Your Next Car Should Be Electric

Summary: While there are a plethora of environmental and climate change reasons to go electric, your next car should be electric because it will save you money and time, and will make your life better.

 

model3

As I indicated in the Why You Should Go Solar post, I believe climate change is a huge issue and so I’m not exactly unbiased in this discussion. Having said that, I would be writing this post even without the environmental impacts of choosing an electric car. You should choose an electric car because it’s just a better choice of car for most people. (By the way, if you really want to build wealth, health and fight climate change, consider replacing one of your cars with a bicycle.)

There are lots of reasons to go electric, this guy lists 30 (only a few of them are a bit tongue-in-cheek). Let me (briefly) give you my top three:

  1. The most important non-renewable resource you have is time. Getting an electric car will give you more of it. No more gas stations (you start every day with a full “tank”). No more oil changes. Practically no more maintenance, rotating and changing the tires is about it – by one estimate there are about 18 moving parts in an electric car, compared to over 20,000 in a typical ICE (internal combustion engine) car.
  2. You will enjoy driving more. Electric cars drive like sports cars, let you merge into traffic much easier, and are incredibly quiet. If you like to drive and think, it will be so much quieter. If you like to talk or listen to podcasts, it will be easier. If you like to listen to music, it will be higher quality.
  3. You will save money. Right now, with current incentives, you will save money up front. Over time you will save money on fuel costs (depending on current gas prices, the electricity you use costs only half as much as the equivalent amount of gas), maintenance, and a longer usable life of your car (if you so choose).

I can happily go on for a long time, going more in-depth on the above reasons or discussing many others, but since you have access to Google and can readily find that on your own, I’ll spare you (at least in this post, in person…be ready :-). For the rest of this post let me (again, reasonably briefly) go through a few of the vehicle choices you have right now and some of the pros and cons of each.

Tesla Model 3: Full disclosure (or confession), we’re first-day reservation holders on a Model 3, so I’m definitely biased (and excited to get ours later this year or perhaps early next year). Tesla is the reason I can write this post. Because of their incredible work over the last decade or so, electric cars are going mainstream. While you have several good choices today, every auto maker will be coming out with compelling electric cars in the next 2-5 years because Tesla has shown that you can make a compelling car that people will want to buy (at least 400,000 people have reserved a Model 3 and put a $1000 deposit down a year in advance, including yours truly).

Up until now Tesla has been the leader, but their offerings have only been in the luxury car segment (Model S and X cost $70,000 to $150,000-ish). That was part of Elon Musk’s master plan (here’s part deux), to generate revenue to fund the development of a mass-market car. With a base price of $35,000, I would still consider a Model 3 to be on the upper end of that mass market, but certainly within the range of what many middle-class Americans pay for their cars. (We’ve never paid more than $21,000 for a car, so this is definitely a change for us.)

The Model 3 is designed not only to be a great electric car, but to be a great car, directly competing with the BMW 3-series and the Mercedes Benz C-class. (This post does compare total cost of ownership to a Camry, but mainly from an evaluating Tesla as a company perspective.) The reveal event is scheduled for July 28th, so at that point we’ll know all the details about the car and hopefully the pricing on the available options. (Once we know the pricing on the options, I will write a follow-up post on the details of our Model 3 purchase.)

The main points to know about the Model 3 at this point for comparison purposes is a $35,000 base price, at least 215 miles of range on a charge, access to Tesla’s Supercharger Network, and all the hardware included to enable fully autonomous driving in the near future should you want that (and enhanced autopilot driving right now). The other thing, unfortunately for most of you reading this, is that if you aren’t currently on the wait list, if you sign up for one today it will likely be early 2019 before you can get one. It qualifies for the $7500 federal tax credit (although if you aren’t already on the list, you will likely be in the phase-out period by the time you can get one, so might only be $3750 or $1875) as well as the $5000 Colorado tax credit.

Tesla Model 3 Net Base Price after tax incentives: $22,500

2017 Chevy Bolt: The only non-Tesla long-range fully electric car currently on the market, the $37,500 base price Chevy Bolt is a good car. It was named North American Car of the Year for 2017 as well as Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 2017. It gets 238 miles on a charge, is a reasonably roomy hatchback, and is a pleasure to drive. To be clear, the Model 3 is anticipated to be in a different class than the Bolt. The Model 3 is targeted at the low-end luxury market, the Chevy Bolt at the “regular” market.

