Why I Drive A Nissan Leaf Electric Car: One Owner's Story

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Every day I get in my car and drive to work, I'm saving money.

That's because last summer I bought an all-electric 2011 Nissan Leaf, and my gas station stops are a thing of the past.

I figure I'm saving about $3,300 in annual gas and oil change bills, compared to the average Ford Expedition driver.

The average electricity cost to power my Leaf is about $870 less than what my Prius-driving friends spend at the pump.

That's hard-earned money I can use to take my wife and three kids out to dinner once in a while.

I'm glad I no longer depend on oil to drive, but I didn't make this decision lightly. As a minister in my previous life, I know that I have a biblical and moral responsibility to take better care of the earth.

It was especially heartbreaking for me to learn that much of the pollution in our air and contamination of other natural resources result in severe consequences that disproprtionately affect the poorest among us.

As I learned about the challenges and real opportunities for improvement, I was motivated to begin making some changes, including in my family's energy and transportation choices.

The good news is that we can make the right choices by changing how we use energy. Driving an electric car is one of the most efficient ways to reduce energy use and decrease pollution.

But that doesn't mean sacrificing our lifestyles. Switching to clean transportation like electric cars can be surprisingly fun.

In fact, driving my Leaf is sort of a "Zen" experience, quiet and full of push-you-back-in-your-seat torque. Almost everyone I meet wants to drive it.

Just ask my kids. You give them a choice between my Leaf and my wife's alternative-fuel VW Jetta sedan, and there's not much competition; it's Daddy's car every time.

What's great about electric cars is they are only getting better and more efficient. There are more and more charging stations cropping up in town.

My car's 70- to 110-mile range between charges is plenty for our needs. I can charge at home when I'm sleeping or even at the office.

I'm a firm believer in moving aggressively toward using available and realistic clean energy sources. I've seen it work again and again, both in my job and first-hand at my own solar-powered home in Clovis, California.

For me, driving a clean car is about two different kinds of green: the greening of the planet and of my wallet.

Once I looked at the numbers and benefits of driving electric, not even counting solar, it was a no-brainer. I know more and more Americans will be joining me in this all-electric car revolution.

So when I wake up in the morning, I look out in my driveway and smile. I'm doing my part to help reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases and improve air quality.

Plus, I'm making life better for my family by protecting our bank account.

That's a clean energy future I can support.

Tom Cotter is a renewable energy evangelist, social entrepreneur, activist, trained presenter for the Climate Reality Project, and ordained minister. Professionally, Tom is Regional Sales Manager at Real Goods Solar. He is Chairman and President of the International Green Industry Hall of Fame and serves on the boards of both the Solar Living Institute and Restore Hetch Hetchy. This is his first story for Green Car Reports.



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Comments (51)
  1. A shout out and welcome to the 984 new Nissan LEAF Owners (U.S) who went 100% electric in September!

  2. Thanks for the article, Tom. I expect to be joining you in the coming weeks, once the 2013 model comes out - assuming all the improvements I hear are true.

  3. Thanks Richard. Let me know when you join the EV family so I can officially welcome and congratulate you.

  4. Will do, thanks!

    After reading some of the later posts, I know I'll save some $$ over the gas expense of my current Toyota Camry Hybrid. I live in Washington state, where our electric is hydro - at a rate of $.08/kWh, and I don't drive that many miles per day. For the occasional need for a road trip, we have my wife's 2013 Volt.

  5. As I shared in the article, we have two cars. One car (Leaf) stays in town and the other car (Jetta) goes out of town. Here is what we did:

    2011 Nissan Leaf
    Range of approx. 70-110 miles
    Cost approximately $16,000 after incentives which included $7,500 federal tax credit, $5,000 California state rebate and $3,000 local air district rebate (San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District). I also talked the dealer into a 5% MSRP discount.

    2002 VW Jetta TDI (manual)
    Range of approx. 1,000 miles
    Paid $12,000 for a used car. Spent $1,300 for a conversion kit from www.greasecar.com. I spent about another $800 on filter equipment. Can burn free waste veg oil or biodiesel/diesel in the stock tank

  6. California NO LONGER has the $5,000 rebate. It is currently only $2,500 for EVs in California. 2011 was the last year that the rebates were in place.

