Most people don’t think about the connection between driving and pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in fact, nitrogen oxide air pollution that rises from car tailpipes falls into the estuary when it rains, spurring algal blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones.” Roughly a third of the nitrogen pollution in the Bay comes from air pollution.
Driving cleaner helps to make a cleaner Bay. And in terms of direct air emissions, few cars are more Bay friendly than plug-in electric vehicles.
Sales of electric cars in the United States have more than doubled so far this year, compared to last, and tripled last year, compared to the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The boom in sales of “green” rides is driven in part by cheaper, more powerful batteries, federal tax incentives, and tightening fuel efficiency standards for vehicle manufacturers.
But how practical are electric cars, really?
To find out, I headed out to the Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Maryland and took a test drive in one of the hottest sellers: A Tesla. This California-based electric car company has 10,000 customers on a waiting list and is producing 500 zero-emissions, plug-in vehicles a month. I checked out a sleek black Tesla Model S sedan with a sales manager.
When I slid into the driver’s seat, the first thing I noticed was that there was no key to turn to start the motor (the driver simply carries a tiny black model car with a sensor that starts the engine). And when the motor starts, there is no sound.
“Alright. So let’s start up the engine,” I said to the salswoman.
“Now the car’s on,” she replied.
“So it’s on?” I said, baffled. “ I didn’t hear anything.”
Saleswoman: “There is nothing. When you’re ready we can shift down into drive and pull out of the spot.”
The Tesla is a high-tech, luxury ride worthy of James Bond. The electric motor of a Model S is not only quiet. It is also incredibly powerful, with acceleration so intense, I felt like someone was pressing on my chest.
Saleswoman: “Well, what do you think?”
Saleswoman: “We are flying at almost 70 miles an hour now.”
Me: ”It’s like taking off in a rocket.'
The motor of a Tesla is tiny, about the size of a bucket beneath the rear seats. The battery is hidden in a slab under the driver’s compartment. That means the four-door sedan has room for seven passengers, when you fold down a flap in back to allow two rear-facing seats.
And unlike many hybrids, the Model S has a large trunk (when the flaps are up in back, converting the rear space from seats into a trunk.) And the car also has a second trunk up front where the engine would be.
But there are two potential drawbacks. The first is the cost: $62,000, even after a $7,500 federal tax credit, according to the company. And the second is the car’s maximum range of about 270 miles before the battery needs to be recharged, by plugging it into an electrical outlet for several hours.
Other electric cars on the market, like the Chevy Volt, cost half as much –- but their battery range is only a fraction of the Tesla’s.
“Yes, for those who like to take extended road trips, many electric vehicles present significant challenges,” said Alec Gutierrez, an auto industry analyst with Kelly Bluebook. “If you are looking at something like a Spark electric vehicle or a Leaf that only has an 80 mile range, you are going to be hard pressed to make it across the country driving 80 miles at a time and having to stop to recharge for anywhere for 4 to 8 hours every time you run out of a battery.”
A Tesla spokeswoman said the company is addressing this range problem by installing rapid recharging stations along the East and West coasts, and from California to New York. (Standard recharging stations, which take several hours to fully recharge a car, are already operating at numerous locations – including at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters at 6 Herndon Avenue in Annapolis).
Alexis Georgeson, the Tesla spokeswoman, also answered a nagging question I had about electric cars: How green are they, really, if they run on electricity that comes in part from coal-fired power plants, which spew air pollution?
Georgeson said that an increasing amount of America’s electricity is coming from natural gas and wind, which are cleaner than coal.
“We also recommend that our owners put a couple of solar panels on their home,” Georgeson said. “Then drivers can be entirely off the grid, and they can charge their Model S for free, and have absolutely no emissions.”
And she said that in three or four years, the next generation of Teslas will cost half as much as they do today – making them about the same price of a gasoline-powered car. But quieter, cleaner, and with faster acceleration, so even Bay huggers can feel as cool as James Bond.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo by author)