Our household has just made a small major leap into the future, the green future. The significance and yet smallness of that leap, in regard to our continuing but also relatively small personal commitment to reduce the destruction of our environment, will, I trust, become clearer later in this document. It’s not that we’ve been shirking our duty to the future, not that much, anyway. When we moved into our current house, a small and well-insulated abode, we installed the most reliable and efficient new furnace and air conditioner we could find. More recently we refinanced our mortgage, taking advantage of an increase in real estate prices, and installed a new low-energy water heater and modern windows that reduce heat transfer. We also recycle as much of our trash as we can, with the result that the mass of what goes into our recycle bin is generally at least as large as what goes into the trash bin. Could we do more? Undoubtedly, and we haven’t given up working on it.
Our latest advance is the purchase of an all-electric car, a Nissan Leaf, as our only vehicle. This is not our first break with the transportation norms; we’ve experimented with alternative fuel sources before. Forty years ago we had a 1980 Ford F-150 pickup that used propane. This was not necessarily a big carbon-reduction option, but it did have some advantages over the standard fossil fuels. The truck was ostensibly a dual-fuel vehicle, but we used the gasoline option so rarely that the carburetor stopped working, probably the result of oxidation in the vaporizing nozzles, or clogging caused by aging unused fuel. The propane system worked so well that we simply never bothered to clean out the gasoline system to get it working again. The truck had an outstanding range, the result of having an 80-gallon propane tank in the bed just behind the cab, and that was an advantage given that at the time we frequently needed to travel from Chinle, Arizona to Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and Tulsa, distances of 180, 230, 870 miles.
There were other advantages to propane. In a gasoline-burning engine the fuel is never completely vaporized, causing incomplete combustion that leaves behind corrosive liquids. That residue coats and gradually dissolves the interior surfaces of the cylinder, an effect that is most obvious on the exposed metal prongs of the spark plugs. They literally shrink in size, becoming weaker and messing with the width of the spark gap. With our propane truck, however, the fuel burned so completely that after ten thousand miles the original spark plugs still looked new. The other internal surfaces of the engine, the cylinder walls and piston rings and more, were probably in excellent condition as well, and the catalytic converter was likely also pristine. Complete combustion also undoubtedly reduced the types and amounts of toxic gases that were released into the air—that’s what I tell myself, anyway.
Our next experiment in alternative fuels was a 1980 Mercedes diesel, which we bought when it was old enough and depreciated enough for us to afford it. Diesel gets a bad rap because of the larger carbon particulates that are emitted, making diesel exhaust a Group 1 carcinogen, but diesel-powered vehicles actually emit significantly less carbon dioxide and get better fuel mileage than comparable gas-powered ones. Still, this was not a significant improvement. It was an excellent road car, however.
In 2008 we got a Honda Civic hybrid, a vehicle that promised reduced use of fossil fuels through sharing the engine load with a small electric motor. A relatively early system, this was not entirely effective. We tend to own small cars, the F-150 being an obvious exception, and have been used to getting mileage efficiency in the high 20s, and the Honda was a big improvement at nearly 40 miles per gallon in city driving. But it was still essentially a fossil-based system; even the electric power used by the motor was almost entirely generated by the gas engine. By 2020 the alternatives, even hybrids, had improved significantly. For one, there are now plug-in hybrid options that can get 15 to 20 initial miles on electric power before they have to switch to the gasoline system. Given our short in-town errands and the rarity of our out-of-town travel, that would mean that virtually all of our driving would be all-electric. Unfortunately, again given that rarity of usage, we were concerned that the gasoline system would eventually stop working because of disuse, as it had in the propane F-150. We faced the possibility that we would frequently have to schedule otherwise unnecessary road trips just to push the hybrid into gasoline mode often enough, and long enough, to keep the gas lines clear and the gasoline in the tank fresh. As a wasteful practice that would seem to negate much of the advantage of the hybrid design.
Our choice, finally, came down to an all-electric vehicle. We researched the options, finding that there are now many excellent choices even in our price range of under forty thousand dollars. An all-electric car with a range of around 200 miles would take care of at least 95 percent of our travel needs. For the remaining 5 percent we researched options to deal with longer trips, for example the medium-range jaunt to the Grand Canyon that we have made almost every year in the past two decades. From Albuquerque, that 450-odd miles would require two hour-long quick-charge stops—at Gallup, New Mexico and Flagstaff, Arizona—in each direction, a reasonably feasible solution assuming that the limited charging facilities in those towns would be functional and not overly busy on the days we would need them. In these relatively early years of electric transport, unfortunately, charge-port access in rural areas is not always guaranteed. Given the one or two long trips that we expect to make each year, and the short time spans of each incident, we may simply choose the convenient fossil workaround of renting a compact car for those trips.
Even our all-electric solution for local trips, of course, is not completely free of fossil fuels. We don’t have solar panels, yet, and therefore we have to rely completely on the power supplied by the Public Service Company of New Mexico. That utility system has been working to build up its reliance on renewable sources, both wind and solar, and the American Southwest has an excellent climate for alternative generation, but PNM currently gets only nine percent of its electric power from renewables. That means that in reality somewhere around 91 percent of our car’s power comes from fossil sources, almost entirely oil and natural gas. That’s better than 100 percent, obviously, but it could be better. And it will be, but that will take time.
In the meantime, we have the new experience of all-electric driving. The Nissan Leaf has a drive knob with two drive modes, forward and backward. Modern electric motors have such powerful low-end torque that they can easily move a two-ton object without the intervention of changing gear ratios. From a standstill, that means an acceleration that has none of the usual gear-shift delays that are felt in even the smoothest of automatic transmissions. The several hundred pounds of added battery weight also provides the leaf with a mobile stability not found in our previous small cars, similar in some ways to the experience of driving our Mini Countryman with four 50-pound bags of sand in the back, only more so. The solid, silent movement of the Leaf is a very different experience from fossil-powered cars, a variation that is relatively subtle but obvious. I recognized this fact, but could not throw off a sense of deja-vu, the feeling that it was also somewhat familiar. It was a while before I realized the reason. I grew up in Oakland, California, and spent much time in San Francisco across the bay, often using public transportation. That city is famous for its cable cars, the delightful mode of transport for its (in)famously steep hills. But San Francisco should also get recognition for the electric trolleys that for a century have run from the piers on the bay side of the peninsula all the way out to the beach on the ocean side. When I was young most of those trolleys were the original massively heavy bus-sized units that were manufactured in the early 1900s, and when those tramcars accelerated quietly on their smooth tracks it was a steady increase in speed without the engine roar and intermittent pauses common with diesel-powered buses. It is that distinctively variant experience that I now recall, fondly, when accelerating in our Nissan Leaf.
Time will tell how successful all-electric vehicles will be. Much depends on advances in electrical generation and storage technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has noted that electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets will require doubling the production of electric power, a massive increase in the infrastructure for creating and transporting and storing wattage. Much of the existing refining and distribution systems for fossil fuels will eventually be phased out. Vehicle dealerships will have to reorganize their financial plans, if only to adjust from a model that now depends largely on regular maintenance visits. The new reality of electric vehicles is that they need very little ongoing support. It is likely that job losses in the current version of the “buggy-whip” industries will be matched by gains in the new greener operations, but there will be major dislocations. The transition, if it continues as seems likely, is only in its early stages and will take several decades.
Looking at our own personal transition to electricity, however, the change has been almost entirely positive, and we expect that our options for driving long distances and in-route charging will only improve. While we probably will explore and experience other all-electric vehicle brands in coming years, it is unlikely that we will ever return to fossil fuels.