2011 Chevrolet Volt: Dollars and Sense?
February 08, 2011
I spent four days in a row driving our long-term 2011 Chevrolet Volt, and I honestly feel like I could write a small novel on the experience. Instead, I'll focus on the major lessons learned.
The first 24 hours were a lesson in frustration, as I managed to pull the worst range from the battery (as seen above) while simultaneously getting the most expensive electric bill I've ever received.
It all started with plugging the Volt into my 110v garage outlet after draining the battery on my commute home. The battery had run out after 35.4 miles, falling a bit short of the 37.8 I'd gotten on the same commute home the last time I drove the Volt.
Okay, no biggie. I plugged it in as soon as I parked in the garage and it was fully charged the next morning. However, my route into work wasn't along the relatively flat Pacific Coast Highway (which I use about 90 percent of the time), but instead along the 101 Freeway down to Malibu Canyon Road, then out to PCH. I used this route because I was leaving early enough to avoid traffic and (if you leave early enough) it's faster than the coast.
BUT (and when driving a Volt, this is a big BUT), the 101 south from my house includes the very steep Canejo Grade, which means you're not only traveling at freeway speeds but freeway speeds up a long, steep hill. I figured the Volt wouldn't like this, but when I got to the top of the grade the miles I'd traveled from my home read 7.7; miles I had left on the battery...16. Ouch!
Sure enough, the battery died at 25.8 miles and the the Volt switched over to internal combustion. It had taken 13.41 kWh to charge the Volt, but at that point this was just a number in the logbook. The real issue for me started when I got home that day and finally started going through the stacked up mail. In it I found my record-setting electric bill and confirmed I had paid $.31 for each kWh from mid-December to mid-January.
At that rate it cost me $4.16 to fully charge the Volt the previous night, a price that got me 25.8 miles the following morning. Even my math-challenged brain can deduce the obvious: driving the Volt up freeway hills after charging it at typical Southern California energy rates is an economic disaster. Image putting $4.16 worth of (non-premium) gas in almost any economy car. You're probably going to get more than 25.8 miles out of your investment.
Now, let's address the many issues this no doubt raises:
1. Can't you charge the Volt at a cheaper rate?: Absolutely...in theory. After ranting about this issue on my Twitter feed (I was genuinely fired up when I first did the cost calculation) I got multiple reponses (including one from Chelsea Sexton of Who Killed the Electric Car fame) about alternative charging options offered by the California utility companies. I went to the government site to learn more and discovered a lot of government speak, but after wading through it I think I sort of confirmed the following:
You can get a smart charger to only charge at off-peak times
You can get a separate meter to track only electric vehicle charging
I'm not trying to be coy in my description of these alternatives, I'm just saying if you read the actual language (in the .pdf documents) you'll see it's full of government double-speak that allows for a lot variables and doesn't seem to gaurantee anything. For instance, I'm not sure the smart charger or separate meter ensures a lower rate if you otherwise still use enough electricity to hit the dreaded Tier 5 level. I think it does...I think.
2. Dude, you use a lot of electricity!: After thinking the exact same thing when seeing this bill something occurred to me a few hours later -- Christmas lights. This bill covered the period of time when I had my lights up, which was the first time I've hung Christmas lights since moving to California in 1994. Yes, it will likely be my last, too, though using ancient, family heirloom lights from (not joking) the 1970s probably didn't help matters.
But, Christmas lights aside, if you're already an energy hog before you buy a Chevy Volt, or any other electric vehicle, you're almost certainly going to be hitting the highest rates of electric billing unless you find an alternative method for charging it. If you're considering an EV, please do yourself a favor and carefully research this financial aspect of operating the vehicle, first.
All this aside, I had a decidedly more positive experience with the Volt toward the end of my four-day seat time. I'll cover that in the next post.
Karl Brauer, Edmunds.com Editor at Large