Why We Drive Electric: They’re More Efficient

By Paul Gipe

This is the first in a series on why we chose to lease a Nissan Leaf in the fall of 2014. There are several reasons to drive an Electric Vehicle (EV). Any one of them alone is enough to take the plunge.

EVs are more efficient in their use of fuel than cars powered by what insiders know as an Internal Combustion Engine or ICE. Because they are more efficient, EVs use fewer natural resources over their lifespan than conventional passenger or Light Duty Vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

Car geeks and engineers know this almost intuitively. Despite a century of development, ICE vehicles convert less than 20% of the fuel to useful energy that drives the vehicle.

(Though I am not an engineer, I studied engineering at General Motors Institute of Technology, now known as Kettering University. At GMI we were all car geeks. That’s why we were there.)

When the electricity used to power EVs comes from a conventional fossil-fueled power plant, the conversion efficiency is twice that of an ICE. Even after accounting for the loss of energy in transmitting electricity to the EV charge station and the loss of energy stored in the car’s traction battery, EVs use more of the fuel to drive the vehicle than a conventional engine. Of course the electricity we use to charge EVs come from a mix of generating resources, some of which don’t burn fuel at all. Thus, the efficiency of powering an EV is higher than the simple difference in thermal conversion efficiency of fossil-fired power plant and an ICE.

Now we could wade into the weeds and explore each of these items ad nauseam. However, this is the general picture that’s widely accepted and the reason that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can produce efficiency ratings for EVs that are so much higher than conventional passenger vehicles.

EPA annually ranks vehicles by their fuel efficiency. All of the top performers in EPA’s ranking of 2016 model year vehicles are EVs.

My parents lived through the Great Depression and as I grew up they instilled in me a habit of using as little material goods as possible to do what needed done. As Bucky Fuller advised, we practiced “Doing more with less.”

This is why Nancy and I always consider a vehicle’s efficiency–its mpg rating–when shopping for a car. Our “other” car is a Prius, the next best thing to an EV. For us, choosing a car that gets 114 miles per equivalent gallon of gasoline was a no-brainer.