Friday, July 02, 2021

Field Notes from the Electrify Everything Camp

As you may have noticed, there was no weekend reading post last weekend. I was in Arizona for the weekend, picking up my kids after a week and a half of high quality spoiling from my parents. 

We drove over in the Tesla. This trip did not involve any unexpected multi-hour delays due to charging infrastructure failures like our first Tesla trip to AZ did. We are smarter about charging decisions now, but the infrastructure is also getting better. The Yuma superchargers have had an upgrade and there is a new bank of superchargers in Tacna, about 40 miles away from Yuma. Even with the bad decisions we made on that first trip, we would have been OK if the Tacna station had existed then.

There is still a long way to go on electric car infrastructure, though. The best charger network - and the only one that really supports long road trips - is still exclusively for Teslas. This needs to change but until there is another network than can support the drive to Phoenix one of our cars will always be a Tesla no matter how many obnoxious things Elon Musk does. 

The Tesla network is far from perfect, though. My parents live near downtown Mesa. The closest Tesla supercharger is roughly 20 miles away, at a fancy mall in Scottsdale. There are some destination chargers closer but they are all at hotels and so not available for us to use. 

I completely understand why the Tesla network is set up this way. The people who own Teslas in the Phoenix area are overwhelmingly in Scottsdale, Tempe, and the wealthier parts of Phoenix. But this means that charging is a bit of a logistical problem when we're staying with my parents.

Luckily, there are some L2 chargers on the Blink network in downtown Mesa and we have used those both times we were in Mesa with our Tesla. However, while a supercharger can charge at speeds of more than 200 miles/hour, the L2 chargers in downtown Mesa charge at speeds of 20 miles/hour. We've been able to make this work because the L2 chargers are close to my parents' house, but it is not ideal. Also, the L2 chargers are much more expensive for us to use - still in the the level of cost that we are happy to pay to support the growth of our electric car infrastructure, but definitely more expensive. We paid more to put ~80 miles of range (over 4 hours) on our battery at the L2 charger than we paid to add ~200 miles of range (in about 40 minutes) at the superchargers in Gila Bend.

I didn't check how hot it was in Mesa while we were there. I think it was around 115 degrees Fahrenheit. That is not abnormal for Mesa this time of year, although the area got to such high temperatures earlier than normal this year. Of course, while we were driving home, the terrible heat wave was just starting in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Hundreds of people died in that heat wave.

Reading the news and thinking about our experiences with trying to make climate-conscious decisions as a consumer is sobering. We are running out of time to prevent a world in which heat waves like what the Pacific Northwest just experienced become ever more common. In fact, far worse heat events will occur. In the recent heat wave, the temperature and humidity stayed below the wet bulb limit for human survival. Temperature and humidity combinations that exceed that limit will come if we continue to warm our planet. 

Consider this quote from the article I linked above:

Wet-bulb temperatures above 86°F (30°C) are rare in the U.S. As wet bulb temperatures approach 95°F, even the healthiest people, relaxing in the shade without heavy clothing and with an endless supply of water, cannot prevent themselves from overheating,” Horton said. “Even at lower wet-bulb temperatures, like 79°F (26°C), those with pre-existing health conditions (like respiratory, cardiovascular, and renal disease), the elderly, as well as those performing strenuous outdoor labor and athletic activities, are at a high risk.”

You can play with this online calculator to see what combinations of heat and humidity will produce dangerous wet bulb temperatures. I used 15 inches of Hg for barometric pressure, since Google tells me that is close to the average at sea level. Using this calculator, I think that Phoenix-level temperatures with Atlanta-level humidity would put you over the wet bulb limit.

And that is just the heat itself. It doesn't even consider the increase in wildfires and hurricanes and other extreme weather events.

We should be decarbonizing as fast as we can, doing everything we can to slow the trajectory we are on. We should have huge incentives in place for people to electrify their lives while we also push to decarbonize our electricity grid. 

That is not what we are doing. My husband and I have made two large decarbonizing purchases in the last few years, purchasing an electric car when our Prius needed replacing and an electric heat pump when our gas furnace needed to go. We are in the process of making our third large decarbonizing purchase now: solar panels and a home battery. In none of these cases are the financial incentives that are available enough to make our purchases cheaper than the corresponding carbon intense choice. The one that comes closest is the electric car. We got a tax credit, and if we'd chosen a cheaper vehicle we might have done better than we would have with an equivalent gas-powered car. But we wanted a car that could make the trip from San Diego to Phoenix. At the time, only a Tesla could do that. There are other electric cars with the range needed now, but they are also not cheap and the charging infrastructure is less robust. 

We did not get a tax credit when we bought the heat pump, because we chose a model optimized for our particular usage pattern and that model did not have the right combination of ratings to qualify for the tax credit. It was definitely more expensive than a straight replacement of our gas furnace would have been, but with the heat pump we also get AC and I think one heat pump might work out cheaper than a gas furnace plus an AC unit. We didn't consider that option, though, so I don't really know.

