Monday, December 27, 2010

A Look into Electric Vehicles, Part 2: The Nissan LEAF

On December 11, the first Nissan LEAF arrived in San Francisco from the Oppama plant in Japan, marking the second debut in the US this month of a breakthrough electric vehicle that is the first of its kind to be mass-produced. The Nissan LEAF differs from the Volt in that it is an all-electric vehicle known as a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) or battery electric vehicle (BEV). Thus, it does not rely on an internal combustion engine to spin the wheels or charge the batteries. Instead, the LEAF uses a 24-kWh battery pack to store the energy used to power the 80-kW (107-hp) motor that drives the wheels, and if that battery pack ever runs out of juice, just hope that it does so while parked in front of a charging station. While the LEAF has claimed range of 100 miles on a full charge will be more than enough for most people on most days, it will not appeal to the road-warriors out there or anybody looking for a car to take on long trips out of town. In fact, LEAF owners will be relatively restricted to where they can and cannot drive due to a lack of widespread charging stations currently available in the US. However, until we start investing huge amounts of money to upgrade our electrical infrastructure, implement smart grid technologies, and increase the number of charging stations around the nation, LEAF owners will have to keep from straying too far away from home – and the personal charging stations in their garage. 

Once the battery pack runs out of juice, the cars must be plugged into a dedicated charging port to be replenished. Unlike a gas tank that can be filled up in a matter of minutes, it could take close to a day to charge the 24-kWh battery pack in the LEAF using a standard 110-V power source, such as a wall outlet. A charger that uses a 110-V power source is known as a level 1 charger. Level 2 chargers typically use between a 200-V and 240-V power source at about 20 to 30 amps and can fully charge a dead LEAF in approximately 8 hours, turning a 200-mile trip that would normally take a little over three hours into an 11-hour journey. It looks like that cross-country road trip is out of the question, at least for now. There is such thing as a level 3 “quick” charger, although, a level 3 charging standard has yet to be developed in the US. Nissan has announced that it will offer an optional port that will enable quick charging capabilities once a level 3 charging standard is established. Using a level 3 charging station will allow you to charge the LEAF to approximately 80% capacity in under thirty minutes; however, current level 3 charging technology is new and expensive. Level 3 chargers must be connected to dedicated circuits capable of providing over 440-V and more than 100 amps, which is enough to overwhelm a typical neighborhood transformer and kill power to the whole block. Coulomb Technologies, based in Campbell, CA, offers a level 3 charger for $40,000 plus an additional $20,000 for installation, which is well more than the cost of a LEAF or a Volt.

On the other hand, one detail that is likely to win over the especially eco-conscious crowd is that the LEAF is made from recycled and recyclable materials, which helps to reduce its life-cycle carbon footprint – an important measure of sustainability that is often overlooked. Some people might look at a product or technology and judge it by how much energy it consumes during its operational lifetime compared with the energy consumed by similar products during the same period. This may be an acceptable measure in some cases; however, what is more valuable to know is the energy used or pollution emitted throughout a product’s entire life cycle. A product’s life-cycle carbon footprint is found by performing a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which adds up all the pollution emitted over a product’s entire lifetime. This includes all emissions associated with the mining and extraction of the raw materials, the shipment of the final product to the consumer, the energy consumed by the product during its lifetime, as well as the energy required to dispose of or recycle the final product after it has surpassed its useful lifetime and everything in between. Using recycled and recyclable materials is one of the best and easiest ways to reduce a product’s life-cycle carbon footprint, making this Nissan particularly green. Shall I say, like a leaf?

According to Nissan, the LEAF will retail for $32,780 before the $7,500 tax credit, and expect to pay an additional $2,000 to $5,000 for the charging station. Even with a charging station, the LEAF still costs significantly less than the Volt and is within the Prius’ price range of $22,150–$28,845. Otherwise, you could lease a LEAF from Nissan for $349/mo. and $1,999 down.