Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Chevy Volt
Published in the Sun January 2, 2013

 “If you have a bathtub full of water, and you start emptying it one teaspoon at a time, eventually you are going to get it empty.”  Biology professor Mary Griffith used that metaphor to teach her community college students that petroleum is a finite resource.  No matter how much remains underground right now; someday the oil will be gone.  Petroleum is so important to the chemical and plastics industries, it doesn’t make sense to burn it up motoring around town.


Mary believes that her faith requires her to be a good steward of the environment, so when electric vehicles became available she wanted one.  But Mary has family in Colorado and takes frequent road trips.  At this point in time, long road trips are not practical in a pure electric car, so she decided on a Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid.  The Volt has a lithium ion battery, and Mary can drive about 44 miles around town on a dollar’s worth of electricity.  But if she wants to go to Dallas or Colorado, off she goes.  When the electricity runs low a gasoline engine kicks on automatically and takes over without her having to do a thing except drive.


Mary insists I take her Volt for a test drive.  I settle into the leather seat and hit the power button.  Some other-worldly music plays like a spaceship booting up.  The dashboard displays the range remaining for both battery alone and gasoline.  Over the lifetime of the car Mary is getting 73.4 miles per gallon.  She apologizes for the 73 mpg number; it would be higher if she hadn’t gone to Colorado so many times.  In less than a year she has put 17,000 miles on the car.  The only maintenance has been to rotate the tires.  Sometime in the next 2 years she will need to get the oil changed.  I back out of the driveway with the guidance of the rear view camera.  We head out to Hwy 195 and Mary urges me to floor it.  She has had it up to 85 mph and knows it could go faster.  She claims the Volt is the most powerful car she has ever had, but I just take her word for it.  Electric cars do have amazing acceleration – sort of like turning on a circular saw.  We discuss the purchase price of a Volt.  She points out that a wide array of luxury cars (and trucks) cost far more.  Mary’s preferred luxury is the reduction of her personal greenhouse gas emissions.


When Mary first got her Volt, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Sun extolling the virtues of her new car.  She wanted to share her enthusiasm.  In response she received an anonymous letter in the mail.  Someone banged out an angry diatribe on a small piece of paper, photocopied it, and sent her the photocopy as if he (or she) was some sort of secret agent.  The writer accused her of using batteries that would someday end up in a landfill, and berated her for not paying her fair share of the road tax.  (In reality batteries that are no longer adequate for an automobile still have 70% of their capacity remaining, and can be used to store energy for household solar arrays.  When completely depleted, they can be recycled.)  Until receiving the letter, Mary had no idea that electric vehicles had political opponents.  I asked if she is afraid this column will provoke another letter.  She hesitates, but finally decides she doesn’t care.  She enjoys driving a low emission vehicle and likes saving money on gasoline.  Mary believes electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are the wave of the future, and she is proud to be an early adopter of an innovative technology.

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