Electric cars cheap to run, but have been a hard sell

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, April 7, 2012

University of Pittsburgh professor Dennis Galletta smiles every time he passes a gas station on his daily commute between McCandless and Oakland.

Chevrolet's first plug-in hybrid electric car has many detractors, including conservatives outraged over state and federal subsidies to Volt buyers. Galletta, who bought a Volt last fall, is not among them.

An information science professor in Pitt's Katz School of Business, Galletta, 58, concedes he has always been what marketing gurus call an early adopter when it comes to new technology.

"I'm what they call leading-edge, but I'm not bleeding-edge. I don't buy anything until it is reasonable," Galletta said.

He said the much-maligned subsidies -- $7,500 from the federal government and $3,500 from the state -- were among the considerations that made the Volt reasonable.

"After deducting $11,000, the car lists for $28,145. It's a small car, so the price is a little high for the size, but it's reasonable for being able to smirk at gas stations as you pass them at 35 miles per hour," he said.

As of Friday, Galletta had traveled 3,500 miles in the car but used only about two gallons of gasoline. That's because he runs the Volt, which has a battery range of about 35 to 40 miles before a gasoline engine kicks in, largely on electricity.

Rather than burn gasoline, Galletta plugs the car into an electrical outlet in his garage every night. He said his electric bill averages 10.7 cents per kilowatt hour.

"So filling up my 40-mile 'tank' costs me about $1.43 in electricity, or 3.58 cents per mile," he said. "Assuming gasoline costs $3.89 per gallon, and a person gets 20 miles per gallon, gasoline would cost 19.45 cents per mile. So while the electricity is not free, it is less than a fifth the cost of gasoline.

"Instead of filling my tank for $120 a month in energy for my commute alone, I'm paying $22.11 a month for the electricity. And I'm free of gas station lines, the risk of spilling gas, etc., and refilling the car quietly in my garage while I sleep -- on a conventional 120-volt outlet."

Electric cars are getting more cost-efficient as the price of gasoline edges above $4 a gallon.

Even so, the Volt has been a hard sell for General Motors.

Conservative pundits have derided it and complained that it never would have made it to market without government subsidies.

The automaker fell about 2,300 cars short of its 10,000 vehicle sales goal last year and suspended production of the Volt From March 19 to April 23 in the wake of disappointing sales. A GM spokesman said the company sold more than 600 Volts in January and more than 1,000 in February. But sales spiked to 2,000 in March when gasoline prices soared.

Industry analyst Brett Smith, co-director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the Volt is a work in progress and likely would not have come to market as quickly as it did, but for the political push it received after candidate Barack Obama announced he wanted to see 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015.

"It represents a huge risk and a huge leap forward, much like the Nissan Leaf. But they both show there's a long way to go before it becomes a good business model," Smith said.

The limitations of the battery and the cost of the car, which Smith describes as "$20,000 worth of technology tacked onto a $20,000 car," place it out of reach for many buyers, he said.

"The reality is that it was in development before the Obama administration came to office. The question is: 'Will it be there after they are gone?' I don't know that," Smith said.

Galletta believes it will.

Although he drove Hondas for many years, Galletta said that after driving the Volt and his wife's hybrid Ford Escape, he's convinced that Detroit is making a comeback. He said the technology is impressive and likely will improve.

The only drawback in his experience has been that running the car's heater in cold weather seems to drive down mileage to about 30 miles per charge. So rather than run the heater constantly, Galletta wears a coat. Fortunately, with summer on the way, air conditioning does not consume as much battery power as the heater, he said.

By year-end, Galletta may be able to plug into a commercial-grade recharging station at work.

Rick Price, executive director of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, a nonprofit that concentrates on alternative energy in transportation, said his group is awaiting approval of a state grant that would cover installation of eight charging stations at Pitt facilities.

Other facilities in line for charging stations include Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and several hospitals in the area. Price said the initiative, the Energy Corridor 376 project, calls for installation of stations from Pittsburgh International Airport to the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Monroeville.

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