  7. Correct. The post states what I got.

  8. It is a great article and I hope more people join the EV community.

    However, I think the $870/year saving over the Prius is overstated. Of course a lot depends on the cost of electricity. EPA puts the LEAF at $600/yr and the Prius at $1,150/yr or a $550/yr difference, not $870. This delta will not come close to erasing the price difference of the LEAF over the Prius.

    If he is charging from solar, the economics are even worse. Solar (by any reasonable accounting) is the most expensive form of electricity you can get. I know, I have PV panels.

    So the economic arguments are weak at best, but there is no doubt in my mind that EVs are the way to go, especially with solar power. Well done Tom. Hope I join you soon.

  9. John, don't forget that EV drivers in many places can get a special rate schedule with their utility to charge a night for a much lower rate.

    Also, factor in no oil changes.

    I'll go dig up my calcs.

  10. Here are my calculations...

    If I did not have solar at home and charged my car on regular utility power, it would cost me about $1.32 for every 50 miles I drove ($.10/kWh, night charging).

    A Prius costs about $3.80 for the same 50 miles ($3.80/gallon).

    15,000 miles a year
    $3.80/gallon avg (2012)

    Ford Expedition (15.5 mpg) = $.245/mile = $3,675 + $200 oil changes = $3,695
    Honda Accord (26.5 mpg) = $.143/mile = $2,145 + $140 oil changes = $2,285
    Prius (50 mpg) = $.076/mile = $1140 + 140 oil changes = $1,260
    LEAF (3.8 miles*/kWh) = $.026/mile = $390

    $3,305/yr cheaper than Expedition
    $1,895/yr cheaper than Accord
    $870/yr cheaper than Prius (with oil changes factored)

    Add solar and that cost to drive an EV drops further.

  11. I didn't have space, but that * by the 3.8 miles/kWh for my Leaf means that I'm being a little generous. My car tells me I am getting 3.4 miles/kWh. I've read different reports which suggest early in 2011 before a computer update on the Leaf that number was low...so giving the calcs a little wiggle room there, just in case.

  12. Tom, I also have a leaf. We also argue over who gets to drive it. Wonderful car. Some off hour rates are only .06 / kwh yielding even better savings. We put 19,000 miles on our leaf the first year. I look at it as $0.02 per mile instead of $0.18 per mile with our gas Taurus. Oh, and I just heard our CA gas price is supposed to take another jump up due to another refinery problem.

  13. Count me as skeptical (or ignorant) of these time-of-usage numbers. The fact is that California electric companies pull in average revenue of $0.15/KWH based on June 2012 EIA numbers. So someone out there is paying higher rates than you are citing. Personally, in MA I pay $0.16/kwh.

    Also, I have heard mixed reviews of the TOU pricing system out there and whether you end up paying more or less in the end.

    Finally, 3.8 miles/kwh. I don't think so. EPA says 2.9 miles/KWH. You are getting your KWH from the car, you need to get it from the wall socket. There is significant energy lost in charging (which EPA includes).

    However, Still great to see you using electricity rather than fossil fuels.

  14. Also something to remember, the average annual gas prices climbed from a low of $1.03 in 1998 all the way to $3.53 in 2011 — an astronomical 243 percent rise in under 15 years. By contrast, during this same time period, the Consumer Price Index gained only 38 percent.

    This is an interesting and jarring report that charts the price of gas over the last decade - http://www.consumerenergyreport.com/2012/03/14/charting-the-dramatic-gas-price-rise-of-the-last-decade/

  15. @John Briggs,

    I am NOT sure I agree with your comment on that solar power being the most expensive form of electricity that you can get. It might be the most expensive at the generation side, but for consumers, it is certainly cheap.

    For example, you can sign up for a 20 yr PPA plan with companies such as Solar City or Sungevity for about $0.09/KWh or $0.12/KWh. That is lower than the base rate that you are paying in CA under PG&E.

  16. Real Goods Solar, who I work for, has plans to lock in your cost of power for 20 or 25 years.

    Yes, you can sometimes get rates as low as those stated above, but that will require upfront cost. We also have 20-25 year plans where, for those homeowners who qualify, we can immediately lower their cost of power...for zero out of pocket.