There are probably three main drawbacks to the Bolt right now:

  1. Chevy is constraining production, so there is somewhat limited availability (although definitely more available than the Model 3 🙂
  2. Some people feel it is a little “small”. From what I know, I don’t think so, but if you’re used to an SUV, I imagine it will feel small.
  3. The Bolt does not have the advantage of the Supercharger network. This is only an issue for long road trips. On a long road trip, the fast-charging capabilities of the Supercharger network is a huge advantage for Teslas. There are plenty of charging stations available for the Bolt, they just won’t charge as quickly as the Superchargers will. (And, of course, you can plug into any electrical outlet.) As the charging infrastructure is built out, and faster chargers are deployed, this will become less of an issue (although it’s unclear whether today’s Bolt will be able to take advantage of those faster charging speeds).

The Bolt qualifies for the $7500 Federal Tax credit and the $5000 Colorado tax credit, so the base price in Colorado is effectively $25,000 (Chevy is still a long way away from selling enough electric cars for the Federal incentive to phase out for them.)

2017 Chevy Bolt Net Base Price after tax incentives: $25,000

2017 Nissan Leaf: Next to Tesla, Nissan has had the most impact on the EV market with the Leaf. With a base price of $30,680 and a range of just over 100 miles, it’s a great car for what it was designed for. As a “daily commuter” car, it’s great, and has all the electric advantages. The main downside is total range and the fact that Nissan did not build thermal management into the battery, so the battery degrades more over time than batteries from Tesla or Chevrolet.

Everyone is eagerly anticipating the release of the next generation Leaf (2018 model year) in early September. This is expected to be in the same range category as the Model 3 and the Bolt and hopefully will be thermally managed. Nissan has kept a tight lid on the features and pricing of this car, but I would anticipate it will be in the 230 mile range on a charge and around $33,000 base price before incentives, so $20,500 in Colorado after incentives, but I could be very wrong. (Nissan is closer than Chevy to phase out, but since they don’t have 400,000 reservations like the Model 3 does, it shouldn’t be an issue if you are buying now.)

Because the next generation Leaf is on the way, however, there is a window of opportunity to get a great deal on 2017 Leafs. If you are okay with the range limitation and the battery degradation, you can get 2017 Leafs for $25,000 or less before incentives, which means around $12,500 or less after incentives in Colorado (and currently you can even get 0% financing for 60 months). That’s a pretty good deal and worth considering. As we get closer to September, you can probably even deal and save a bit more (for any that are left in inventory).

2017 Nissan Leaf Net Base Price after tax incentives: $12,500
2018 Nissan Leaf Net Base Price after tax incentives: Guessing $20,500

2017 Chevy Volt: This is a plug-in hybrid, not a pure electric vehicle, but is a great choice for many folks, especially if you aren’t quite comfortable yet going pure electric. It gets about 50 miles on pure electric, and then switches over to the gas engine to extend the range to 420 miles. Since most people’s daily driving is less than 50 miles, it functions like a pure electric vehicle most of the time, but gives you the comfort level of knowing that the gas engine will kick in if you run out of charge (and you can fill up at gas stations instead of worrying about charging).

The base price is $34,095 but, after the Federal and Colorado tax credits, that drops to $21,595. That’s a really good price for a really great car that gets you almost all of the advantages of an electric car with the safety net of a range-extending gas engine.

2017 Chevy Volt (plug-in hybrid) Net Base Price after tax incentives: $21,595

There are other choices out there (and many more coming soon), but those give you a pretty good idea of some of the options available to you. For many of you, however, you might want to consider one more option, which is buying a used electric or plug-in electric car. Again, there are lots of options, but one of the best would be to look at used Chevy Volts, particularly 2013 models with average to low mileage.

I can speak directly to this because we ended up purchasing a used 2013 Chevy Volt at the end of December. We were not really looking at getting a new (new to us at least) car, since we had the Model 3 reservation. But we have a new driver in the household and, on occasion, having a third car would be nice (first world problem). Plus, our 1995 Honda Civic, which has been a great car, was starting to experience a few issues and we were worried it might not last until we got the Model 3 (our other car is a 2006 Toyota Prius).

