An extended version of this article appeared on UKclimbing in March 2017.
This summer we made a big move from Brussels to near Fort William on the west coast of Scotland. Moving away from the good transport links of a big city had us looking to buy our first family car to make the most of life in the highlands.
Electrifying transport is a big part of every strategy I’ve seen to move to a sustainable and zero CO2 economy, so I was keen to avoid internal combustion engine, (ICE) car if I could. Initially I thought an electric car in such a remote place would be a non-starter. Surely the range would be inadequate? What about the hills? But the more I looked into it the more I thought it could maybe work. I checked maps of charging points and realised that, in every possible direction from our new house there was a rapid charger at least every 60 miles, comfortably within the range of the cars in our budget. But even experienced owners of electric cars were dubious of the idea, the message seemed to be these cars were great for urban commuting or as a second car, but as your only car in the wilds of Scotland? Forget it.
Finally we decided to take the plunge and see what happened. Jonathan Porterfield of eco-cars.net was an extremely helpful font of information and found us a pre-registered 30 kWh (that’s the battery capacity) Nissan LEAF Acenta with a dozen miles on the clock for £16k, £10k less than the retail price. It was even red, our son’s favourite colour.
The car’s stated range is 155 miles under the European testing method and considerably less under the US testing method (107 miles). Of course the range you actually get will depend very heavily on weather conditions, terrain and how you drive it, especially how fast you go (just as it does in an ICE car).
I’m going to focus on the practicalities rather than the costs except to note that a recent study from MIT concluded that electric cars had the cheapest lifetime costs of all cars; the very low running costs more than pay back the small additional purchase cost.
Here are some quick thoughts about how it’s been for the first 4 months of highland life. We’ve driven 4700 miles in it so far, a mix of short, medium and long journeys.
- I thought the range/efficiency would get really hammered by all the hills around here. It doesn’t. I’m sure there is a difference in efficiency, but it’s small enough that I don’t notice it compared to flat driving. Of course it uses loads more energy going up hill than on the flat, but much of that extra energy is won back by the regenerative braking recharging the batteries on the way back down.
- Because of the hills and the remoteness I thought the highlands would be a really difficult place to make life with an electric car work. So far I’d say the opposite. Because the hills don’t make much difference to your efficiency (see above) and because speeds are generally much lower than elsewhere in the country, the range is actually better here than elsewhere.
- Although I don’t have a lot of experience driving nice cars (this is the second car I’ve owned but I’ve driven quite a few smart hire cars) I’d say this is by far the nicest I’ve driven. It accelerates really quickly, it’s extremely quiet, corners really well, has a really useful speed limiter for everyday driving and cruise control for the motorways.
- Because of the regenerative braking you hardly have to use the brakes at all, you just take your foot off the accelerator and that’s enough to slow you for corners etc. I pretty much only use the brake pedal (which is part regenerative, part friction) for stopping at lights/junctions/roundabouts. This is pleasant to drive and I’m hoping it, along with a vastly simpler transmission compared to an ICE car, will translate into very low maintenance costs.
- We’ve found that we get around the advertised EU range of 155 miles for pootling around into town to do the shopping (30 and 40mph max speeds), but for more general use around the highlands we typically get between 120 and 130 miles on a charge. For the energy geeks amongst you 120 miles of range from a 30kWh battery equates to 15kWh per 100km, which is what Mackay used as his assumption for electric cars in ‘Without Hot Air’. For faster driving on motorways and dual carriageways we seem to get about 90 miles of range on a full charge.
- For any journey up to ~100 miles round trip I’d say it’s more convenient than an ICE car. For most people journeys longer than that are rare (they certainly are for us). So on a day to day basis you just charge it overnight and never have to worry about stopping to charge. This is a big improvement on an ICE car even before you start thinking about the cost savings.
- Anything up to a 200 mile journey I’d say it’s as convenient, for me, as an ICE car. Sure, for that distance you have to stop once or twice, for 20 or 30 minutes each time, but I’d want to do that anyway to give my body and mind a break from driving.
- For longer distances it’s certainly less convenient than an ICE car, but in reasonable weather it’s not that bad (see below). For these journeys hiring an ICE car is an option, or getting the train. In fact Nissan offer 2 weeks of ICE car use per year if you buy a LEAF, although that doesn’t really work for us as it is from the dealer you bought from and our’s was in Darlington!
- For long journeys the fact that rapid charging is free (if you’re an Ecotricity customer) goes a long way to making up for the extra inconvenience of more frequent stopping…
Having said that the experience has on the whole been very good, we have had two minor epics. The first in the very early days, leaving the house for a trip to the beach at Arisaig with only 65% charge (before we had the home charger installed) thinking it would probably be OK and if it wasn’t I could nip to Mallaig where there is a fast charger. It wasn’t enough and when we got to Mallaig the charger wasn’t working (this is the only time I’ve had a charger not work, so in general they are very reliable). I found a friendly man at the harbour who let me plug in to his wall socket for two hours before I drove very slowly home. Now we’ve got a home charger and never leave for a long journey without a fully charged battery.
The second was driving to Derbyshire (400 miles from here) to see family in stormy weather with gale-force southerly winds. The range was considerably reduced and we had to stop 7 or 8 times to charge. Grim grim grim. On the way back the weather was calmer and the whole journey was really nice, we stopped 5 times, the last one just a 10 minute top up. I reckon it took about an hour longer than it would have done in an ICE car, although more than that if you normally share driving and don’t actually stop for breaks. I think in future if the weather forecast was as bad as it was I would either change my plans or split such a long journey halfway.
I thought having an electric car would be one of those things, like rarely flying and heating my house to only 19 degrees, that I do because I’m concerned about climate change, but that I’d rather not do. On the contrary I’d say for our lifestyle it’s a nicer, more convenient car to have. The experience so far has been really positive and it gives me hope that electric cars can very rapidly take over from ICE cars in the years to come, especially as cars with double the range of ours for a similar price are on the horizon in the next 2 or 3 years.