Decarbonizing your life doesn’t have to be hard

Better late than never. I’ve been decarbonizing my life.

Granted, it’s a work in progress. There are a lot more extreme steps I could take, like become a vegan. Meat prices are so high that cutting back on it isn’t too hard. If nothing else, we’ve been reducing portion sizes. My wife simply won’t give it up, so at best I’d have to eat a lot of meals I prepare myself. Cows in particular put out a lot of methane.

But my wife is helping in other ways. Last New Year’s Eve, she bought a Nissan Leaf, a fully electric car but one which can’t in any meaningful sense be considered a touring car. Its range is about 150 miles. But most of the time we’re at home which means she has a range of about 75 miles on a full charge. She rarely needs more than 30 miles. If we ever move, moving her car will be one of the challenges. Every 150 miles she’d have to stop at a public charger and at best she’d be stuck there a few hours while it recharges.

Our garage now has a proper car charging circuit. We spent about two thousand dollars to have an electrician install a 240 volt, 50 amp circuit to the garage. It seemed a bit of an indulgence since she uses it so little that waiting a day or so to charge it from a 120 volt, 15 amp circuit wasn’t a bother. Eventually I’ll have a fully electric car too and it will be used regularly.

For a while I sort of did have one: a Toyota Prius Prime, which on a good day could get thirty miles before the engine kicked in. Unfortunately, it became infested with mice and was declared totaled. The next best thing was a 2019 Toyota Camry hybrid which I eventually replaced it with. It gets about 47mpg and is our touring car.

Since 2016, we’ve had solar panels on our roof. We paid for it in full with some money I inherited from my parents that I received a few months after my dad died. That is certainly green, but it turns out the system was a bit undersized. The rest of it comes from a solar farm in Central Massachusetts. This is not quite as green as I hoped as I subsequently learned the solar farm displaced a pine forest that used to be there.

I’ve learned that getting solar is a no-brainer. In a bit less than five years it fully paid for itself, helped in part by generous federal and Massachusetts solar tax credits. Now it actually makes us money. In Massachusetts, it’s part of a SREC-II program, which means that companies pay us to claim our solar energy, avoiding their need to decarbonize. It amounted to about $1800 last year. This revenue stream will go away in about five years. But the solar panels will remain on the house, and that will still save us money compared to buying the power from our provider. Here in western Massachusetts, commercial power is very pricey and averages about $.24/kwh. At that rate, we saved about $1500 in annual electricity costs in 2021, and we can expect that cost savings every year until the system becomes too inefficient. I’ll probably be dead by then, so it should outlast me.

It also helps to drive less. If you work from home, you are inadvertently doing your part. While I’m retired from a full time job, I still do some consulting, so I’m helping there. We do a lot less distance driving than we used to do, and the pandemic cut that down even further. It was all that time with my car garaged that likely caused the mice to infest it. Also, we do less traveling. A recent cruise and the flights to and from the cruise port were exceptions. Even the cleanest burning cruise ship is going to put out a lot of carbon emissions.

One of our latest steps has been looking at our investments and making them cleaner. We’ve done this is two phases, but mostly it meant moving money into funds that are focused on green technologies. Talking it over with our financial adviser, we discovered there was likely no downside to doing this. Well managed ESG (environmental, social and governmental) funds tend to match or exceed the S&P 500 index. We started with our retirement funds. Except for my considerable IRA in the federal employee’s Thrift Saving Plan (TSP, which has no such type of environmental fund), these funds have been moved into Black Rock ESG electronic trading funds. This article can point you to some of the funds we bought into.

More recently we decided to invest our cash accounts, well into six figures, into more ESG funds. With inflation high, the low interest rate we were getting meant that we were losing money by hoarding cash. We don’t need all this cash for anticipated expenses, so investing these for ten years or so in the hopes we’ll beat inflation seemed a logical thing to do. After all, I have a cushy government pension. It went into more Black Rock ESG funds. As for my TSP funds, I can move them into a brokerage but I would lose the no-fee aspect which makes TSP accounts so nice to have.

