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An Electric Car for TEOTWAWKI? – Part 1, by S.B.

I’ve been working on an article for SurvivalBlog on electric cars for quite some time…writing a little bit here and there then prioritizing other activities and halting work. With the recent Colonial Pipeline ransomware fiasco and associated fuel shortages on the east coast Report: U.S. Capital Nearly Out of Gas While NC, VA Also Endure Outages [1] (breitbart.com), I thought this an opportune time to buckle down and finish up the article. Regardless of how you interpret U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s recent statement regarding the Colonial Pipeline shutdown where she said “if you drive an electric car, this would not be affecting you…” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Pipeline Crisis: Drive an Electric Car [2] (breitbart.com); she does have a point. In a less than TEOTWAWKI [3] scenario, where electricity is available and gas is not, an electric vehicle would be a nice thing to have. Even in a full TEOTWWAKI scenario, an electric vehicle can have many advantages, as well as drawbacks, as I’ll discuss below.

Consider this a basic tutorial on the electric vehicle “platform” conveyed through the lens of prepping. Just as there are various weapons platforms that all ultimately have the same function of sending fast-moving projectiles downrange, consider an electric car one, among many platforms to transport people and goods down the road. I won’t go into great detail on the ins and outs of electric vehicles and the different makes and models, but identify common characteristics of the “platform” and how they might influence a preparedness minded person considering purchasing an electric vehicle. I’ll be conveying broad generalities. If you have an electric vehicle and think while reading this “My car does not work quite that way.”, or “Things work a little differently out where I live.”, I don’t doubt it. In this article, I’m focusing on the general principles and not the specific details.

Note that I’ll only be discussing “all-electric” vehicles powered solely by an electric motor and battery power. I have no experience owning or driving a “hybrid” that runs off of both electricity and gas (e.g., Toyota Prius), so will leave any discussion of that vehicle platform to others.

Not Something I Had Planned

Before purchasing the electric car I currently own, I never envisioned myself as an electric vehicle owner. However, roughly 6-year ago, our family moved from a house in the city that was 5-miles from my office to 5-acres in a rural area 40-miles outside the city. My 15-minute daily commute over surface streets turned into an hour (at least) freeway commute. Where I was previously spending roughly $75 a month on gas, now I was spending $75 a week. Having 5-acres, being well outside the City, and being able to have an orchard, garden, chickens, goats, and horses is all wonderful. However, the costs in time and money supporting the commute was a high price.

I live in a very un-free state on the west coast of the U.S. that does a lot to incentivize electric vehicles. One key incentive is that qualifying vehicles can use carpool lanes on the freeway with a single person in the car. Based on some experience driving with my kids in the car, being able to use the carpool lane took 15-minutes off my commute…that’s 30-minutes a day, 2.5 hours a workweek, that I would not have to spend in my car. I didn’t start shopping for a car looking specifically for an electric vehicle, I started out just shopping for a vehicle that qualified for the State issued sticker that allowed me to use the carpool lane. Based on what vehicles qualified for the “magic sticker” and my budget (wanted to buy a car for cash…no loan…no debt), I purchased a used all-electric vehicle. Vehicles that run entirely on battery (i.e., not a hybrid) and that have fairly short range (less than 100 miles) are fairly affordable. The longer the range and the fancier the car, the more that you will pay.

So in late December 2015, I drove home in a used 2013 Fiat 500e with about 24,000 miles on it. It now has almost 80,000 miles on it after driving it hundreds of times over the same route to and from my office. Below are some key things I learned over the last 6-years. If you are thinking of purchasing an electric vehicle, hopefully you find this valuable information in making your decision.

You Run a Vehicle Off a Different Fuel Source

Yes, I know, stating the obvious. We have one electric vehicle and two gas-powered vehicles. Especially after the Colonial Pipeline shutdown, I take comfort in knowing that if the gas runs dry, we have a vehicle that can run off of another fuel source. However, I would strongly discourage relying solely on electric vehicles. One, you lose the flexibility of multiple fuel sources I just identified. Two, electric vehicles have no shortage of challenges compared to gasoline vehicles, as described further below.