So we originally explored both new and used Nissan Leafs, but finally decided that with the battery degradation issue we didn’t want to go with a somewhat compromised used Leaf, and with the Model 3 coming a new Leaf wasn’t quite as compelling for us. We had decided to live with two cars and hope the Civic held out until we got the Model 3, but then we ran across some good deals on 2013 Chevy Volts that were coming off lease with relatively low mileage. As we got closer to the end of the calendar year, the deals kept getting better, so we started investigating a bit more.

Eventually we found a base model 2013 Chevy Volt with about 21,000 miles on it for only $13,500 and decided that was too good to pass up. Especially because this car came from out of state, and at that time Colorado still offered a state tax break on any EV that had not been previously licensed in Colorado. That saved us an additional $2145, bringing the net price down to $11,355. (Unfortunately, Colorado discontinued the tax break for used cars at the end of 2016). This was also a Certified Pre-Owned vehicle, meaning we got a one year warranty and two free maintenance visits over the next two years (oil change and tire rotation).

The 2013 Chevy Volts typically get between 30 and 40 electric miles on a charge, and then the gas engine extends the total range to about 380 miles. But, again, for most folks’ daily commutes, that’s plenty. To give you an idea, we’ve driven the car about 3800 miles so far and have yet to put gas in it. We’ve used a total of 3.2 gallons of gas, and about half of that is because the car will force the gas engine on periodically if you haven’t had to use it just to keep the gas engine in good shape. I anticipate not having to put gas into it for another 12 months or so (perhaps more if our Model 3 arrives sooner rather than later).

Used 2013-ish Chevy Volt Base Price (no tax incentives): Neighborhood of $14,000

Buying a used car is often a much better financial decision than buying new (current EV incentives change that equation a bit for electric vehicles right now), so this is an excellent choice to consider for those who don’t want to spend so much, or who aren’t quite comfortable buying a fully electric car yet. It will provide a nice bridge vehicle to the near future when the charging infrastructure is built out, the range of pure EVs will likely be greater, and economies of scale will likely make the prices even more competitive. (I’d predict the “tipping point” is 3 to 5 years before buying an electric car will be the obvious choice for almost everyone – sooner if a carbon tax somehow gets passed in Washington.)

If you choose to work with me, part of our discussions will be around making good financial decisions around your transportation needs, so discussing electric would certainly be part of that. But, even if you don’t want to work with me on financial stuff, I’d be happy to discuss (cajole, harangue, hassle you about) electric vehicles. They will save you time and money (especially right now with the Federal and Colorado tax incentives), help save the planet and, oh yeah, are really fun to drive.

Why You Should Go Solar

Summary: Going solar, either rooftop or via a community solar farm, is not only the right thing to do for the environment and to combat climate change, but it will save you money.

Let me be clear up front, I’m passionate about sustainability, particularly the use of sustainable energy, and I believe climate change is a very serious threat. I think everyone should be concerned, not just for themselves, but for their children as well, so I of course think you should go solar. But, even if I didn’t believe all of those things, you should still consider going solar for financial reasons.

We put solar panels on our roof at the end of 2009. That’s only 8 years ago, but there’s been tremendous change in the solar energy industry since then. In 2009 solar panels were much more expensive than they are now (and the continue to get less expensive), and they weren’t as efficient as they are now (and still getting incrementally better each year). On the flip side, the incentives (at least in Colorado) were much better then than now.

roof

We purchased a 5.04 kW system from Standard Renewable Energy (SRE) and they installed it. (They’ve since been bought by GridPoint and no longer do solar installations, at least in Colorado.) The total cost was listed as $38,307, but then there was an “instant rebate” from SRE of $10,080, which took what I would consider the real cost down to $28,227. But we didn’t even have to pay that as, at the time, the combined utility and state rebate for that size installation was $17,020, which means our out-of-pocket cost (the check we had to write) was $11,207.