    Most of our customers don't pay anything to get the solar installed and then have a lower lease or power purchase agreement (ppa) payment each month.

    http://www.realgoods.com is our website to see if we have an office that covers your part of the U.S. Again, I work for the company.

  17. Yes, solar can be cheap from a customer's perspective. But let's be clear, this is subsidized in some way. Personally, I have benefited from at least three government programs for my PV system. But if you take out that cost, Solar is probably $0.30/KWH.

    Still, it is the right thing to do.

  18. Tom, since you work for a solar company, you'll probably be able to answer a question for me.

    I want solar panels, but I live on a golf course ... and my house occasionally gets pummeled by people with similar golfing skills as my own. I've put up netting in key places to protect my windows, but worried if solar panels can withstand impact of a golf ball. I can't seem to get a straight answer locally. Can you give me your expertise?

  19. Many third party financing companies will not sign off on financing a solar project that is on a golf course. However, most solar modules are tested up to golf ball sized hail. Financing the system through a credit union might be your best bet, unless you wanted to purchase with cash. Homeowner's insurance, after being notified, would cover any breakage, just in case.

  20. OK, thanks. If we bought a system, we would pay cash for it - so I guess I need to speak to my insurance company. Not thrilled in paying $20,000 or more on a system that is in peril by a wicked hook.

  21. Also, I would like to especially thank the editor of GCR for bring a passionate voice for the environment to the pages of GCR. It is great to have someone who knows and lives this stuff as a voice on GCR.

  22. Cool... Congrats! I will soon join you with my 2013 model...

  23. Several have taken Tom to task for suggesting there is a financial case for the LEAF. He got a much better deal than I did thanks to the CA credits, I can see how he will be finacially ahead of a gas car. I figured I'd break even after 6 years. Each person's break even point is different (different credits, different electric and gas costs, financing costs etc in each region.

    To figure out if a LEAF makes sense for you or not use my spreadsheet to customize to your situation.


  24. I checked out your calculator. It is cool. But it over-estimate the maintainence cost of the Volt. It all depends on how you drive it. If you drive mostly on Electric, then why would the Volt cost over $1,000 to maintain per year? Volt owners are 65% electric and I am at 80% electric. I wouldn't need to do any "regular" gas engine related maintainence for about 1-2 years.

    So, if you "adjust" that, Volt is only $1,000 more than the Leaf.

    Plus, Volt can go farther when it needs to and it performs better than Leaf.

    It also doesn't require the car to be in Eco to have the max regenerative braking...

  25. John; i also have a LEAF and a Prius and i dont think the savings is overstated at all. here is real life figures for my household
    4/30/12 37389 1386 121.76 15593 1347 33.12
    5/31/12 38498 1109 125.50 16907.8 1314 30.88
    6/30/12 39672 1174 125.51 17911 1003.2 24.83
    7/31/12 40490 818 61.35 19487 1576 25.68
    8/31/12 42240 1750.5 138 20930.4 1443.4 25.75
    9/30/12 43269 1028.6 77.01 22340 1409.4 30.63

    here is 6 months and a $480 difference in fuel costs. that is just under $1000. granted free charging would have closed the gap but i pay a 12.5 higher electric rate to be 100% green power to Puget Sound Energy which is the most expensive power to be had in pac NW

  26. look at July for a "real" picture. the Prius drove only 818 miles for a cost of $61.35 and the LEAF nearly doubled the distance at 1576 miles but still less than half the cost.

    pencil out anyway you want but even with paying more for green power i am at 2.5 cents per mile in the LEAF and just under 8 cents a mile in the Prius and going into winter where i wont be getting any of those 52 MPG tanks like i did on my last fillup. that is a difference of 5 cents per mile. drive 13,500 miles like the average American does and is $675 saved. if you dont average 50 mpg like i do, then that savings goes UP

  27. "Driving an electric car is one of the most efficient ways to reduce energy use and decrease pollution."

    That would be true if all our energy came from clean, renewable sources like sunlight, water, or wind. Unfortunately, most of the energy in the United States is produced from coal, nuclear and oil sources, all very detrimental to the environment.