What’s still to be done? We live in New England, generally a cold state. People usually heat their houses with gas or oil. It’s gas in our case. We also have a gas oven and a gas-fired water heater. I haven’t talked my wife into it yet, but I’m hoping as these move toward replacement they’ll be replaced with electric appliances, and the AC unit will become a heat pump. (The AC unit is effectively a heat pump during the summer; it’s the winter that’s the problem.) We weren’t enamored with heat pumps when we lived in Virginia but they have gotten more efficient and more reliable. They’re not sexy and they won’t blast heat at you like a gas furnace will, but it’s a better way to go, particularly if I can expand our solar array.

But expanding the solar array is difficult. It makes no sense, but current law requires that we would have to install and meter a separate system to expand it, needlessly inflating costs. There is a smaller roof on our house that could hold another ten panels or so. If we get rid of gas appliances though, this and the continually falling price of solar panels probably will nudge us in this direction.

Eventually my car will be wholly electric too, but the infrastructure isn’t quite there yet, which is why I reluctantly bought a hybrid.

One household can’t do much, but millions of households can. If you’ve been reluctant to get started, start with solar panels, if your house gets abundant sunshine. It will pay for itself, so it’s also financially sound. Otherwise choose electricity from clean and renewable sources. Check with your electric company to see how you can do this.

Test-driving the Bolt, the Prius Prime and the Camry Hybrid

Introduction

It’s rare for me to buy a car. The last time I bought one was in 2004. My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid is still moving me around, just not as nicely as it used to. Moving to Massachusetts has challenged it. Here the roads are bumpy and this time of year the potholes are plentiful and dangerous. I recently took it in to replace its rear struts, but driving around is still a bumpy and noisy experience. While I could probably drive it another ten years, it’s past its prime. It’s time for new car.

Back in 2004, hybrids were a new technology. Today they are old news. As I noted, electric cars are where it’s at these days, or at least where the hype is. Not all of us though can afford a Tesla Model S.

Our friend Mary came to visit us in her Tesla Model S recently, a car so large that it barely fit into our garage and only because its mirrors could retract fully inside the car. The Model S is currently something of a gold standard for electric cars. But even with the many Tesla superchargers between you and your destination, it’s hardly convenient. At best, a pit stop takes 45 minutes or so for an 80% charge. This time of the year when temperatures are cold, all electric cars lose range. Her trip that might have taken 8-9 hours in a car with a gasoline engine extended to 11-12 hours in her Tesla, which included two recharging stops.

While I like the idea of an electric car, it remains an iffy proposition as a touring car. Still, I wanted to get an idea if I even wanted one, which is why I ended up at our local Chevy dealership to test drive the Chevrolet Bolt Premium.

Chevy Bolt test drive

Back in 2004, I noted that driving the Prius seemed so futuristic. The technology certainly has changed since then, since the Prius’s dashboard now seems sort of sedate. The Chevy Bolt has an electronic dashboard behind the wheel and a separate monitor between seats for most of the other stuff. Screens change dynamically with the press of a button. These days even ordinary cars have this stuff, but to me it’s all new. I like simple displays for minimal distractions.

With the Bolt’s theoretical range of about 240 miles fully charged, during our cold weather test drive the predicted range was about a third less than that. This makes the Bolt impractical as a touring car. It can’t use Tesla’s superchargers. In the best situation you will have to wait about an hour for an 80% charge. This assumes there is no line at the charging station and a warm battery. But if you are looking for a commuting car, it’s a good choice, since most of the time you will charge it at home. But so are arguably electric cars with less range like the now-discontinued Volt.

