It began as a classroom discussion for Earth Day in 2012. Sue Selle was introducing her science students to ways they might reduce their carbon footprint — including the many forms of alternative-fuel cars available in today’s market. Then came the question: “Ms. Selle, do you drive one of those cars?” The answer was no.
She shared her reasons – her car got above average gas mileage and was paid off, and a new car like that was out of reach on a teacher’s salary – but her words felt hollow. “I always try to be a role model to my students, to practice the environmentally-conscious actions that I teach about. I didn’t like that I couldn’t do that in this case,” she says.
The seed was planted in Sue’s mind, and it wasn’t long before she found herself killing some spare time by visiting the local Nissan dealer one weekend. Between commuting and running errands, her monthly gas bill was $200 to $250 a month. Walking into the dealership, she reasoned that if she could lease an eco-friendly car for about that price it would be worth the switch.
A few hours and one car trade later, she left the dealership proudly driving an all-electric Nissan Leaf for a scant $120 a month. A $7,500 federal subsidy, $7,000 down payment, and a car trade all contributed to the super-affordable rate. Also appealing was the short 2-year term of the lease. “If for some reason I didn’t like the car, I wouldn’t be stuck with it forever.”
Right away, there were some hiccups – like having to be towed an hour after she left the dealership because the salesman didn’t know the car needed to be charged before it left the lot. Or when an administrator at her school likened her plugging in at work to stealing from a gas station. “I tried to explain that it’s more comparable to charging a personal laptop at school, but they had a hard time seeing it that way.” Sue chalks these incidents up to lack of awareness.
Having the car has increased her awareness as well, particularly in her choices around using the car. “I have to be more deliberate in where I’m going and when, so planning is a higher priority.” Then there is the actual act of driving. “People think it’s like a golf cart, no power,” she giggled, “but I find myself flying along the freeway at 80 mph before I know it because the car is so smooth and quiet.” To slow herself down and to maximize mileage, she drives in Eco mode as much as possible.
Mobile apps help make these decisions easier. The Nissan leaf app (she affectionately calls it her “baby monitor”) gives instant access to car stats like how much charge is available and how much energy the car is using at any given time. Plus, the app acts as a remote control for features like climate control – on a hot day, she can set the car to be cool by the time she arrives after a five minute walk from work to the charging station. Plugshare is another favorite app. It notes the location and number of spaces at public charging stations, even indicating how many chargers are in use at any given time for each location.
Sue’s finding the car a boon to her financial life. Beyond the lease payment, her only expense is the fee at charging stations. Since there’s not an easy place for her to plug in at her condo, she juices up at stations around town, amounting to no more than $60 during months when she drives a lot. Plus, as an electric car owner, she saves time on the road by being able to ride in the diamond lane.
She’s also found the purchase affecting other buying decisions. “Having the car made me want to do more to go green. We bought all energy efficient appliances in our new home, and used all LED lighting.” She adds that solar panels would be a nice addition once they’ve settled in a bit.
All told, Sue feels the benefits of having an electric vehicle far outweigh any minor inconveniences. She glows as she shares her experience. “People come up all the time and ask questions…it feels cool being an ambassador. It feels good to know you’re putting less emissions in the air.” And, of course, there was that glowing feeling of pride when her students watched her cruise up to school day after day, setting an example for the next generation of drivers.
Standing next to the car, she goes on about other ways her car surprises people. “Everyone thinks electric cars are so small, but mine is roomier than the car I had before.” Even her boyfriend, at over 6 feet tall, fits in with plenty of head and leg room to spare. The solar panels on back are a neat feature of this car model too – they power a second car battery that takes care of basic functions like the radio and lights. This helps increase the car’s mileage.
What will she do when the lease is up in October?
“I’m thinking about switching to a Chevy Volt or other hybrid, just to extend my range, but want to stay with something at least partially electric.” The upcoming Green Car Show at Santa Barbara Earth Day will be a great place for her to check out the growing number of hybrid options available.