10.1 cents/kWh for the off-peak rate or 20.8 cents/kWh for the on-peak rate, resulting in an annual cost between about $215 and $444 to drive my EV compared to about $1,800 at the average 2019 gas price of $1.50/L.

For the PHEV, gas consumption depends heavily on how the car is driven. From Table 2, fuel costs appear to be marginally less than a fully ICE engine vehicle, but this does not include the costs for electricity.

Maintenance: Costs are apparently lower for EVs because they do not need oil changes or maintenance of the exhaust system. For the PHEV, since there is an ICE, the usual maintenance costs still apply.

Total vehicle registrations in Canada in 2018 were more than 35 million. Of the two million vehicles sold that year, only 2.2 per cent were zero-emission vehicles, most in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. On average, an ICE passenger vehicle produces 4.6 metric tonnes of CO2, thus Canada’s 35 million vehicles have a total annual output of 161 million tonnes. And that’s just Canada. No wonder the atmosphere is feeling woozy.

Each litre of gas produces 2.83 kg of CO2. My current car thus produces 3.396 metric tonnes of CO2 per year, a shocking amount.

In Table 3, data on average fuel usage are taken from real experiences of users reporting on the Internet, but these data are fairly close to those from the NRCAN guide.

It looks like neither a PHEV nor a hybrid would reduce emissions much over a new non-EV car, which would be substantially less polluting than my aging Toyota. But I could reduce my emissions to almost zero with an EV. There is an argument that an EV does not reduce carbon because generation of the electricity it uses does produce carbon. It depends on how your electricity is produced. In Ontario, over 90% of electricity is produced using non-CO2-producing nuclear, hydro, wind and solar; only gas and a small amount of biofuel produces CO2.

My Total Carbon Footprint
Besides my vehicle, my 2019 use of electricity and gas at home produced 0.22 tonnes. My total 2019 footprint was 7.86 tonnes. According to the graph below, I am better than average but still have a long way to go. If I purchase an EV, that footprint will go down substantially but not to the two tonnes listed as the world target.

After the pandemic and economic meltdown, my new car may have to wait awhile. But since manufacturers had plans to ramp up production of electric vehicles, I may have more choices meeting my criteria.

 Dorothy Phillips is a Glebe historian and  author of Victor and Evie, a biography of the Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Lady Evelyn, during the Great War. She is serious about reducing her carbon footprint.


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