But it gets even better, because that doesn’t take into account the federal rebate, which turned out to be an $8,693 tax credit on our 2009 taxes, so we effectively paid $2,514. At the time SRE showed the break-even point to be between 3 and 4 years, but we estimated it at more like 5 (they had built in 10% electricity rate increases each year). We didn’t track it exactly, but we estimate the break even point was at about 4.5 years, which means that since mid-2014, our electricity has been close to free (not completely free, as we still pay a grid-access charge).

So what’s our “return on investment” on solar? Well, that’s a bit hard to tell, as the solar panels are still operating great and effectively generating income for us, and we don’t know how long that will continue or what electric rates will do. We spent $2514 at the end of 2009 and, so far, have “made” probably more than $4,000 in saved electricity bills. That’s currently around a 6% compounded yearly return (with no associated tax liability).

Plus keep in mind with all of the solar options I discuss in this post, these returns are tax-free, unlike the equivalent equity or bond investment so, depending on your tax bracket, that could significantly close the difference in returns between going solar and investing the money in the markets.

As part of the agreement with the utility company, solar systems are generally sized to generate approximately the same amount of electricity you use in a year, plus or minus a bit. (You can choose to install a smaller system and generate less, but they don’t like you to overshoot the mark.) Ours was sized at about 98% of our usage, although over the subsequent years we have actually used a bit less electricity (we installed new windows and replaced some appliances), so each year we typically have received a small rebate check from Xcel at the end of the year for the excess we’ve generated.

That was true until the beginning of this year, when we started again using more than we generated. This is because at the end of December we bought a used 2013 Chevy Volt, which is a plug-in hybrid. Much more on this in a future post, but basically because we are charging it each night, our electricity use has gone up and now surpasses what we generate. (To keep that “cost” in perspective, however, we still haven’t had to put gas in the car, having driven it more than 3,800 miles and only used 3.2 gallons of gas so far.)

Being the sustainability guy that I am, I of course wanted to figure out a way to make that new energy clean energy as well. We still had some room on our roof (perhaps not the ideal orientation, but still okay), but it turns out that most solar companies don’t want to add on to an existing system (I’m sure for liability/insurance reasons) and, since our system is still working great, we certainly didn’t want to tear it off the roof and put a whole new system on.

So we began looking at alternatives and ended up purchasing 4 panels at a community solar farm operated by Clean Energy Collective. Community solar farms are big arrays of solar panels, typically installed in big open fields, that generate electricity and feed it back into the grid. Individuals or businesses can then buy a portion of the array and get credit for the electricity generated to offset their own usage. It’s often called “roofless solar” and, in many ways, it’s better than solar on your roof. Solar farms are generally more efficient (they can align the panels perfectly) and cost effective (cheaper to install on the ground than on a roof, as well as economies of scale). I still prefer putting solar panels on roofs, as then I know for sure it’s new energy generation and it provided at the source, not simply purchasing already existing solar farm panels and feeding into the grid, although by purchasing those you are using up existing farms and therefore they are likely to build additional ones. But, because we couldn’t easily add any more to our roof, this was a great solution for us.

cec

The cost of this, of course, varies, but let me share the specifics in our case to give you an idea. Because we only needed to generate the additional amount of electricity we were using by charging the Volt, we only “purchased” 4 panels (which is the minimum) at the solar farm (located in Arapahoe County). We are effectively leasing the panels for 19 years (for initial customers it was 20, but because this farm has been in use for a little while, I guess we only have 19 years left). The cost for those panels was $3,050 out of pocket (ironically, more than our entire solar system after rebates in 2009).

Those 4 panels will generate 1.22kW. The way we get “paid” is that we get a credit on our utility bill from Xcel each month, currently 7.6 cents per kWh (that rises and falls with whatever the current rates are), as well as an 8 cent per kWh renewable energy credit (REC) that gets paid quarterly. The estimated yearly savings for 4 panels comes out to about $322. CEC then estimates that electricity rates will rise 4.8% per year. This is more realistic than the 10% SRE used back in 2009, but still perhaps a bit too high (unless a carbon tax is eventually passed, in which case it might be much too low). Using those assumptions they calculate a 9.5 year break-even point and a total return of “187%” after 19 years. Assuming no increase in electric rates, the return is about 4% per year compounded. Given that electricity rates will likely rise some, I’m going to guess it will turn out to be about 4.5% per year compounded.