    As things stand right now, an electric car is just as big source of pollution as any other, if not bigger, and whoever drives one is polluting the environment tremendously, and helping to keep the current dirty sources of energy.

    If you want to change something, petition our government to give us subsidies on solar panels on our roofs, put in river dams and wind plants, and shut down nuclear.

  28. You're very much wrong and need to educate yourself. Recent well-to-wheel studies conducted by the DOT show that even in the most coal centric states EVs still reduce emissions by over 30%. In states with more alternative sources such as California the reduction is around 70%. On top of that, another study I was part of showed that 39% of EV owners have already installed solar to completely cover their electricity needs. Read up before to make such inflammatory and incorrect statements.

  29. Where are these studies? Please provide the link.

    Plus, half of the United States, the northern half, does not get nearly enough sunlight. What is needed are huge solar panel and Stirling engine facilities to generate enough power. There is plenty of space; but there is not enough pressure from the public.

    If you want to change something, write to your local politicians to enact laws which encourage the creation of such infrastructure, THEN switch to electric vehicles.

    And as far as educating myself, I have been researching for years on solar and Stirling engine technology because I want to put them in. So far, all my calculations break even and must rely on solar panels outliving their projected 13 year life. That is unacceptable.

  30. Annatar, sunlight is not the problem. It is a problem of will, as you alluded to.
    Check out the amount of solar in Germany and how much sunlight they have vs. the U.S.
    A sunny location (like Los Angeles, California, US) receives an average of 5.5 hours of sunlight per day each year. A cloudy location (like Hamburg, Germany) receives 2.5 hours per day of sunlight each year.
    See page 11 of this study - www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/pdfs/47927_chapter2.pdf

    All reputable solar panels have a 25 year warranty now. That means they are projected to be producing 80% of what they were new after 26 years. A 20% loss in power over 25 years is very acceptable.

  31. Another issue is batteries; ideally I would like to run without using the grid, and to do that, one needs batteries. I have uninteruptible power supplies. They fail almost without exception after a year, so every year I go through hundreds of dollars in costs for replacing the batteries. And that is only 3,000 kVA worth of batteries. I shudder to think how much it would cost me to replace the 15 - 20 kVA worth batteries. All this stuff is nice, but the technology to be independent from the grid is not there yet. There is nothing I would love more than to be able to have enough electricity to ditch the grid, but without a legal framework, without subsidies, and without economies of scale, residential solar power generation is not ready yet.

  32. @Annatar...

    And you are basing your argument on the "cheap" battery that you have in your UPS?

    EVs such as Volt comes with 10 yr Battery Warranty that is against defect and capacity in CA. 8yr/100K miles standard elsewhwere.

    Your UPS certainly doesn't come with active heating/cooling SW and it doesn't come with the proper battery maintainence SW.

    I would also guess it is NiCad or NiMH based system. (Of course, it can be lead acid, but that is a really cheap old UPS technology then).

    You can't afford your UPS with Li-ion system.

  33. Also, solar energy doesn't have to independent.

    There is NOTHING with grid connected system.

    Power in vs. power out... No different than a bank.

    Your peak generation is also grid's peak usage.

  34. Sorry if it was not clear, but I have a solar power system on my home.

    While it's true that around 52% of American-generated kilowatts are born in a coal-fired power plant, that number falls to about 20% in California. In Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) territory where live, around 2% of coal power is imported during peak afternoon demand in the summer (more on that in 2nd post).

    It remains my dream to witness my state's transition from using any out-of state imported coal and instead replace those ill-gotten electrons with electricity sourced from wind, sun, small hydro, geothermal or wave action -- all of which can be used to power plug-in vehicles making them the ultimate clean, multi-fuel automobiles.

  35. Actually, according to EIA's study, the most recent qtr, the percentage of coal based electricity generation fell to 40 yr low of 36% due to extremely low price of Natural Gas. It was around 46% during 2010. That is the percentage for the entire country. Of course, some states are higher and some states are lower...

    A single coal power plant is still far easily and cheaper to clean up than Millions of cars on the road.