Driving the Bolt otherwise surprised me. You expect it to be quiet and it was. Electric motors make little noise compared to pistons pounding inside an engine. It can achieve 60mph in less than seven seconds, so it’s Bolt name is particularly apt. Its high stance made it easy for me to get in and out. It feels more like a mini-SUV than a hatchback. The seats go way back and the steering wheel telescopes. It feels narrow but it’s no narrower than my Honda Civic. It doesn’t absorb bumps particularly well and perhaps due to its high stance it feels a bit hard to control at times. And the seats are not very ergonomic.

But at about a third of the price of a Model S, the Bolt feels something close to a bargain. Of course, it doesn’t pollute, unless you charge it from non-green sources. We have solar panels and get our remainder from wind power, so that’s not an issue. It would go a huge way toward making us carbon neutral. And arguably because it is all-electric, it is less complex. I could expect to save 50% or more on maintenance costs, and the cost per mile to drive an electric car will almost certainly save us 50% or more off the cost of gasoline. While there are other electric cars out there, at the moment it’s really the only practical electric car out there for the masses.

Toyota Prius Prime test drive

We also test-drove the Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid that can drive about fifty miles on electricity, but only if you don’t go too fast. It averages 50mpg in hybrid mode. It was reasonably easy to get in and out of but it helped to elevate the seat, which can only be done manually. The Prius Prime felt extremely solid with great steering control, and reasonably quiet too. Like the Bolt, it doubles as a hatchback. However its rear window with the line in the middle takes some getting used to and is arguably annoying.

Toyota Camry Hybrid test drive

We used to own a Toyota Camry. Today’s hybrid version averages 47mpg and packs a lot more technology into a fairly compact space. Driving it was quiet and comfortable. It too can drive some miles at lower speeds in pure electric mode, but its battery uses electricity that comes from the engine or regenerative braking. It’s not a hatchback, which is something of a drawback but does have a huge trunk and second row seats that fold back that allow you to transport some larger objects. The Camry remains an affordable car with a premium feel to it. You feel comfortable and kind of pampered, which contrasts with the practical Prius Prime. Its displays though feel a bit too packed with information and there are many little switches that can be hard to finger. Its monitor in the center is a bit small but functional. It’s got all the lumbar support you could want with motors to easily elevate or change the position of the seats. It is quite quiet and handles bumpy roads quite nicely.

Decisions, decisions…

There are other factors nudging us. There are sizable federal and some state tax credits available. The full $7500 federal tax credit for the Bolt expires at the end of the month. With that and a $1500 Massachusetts rebate, we can effectively get a Chevy Bolt Premium with all the convenience packages and the fast charging option for $26,565. It does mean that for long distance driving beyond 200 miles or so we’ll be driving my wife’s Subaru with its annoying manual stick. If we were to buy it, we’d also want to invest in a 240-volt car charger, probably with dual outlets on the assumption my wife would eventually have an electric car too.

All this amounts to a good dilemma, but still a dilemma. Dilemmas indicate who you really are. Am I the eco-green person I think I am? I that case I should buy the Bolt. Am I the practical guy that wants great efficiency in a car but still want to tour in it? Then I should get the Prius Prime. Do I want pretty good mileage car but a bit of pampering? Then I should get the Toyota Camry Hybrid, or some others in this market like the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, a large car which a remarkable 42mpg and one of the highest scores I’ve seen in Consumer Reports magazine: 98 out of 100 points.

I do need to either decide soon or risk some federal tax credits expiring.

To EV or not-EV: that is the question

EV = electric vehicle, of course. Next year I am planning to replace my semi-green 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid, a logical choice as I noted at the time. So I’ve been poring over Consumer Reports, principally its last auto issue, studying all the cars on the market and trying to figure out the next one to buy. I want to buy one in 2019 not only because the Civic will turn 15 (it was bought in 2004) but also because it’s likely that its $3500 battery will need to be replaced in 2020. The old one died a week after its warranty ran out; I think they are programmed to die. I’d prefer not to have to shoulder that cost.

