A tale of two EVs: California man shows how Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf can pay off

Consumer Reports News: April 11, 2011 03:53 PM

George Parrott thinks he’s one of the first three people in the country to own both a Chevrolet Volt and a Nissan Leaf. The semi-retired psychology professor from West Sacramento, Calif., traded in his Toyota Camry Hybrid and Prius for a Volt and a Leaf as soon as the cars went on sale.

Like many Californians, Parrott is committed to cleaning the air. As a marathon runner for 30 years, he says he’s felt the effects of air pollution in the state.

So in 2008, he spent $24,000 installing 3.5 kw worth of solar panels on his home, which was more than enough to offset his former $250 a month electric bill. Before he bought these rechargeable cars, he had accrued a $438 credit with the utility.

In anticipation of buying his electric cars last December, he added another 1.4 kw solar installation to his house (costing $8,000) to offset the energy use to charge them.

At that, he figures he’s using very little gasoline (in the Volt), and no net electricity off the grid. Based on his usage, he estimates the payback time for the total solar installation (not counting his solar hot-water heater) at about eight years.

But things aren’t as simple. For starters, Parrott’s credit with the electric company just accumulates, they never pay it out. Second, he’s not completely off the grid. Solar panels only generate electricity in the daytime-not at night when he needs it to run the lights in the house-and to charge up his cars. So he’s selling electricity to the utility during the day, and buying it back at night.

That’s a great deal for Parrott, because under California’s time-of-use electric rate plans, he’s selling the energy to the utility at peak prices of 29 cents per kilowatt hour. And with the cars’ programmable charging, he sets them to start charging after 12:05 a.m., when rates for the power he buys back from the utility drops to 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour in the winter. That’s less than half the national average rate of 11 cents per kilowatt hour. (In the summer, it rises to 6.5 cents. His rates include generation only, not transmission. He pays a flat $13 a month in transmission costs.)

Unlike our experience with the Leaf and the Volt at our test track in a frigid Connecticut winter, Parrot reports getting about 4 miles per kilowatt hour in his Leaf and about 3.5 miles per kilowatt hour in his Volt, when it’s running on electricity in sunny California. (Cold temperatures dramatically affect the efficiency of electric cars. We got about 3 miles per kwh in a Leaf we borrowed from Nissan and about 2 miles out of our Volt. We’re still testing the Volt, however, as temperatures rise. And we’re expecting delivery of our own Leaf in the next few days.)

After the $7,500 federal, and $5,000 CA state and local incentives, he leased the Leaf based on a $21,000 cap cost--about the same price as a base Prius. The Volt lease deal was based o $37,000, after a $7,500 tax credit. He also got a free Level 2 (240-volt) charger through a government grant when he bought the Volt. Now he uses that charger to charge his Leaf, which has a bigger battery pack, and charges the Volt off a standard 110-volt outlet.

To take advantage of the low electricity rates, both cars have only seven hours to charge; In our experience, that time wouldn’t yield a full charge in either car with those chargers. But Parrott claims he has been getting 37 to 41 miles of electric range in the Volt, and that with his wife’s commute to nearby Davis, Calif., that the indicated remaining range in the Leaf has never dropped below 28 miles. Mirroring our experience with the Leaf, he says the indicated range is seldom accurate.

Parrott has driven his Volt 3,000 miles total and logged about 1,600 miles in the Leaf. Calculating the amount he’s paying for electricity, that works out to fuel costs of about 1.4 cents a mile for the Leaf, or about 1/10th the cost of gas for a 30-mpg car such as the Toyota Corolla. The Volt costs him about 1.6 cents a mile on electricity alone. In addition, he says he has spent about $120 on 30 gallons of premium gas for the Volt.

So while our initial findings indicate that the Volt and the Leaf won’t pay off for most consumers at this point, Parrott’s case demonstrates that for some early adopters, the cars can make a meaningful contribution to the cause of cleaning the air and reducing oil dependence. With expensive solar conversion, the pay off will take years.

“Air quality is such a serious issue,” Parrott says. “I think that those of us who can afford it are compelled to do something.” And with his garage, he’s done just that.

Eric Evarts

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