Is that a great return on investment? Well, no, not compared to investing it in equities (but, again, keep in mind there’s no tax liability, so that boosts the return up some). If I was just trying to maximize my return, this would be a bad idea, investing $3,050 into an index fund would likely generate more return. But since I can generate clean energy, help combat climate change, and still earn a return that’s better than a money market account and probably pretty equivalent to what bonds would return, I think that’s a pretty good trade-off (as well as diversifies my investments a bit).

Now, if you don’t already have solar on your roof, you should definitely first investigate the cost and return on investment for that (more on that below). But, if you don’t own a house, or if you can’t or simply don’t want to put solar panels on your roof, then this is a great option. If you are interested, I’d recommend contacting Pete Stein at CEC (pete.stein@easycleanenergy.com or 720-623-0618), he was very thorough and helpful.

Full disclosure: If you mention my name and end up purchasing from CEC, I will receive a $200 referral fee. If you feel icky about that, don’t mention my name :-). But keep in mind that if you do, you also will receive a $200 check after completion of your purchase and $100 will be donated to charity, which is why I decided to go ahead and include it in this post.

Since we already had solar on our roof, I couldn’t get a quote for what it would cost to install solar now. Luckily, I have a friend who just installed solar in my neck of the woods in Colorado and he was willing to share his information. As I mentioned previously, much has changed in the solar industry since we installed in 2009. In addition to the changes in cost and efficiency, you now have many more choices of installers and many of them now offer solar leasing in addition to up-front purchasing.

My friend ended up going with Ion Solar and, so far at least, he’s been very happy with them. Let’s take a look at some of the details for his install. They installed a 4.85kW system, so roughly equivalent to the system on our roof. Their total system cost was $18,896, less the federal rebate of $5,669, for a net system cost of $13,227. There are no longer the huge state/utility rebates like when we installed ours, instead you now get a minimal REC from Xcel for the energy generated. (From the information shared with me, I can’t tell how much this is or exactly where it figures in the calculations, but I know it’s often less than 1 cent per kWh).

ion

My friend chose to finance the system, which is basically a solar lease. The amount financed is the full amount of $18,896 at 4.99%, and they’ll make payments of $79 per month for the first 16 months, then $91 a month thereafter for the remainder of the 20 years of the lease (this assumes that the $5,669 tax credit is then applied to the loan when it’s received). In their calculations Ion assumes a 4% yearly increase in electricity rates and, based on this information, after 25 years they will end up $20,667 ahead.

How does that work? Well, each month the (average) amount they save on their electric bill is more than their loan payment, so they come out ahead. Ion even does a calculation where if you apply that savings to the loan payments, the loan is paid off in 15 years and the 25 year accumulated savings is then $22,743.

So what’s the return on investment? Well, since there’s no money put down up front, it’s complicated. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume they had decided to purchase the system for the net cost after federal rebate of $13,227. Ion estimates that over 25 years (factoring in the estimated 4% yearly increase in electricity rates) they will save $42,280, which is about 4.8% per year compounded (again, tax-free). Again, compared to investing in equities, that’s not a great return. But given the good that you’re doing, along with diversifying your investments and earning a bond-like return, I think it’s more than worth it.

So what should you do? If you own a house, I’d suggest getting bids from several vendors for installed solar and compare, and perhaps also contact Pete at CEC to compare roofless solar as well. There are lots of vendors to choose from, but I would certainly include Tesla Energy (formerly Solar City), because I anticipate with their new Gigafactory 2 coming online shortly their prices will be very competitive. (In addition, if you happen to need a new roof sometime in the future, look into their new solar roof option. It’s more expensive because it’s tile, but when you factor in the electricity savings, it ends up being cheaper than an asphalt roof, plus it has an infinite warranty on the tiles themselves – you’ll never have to replace the roof again.) If you don’t own your own home, or for whatever reason don’t want to install solar panels on your roof, then definitely contact Pete at CEC and get all the details.

Any of these options will give you a decent, but not great, return on investment, as well as contribute to a better world. In future posts I will talk more about the used Chevy Volt we recently purchased, electric cars in general, and why your next car should be electric, as well as about the opportunity to invest in solar directly.