  36. The EIA data by state can be found here:
    with the latest specific carbon intensity numbers by for 2009 here (annoyingly listed by millions of BTUs, not kWhs):

    And here's a nice graphic showing each state's CO2 burden from electric generation:

  37. The 2011 figure is here:


  38. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/14/483432/us-coal-generation-drops-19-percent-in-one-year-leaving-coal-with-36-percent-share-of-electricity/?mobile=nc

    The Q1 figure from EIA data showed a significant drop in coal percentage due to huge increase in Natural Gas.

  39. Here are some links for break down in power and coal...




  40. This data is not accurate for my utility.

  41. Some have written about a mythical electric car in the northern hemisphere that is somehow 100% coal powered, but that is impossible since electric grids use a mix of sources like natural gas and hydro power.

    In 2011, over half of the 18,000 electric cars were delivered to states that have zero coal-power plants. In 2012, 60,000 to 100,000 electric cars will be primarily be delivered in zero-coal states. Thus, the argument that coal-powered EV's are dirtier in the U.S. is void.

  42. There are more comments in this thread
  43. Here's the link to the Department of Transportation EV emissions site, with an interactive chart, you put your zip code in to discover where your power comes from.

  44. Thanks Eric. The chart is useful, but based on old data for my utility. Here is the current mix.

    Also, remember that I have solar at my home.

  45. Tom Cotter As a minister in your formal life, you should be familiar with God's point of view on idolatry. This website is full of idolaters of Mother Earth. The Bible focuses on the relationship between man and God. The subject of Mother Earth would only occur when discussing idolatry. Jesus sat down to break bread with the tax collectors and prostitutes not to condone their behavior, but to lead them to truth. The TRUTH is that Global Warming is a hoax that is dispersed by Mother Earth idolaters. The TRUTH was exposed in CLIMATEGATE. This website is devoted to disregarding TRUTH. You seem to be not only willing to break bread with the idolaters, but worshipping the same idol that they do. How's that for a Biblical analogy?

  46. Hi Randall - I would be happy to have a conversation about worship or my beliefs. We don't need to talk about the science of climate change, as you clearly have made up your mind already. I sent you a private message on Facebook. Feel free to reply to that if you want to chat. Thank you.

  47. The science of Climate Change is not a new subject. Far enough information has been gathered, presented to the public, and then later discredited. Your use of "already" implies that I have made a premature conclusion based on limited evidence. For any of the Climate Change conclusions to be valid, scientists must start from the beginning. When data has been shown to be tainted, one cannot pick and choose which is valid and which is invalid. That is how science works. Climategate showed that too much of the data gathered was manipulated to take any of it seriously and draw any valid conclusions from it. Therefore, until they start from scratch, Climate Change will remain junk science, and only Mother Nature idolaters will buy it.

  48. The hacked "Climategate" emails from East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) did spark a media frenzy despite no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice, as multiple inquiries later confirmed. Mainstream media outlets including NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN uncritically reported unfounded allegations of data manipulation.

    The official UK inquiry into the issue found that the "rigour and honesty of the scientists involved are not in doubt". But it also concluded that researchers at the University of CRU, who were at the center of the row, showed a "consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness.


  49. Regarding your ad hominem attack which judges me a Mother Nature idolater, I sent you a private message on Facebook at 4:49pm PDT which details how I cannot separate my relationship to Christ from how I act in relation to the earth. It is a bit long to post here.

    I'm definitely not perfect or complete in my journey of trying to live responsibly.

  50. It was an analogy for you to reflect why you are so pumped up about having an electric car. Here's a good link for you, so you can reflect on your belief that you actually are caring for mother earth:

  51. Thanks for the video. I agree, partly. I've read a lot of reports about rare earth elements (REE). There have been some big challenges, but also some amazing advances here in the U.S. and across the globe.

    One of many examples - Honda and Japan Metals & Chemicals Company developed the world's first mass-production rare earth recycling process. They can now extract 17 rare chemical elements from used nickel-metal hydride batteries collected from Honda hybrid vehicles at dealers in Japan, North America and Europe. This cradle to cradle process for REE will reduce the need for mining.

    REE may pose a few difficulties, but there are numerous measures underway to clean production and reclamation into the technology stream.

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