The auto industry is in a period of great flux; a problem brought home by GM’s recent plant closings and layoff announcements. The Trump Administration may believe that the oil era will last forever, but the more I study the auto market the more I am convinced the oil era is ending. This is great news if you believe oil use must be curbed to address climate change. What’s surprising is that our automakers have pretty much figured it out too. The electric car is coming and it’s going to kill the internal combustion engine.

This is not wishful thinking. It’s going to happen. There are a couple of major reasons why this will happen. As usual it will be less about the need to address climate change, as it will come down to simple pocketbook issues. Electric cars are an emerging market that you currently pay a premium to own. But that will change. When anything becomes widely mass-produced, it gets cheaper. Electric cars will get much cheaper in the years ahead. The real innovation is these cars in the battery technology.

Yet there’s another reason electric cars will become a no-duh purchase five or ten years from now: they should be much less expensive to maintain. Internal combustion engines are complex beasts. Electric motors though are dead simple. No pistons and cylinders to worry about. The car will not need a radiator or presumably much in the way of oil in the crankshaft. EV owners already know that when it comes to acceleration, EVs can’t be beat. Put your foot on the accelerator and you will find yourself pushed into your seat. And you will pass others by without the roar of an engine. For a while, it will seem surreal.

So GM is actually playing catch up. It’s killing many of its sedans basically because these will eventually be replaced with EVs. Right now, their electric car lineup doesn’t have much to show for it: just the Bolt and the Volt, last I checked. They can’t mass produce a whole bunch of new EV models yet because the demand isn’t there. But that will change as costs come down. People are already deferring car purchases, waiting for the price of EVs to come down, which largely explains the slowdown in car manufacturing. Meanwhile, the EV charging infrastructure is quickly coming together. Long distance travel is no longer much of a concern with EVs because super charging stations are becoming easy to find. We already have a Tesla supercharging station right across the river in Hadley, Massachusetts, about five miles away. You can fully charge your vehicle at these stations in about ten minutes.

Right now the cost of using a supercharger is less than buying the equivalent in gasoline. Most people will charge their vehicles at home at the going kilowatt-hour rate. Add in enough solar panels to your home and after the investment in the panels much of the time you can run your EV for free. Of course, if you don’t choose green energy at home, your EV may not be that good for the environment. But that’s changing too. Here in Western Massachusetts all sorts of megawatt solar farms are going up. And we already buy energy from offshore wind farms.

Spending $100K for a Tesla is out of our budget, but spending $37K or so for a Chevy Bolt is probably not out of our budget, if I assume the $7500 tax credit. To get it though I have to be one of the first 200,000 EV owners and hope the Trump administration doesn’t kill it altogether first. We could buy another hybrid car, but its cost of maintenance over the 10-15 years would make it competitive with a low maintenance EV like the Chevy Bolt. I like EV’s being so much more mechanically simpler and thus cheaper to maintain.

So the EV trend is inescapable. Car manufacturers don’t want us car buyers to focus on this right now because it reduces car sales. There’s a lot of profit as long as car buyers don’t catch on. However, a carbon-emitting SUV you buy today is likely a purchase you will rue five years from now. You will look like a hopeless Luddite. Good luck trying to resell those suckers.

One approach we could use is what a lot of Americans are already doing: defer buying a new car until EV prices go down. I may have to pay another $3500 for a new battery for my Civic, but the car is paid for and it is reliable while being reasonably green. It may be cheaper in the long run. I have yet to test drive the Chevy Bolt, the only EV I am likely to buy. I may not like it. I’ve watched test drive videos of the car and it looks pretty good, but I’d prefer something better but as affordable. It just doesn’t exist yet.

So I might end up with a Toyota Camry Hybrid instead. 48 mpg is nothing to sneeze at, but even with its advanced hybrid technology, it’s clear to me that EVs will displace hybrids too. If I am going to join the 21st century car technology, I’d best do it right with an EV.