You Can Make Your Own Vehicle Fuel (With PV capacity)

It’s a lot easier to develop the infrastructure to make electricity to charge your electric vehicle than to produce your own gasoline or diesel (yes, even if you recycle vegetable oil for your diesel vehicle). Some photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, a battery bank, and an inverter and you can be charging up your car and rolling down the road. However, you are going to need a lot of solar generation capacity to keep an electric vehicle charged. If you have a solar system, particularly for an off-grid residence, you probably took advantage of various ways to reduce your power consumption. Reducing your electricity use can be a lot cheaper than extra panels and batteries to support larger demand. But any residential or off-grid solar power system is unlikely to have significant excess generation capacity.

The average U.S. household uses approximately 11,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year Electricity use in homes – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) [4] or roughly 30 kWh per day. My little two-door electric car with about 80-90 miles of range (under proper conditions as described below) has a battery that holds about 24 kWh of power. So, 80-90 miles of range on a small car equates to close to the same power as a whole day of household electricity usage. Move on up to an electric vehicle with a 200- or 300-mile range, and you are looking at multiple days of household power for a full charge. Compare that demand to an energy efficient off-grid cabin rather than your average U.S. home and that solar system is going to take a long time to charge an electric car.

If you have plans to fully fuel an electric car with your own PV generation capacity then you are either going to a) have substantially higher than average generation capacity, b) charge the vehicle a little at a time when the system is generating more power than you need, c) use much less electricity in your home/retreat when the vehicle is charging, or d) some combination of those. This power generation reality has helped me more fully appreciate how much energy is really contained in a gallon of gasoline. Compare how far a full tank of gas can push 1,000+ pounds of vehicle, passengers, and cargo at great speed. There is nothing in the typical household that comes close to using the amount of energy held in a tank of gasoline. Your typical home solar system is just not designed to generate the equivalent energy of a tank of gasoline in a short timeframe.

It Takes Time to “Fuel Up”

This is the king of all logistical differences between an electric vehicle and a gasoline or diesel vehicle (from here on in I’m just going to use the term “gasoline vehicle” to encompass both gasoline and diesel fuel-powered vehicles). In a gasoline vehicle you can roll into a gas station and in a matter of minutes add hundreds of miles to the range the vehicle can travel. It takes a little longer pouring in gas from Jerry cans, but still, hundreds of miles of range can be added in minutes, and you can carry that extra range with you. For an electric vehicle, adding 100-miles of travel range can take up to 20-hours. That 20-hour estimate is based on plugging the car into 120-volt home outlet. For electric vehicles, this is called a Level 1 charger. Having access to a 240-volt charger (a Level 2 charger) cuts the time about in half. There are faster chargers out there, like Teslas’ brand-specific quick charger network, but a 240-volt charger is pretty much the maximum people may have installed in their homes or run across outside the home on a regular basis. Plugging into a 120-volt outlet, expect it to take up to 2-hours to add 10 miles of range. At a 240-volt charger, expect it to take roughly an hour to add 10-miles of range.

Wherever you go, expect it to take hours, or even days, to get back to a full charge. A friend of mine, with an electric vehicle with a range of roughly 300-miles, took it on a long trip and only had a 120-volt outlet to plug into when he got there. It took him over 48-hours to get back to full charge. If you have access to a Level 3 charger or above, that’s excellent. One hour or less charge times are definitely possible. Heck, there is a project in the works in my state for a charge station that can add 300-miles of range to delivery trucks in a half hour. However, these quick charging times are the exception, not the rule, particularly in a grid down or TEOTWAWKI scenario. Long charge times are a fact of life for electric vehicles and take special planning to accommodate (with some examples provided below).

Temperature Matters

All batteries store chemical energy and convert it to electrical energy. Therefore, all batteries work via a chemical reaction. In that reaction, electrons flow from one material in the battery to another. Draw power from the battery, and electrons flow in one direction from material (a) to material (b). Charge the battery, and electrons are taken away from material (b) and added to material (a). Chemical reactions are influenced by temperature; therefore so are batteries, and so are electric vehicles. In warmer temperatures, chemical reactions occur more readily. This translates into my electric vehicle charging more rapidly in the summer, as well as having more range because it is easier to convert all the chemical energy in the battery into electric energy.

In the summer, the display on my vehicle can show a range, at full charge, of slightly over 100 miles. In the winter, this can go down to 80 miles. I live in a place with a mild climate where it seldom dips below freezing. If you live somewhere with actual cold climate, then expect to get a lot less out of an electric vehicle during the winter, and expect extended charging times if not parked in an insulated garage.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)

Editor’s Postscript:  For the sake of full disclosure, Jennifer Granholm is a major stockholder of electric car stock [5].