We will get a tax credit for our solar panels, which will be nice. I have not done the math to figure out when we'll hit break even on the cost of the panels vs. the amount of money saved on power bills, but it will be many years in the future because even with an electric car to charge our power bills just aren't that high. We could cut the cost of the system by forgoing the home battery, but I want it for resilience in case of blackouts and my husband wants it because he likes the idea of eventually being able to make our home carbon neutral - we still have a gas water heater, a gas dryer, and one gas-powered car, so it won't be immediate, but with a sufficient home battery, it will be possible eventually.

In our case, we didn't make our purchasing decisions to save money. We made them because we want to decarbonize. We also soon discovered that our electric items are actually better than what they replaced. Electric cars are quiet, don't produce smelly exhaust, and tend to need much less maintenance than gas-powered cars. I love that for our around town needs we can just charge it in our driveway and never have to stop for gas. It is also fun to drive. There is a long, curvy climb between El Centro and Jacumba on the way home from Arizona. There are spots to pull over roughly every mile because so many cars overheat. Our gas-powered cars always did the climb OK, but you'd get mad if someone pulled in front of you and made you slow down, because you'd lose your momentum and struggle to get it back. The Tesla climbs it with ease and if you have to slow down for another car you can get back up to speed with no trouble. Then on the way back down the hill you drive for miles and miles without seeing your range indicator change because you are taking your excess momentum and charging the battery back up. 

The heat pump is also quieter than the furnace it replaced, and since I am no longer burning gas inside my home, it is better for my asthma. It does a great job of keeping our home a comfortable temperature for the months we need it. 

I do not feel like I have given up anything in choosing to electrify our home heating, and the only trade-off I'm making by owning an electric car could be easily rectified if we'd just invest in better charging infrastructure.

However, right now I did spend more money to make these choices. We should figure out the incentive structure needed to make these choices more financially attractive for everyone. People electrifying now will save us all money in the long run, but not everyone can afford to ignore the price difference at the point of purchase. We also need those incentives to happen at the point of purchase, because not everyone can afford  large upfront expense with a promise of a lower tax bill later.

I think we're at an inflection point for our climate future. We have the technologies we need to significantly slow the rate at which temperatures rise. We need to find the political will to accelerate our adoption of those technologies. 

In the meantime, if you are replacing an energy intensive appliance, please consider electric. Many furnace repair guys will try to talk you out of a heat pump because they find gas furnaces easier to install or just because they are used to thinking of them as the more cost effective choice. But if you live in a relatively temperate climate, a heat pump will heat your house just fine - and even if you don't usually need AC, if you find yourself in an unprecedented heat wave a heat pump will cool your house, too. In colder climates, they sell hybrid systems that use a heat pump while possible and then switch to gas.

I know that not everyone can absorb the inconvenience created by our incomplete charging infrastructure, but if you're buying a car for around the town needs you can probably charge an electric car at home. I know some people who have an electric car and just "trickle charge" with an extension cord from a regular outlet. This only works if you drive <20 miles per day, but if you can install a charging outlet, you'll get plenty of charge overnight. Or consider a hybrid - a plug-in hybrid will get you electric miles for part or all of your commute and give you a gas engine for longer trips. Not interested in dealing with the plug-in part? A regular hybrid acts just like any other car, with much better gas mileage.

Every carbon conscious decision we make buys us a little more time to get our political act together. I'd say "do it for our kids" but as I've learned over the course of this pandemic, a lot of people aren't even willing to wear a mask for our kids... so maybe do it to make your life a little more resilient to ransomware attacks and the climate changes that are already coming? I don't know what the right argument would be. But if you have any questions about what owning an electric car or an electric heat pump is like - definitely ask in the comments! I will give you the unvarnished truth, because honestly that truth is pretty darn good.

1 comment:

  1. Socal Dendrite1:53 PM

    I just bought a new (used) car a few weeks ago to replace my 20-yr old Camry and went for a 2017 hybrid RAV4 - and I love it! I wanted to buy used so there weren't too many options in the hybrid compact SUV category (only the one, actually, which helped narrow my decision space) but it was good to see so many PHEVs and electric vehicles coming onto the new market.

    I was sorely tempted to break my used-only policy and get a brand new RAV4 PHEV because the msrp plus tax credit brought the price within reach and I'd be able to do all our running around town in the 40 mile electric-only range (with our electric rates it would be no cheaper than gas but I love the idea). But then I found out that they are in short supply and dealers are sticking an extra $10k (!) onto the msrp. Oh well. When I get another car in 15 years time, I expect there will be a great selection of electric cars and a fab charging network :) When my husband's car is up for replacement, we might think about whether we can afford a Tesla... I know he would like the performance and I would like to have a fully electric vehicle.

    Our house came with 28 solar panels, and we're considering adding some more to the top of the garage. I saw that the proposed legislation to reduce some of the benefits of solar NEM didn't pass the state legislature, thank goodness.

    I also just submitted my citizenship application! Once that is all sorted, I think I will feel more comfortable becoming more politically active. You have been an inspiration on that front.


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