Doing our best to do our bit

Just in the last few days autumn leaves have started to skitter and cartwheel across the drive, scraps of red and gold and orange like the final fragments of summer sunshine being swept away on the increasingly chilly breeze. There is, however, another kind of leaf on the drive that will be remaining green: the fully electric car that we’ve now had for nearly five months, our very whizzy Nissan Leaf.

It is the final piece in our complex renewable energy jigsaw puzzle which has enabled us to become almost completely self-sufficient in green energy. The bulk of the jigsaw consists of eighteen slimline photo-voltaic solar panels on our south-facing roof; a stack of batteries in the hall cupboard together with the electronic brains of the system; an air-source heat pump (ASHP) in the upstairs porch to provide hot water and heating; a new, super-efficient boiler as a back-up-cum-top-up, and a clever gizmo that allows the system to switch between the two squidged into the boiler room, as well as three new combined heating/cooling (fan coil) units for our bedroom, the guest bedroom and the sitting room. And, almost as an after-thought originally, an electric car-charging point in the carport ‘just in case’.

In the long weeks during which the system was being installed and two further lockdowns came and went, though, Mr Blue-Shirt spent hours online conducting extensive research into the different types of car technology currently available as well as their respective shortcomings. Then after several more weeks spent weighing up the pros and cons, we eventually came to the conclusion that, on balance, going electric was the right thing to do, and in view of the deepening climate crisis (not to mention the various incentives available as part of the post-Covid economic recovery package) now was the right time to do it. Yes, we accept that the current generation of electric cars are not the Holy Grail of environmentally-friendly driving. Yes, deposits of the lithium, cobalt and nickel used in batteries at the moment are being depleted at a rate that is probably not sustainable in the long-term, and the mining of them is also damaging to ecosystems and communities. However, each car involves a ‘one-off’ use of those minerals that is amortised over the lifetime of the vehicle; added to which, battery recycling and manufacturing technologies are improving all the time. And, crucially in our view, switching from our filthy old diesel Renault to a state of the art, fully electric car will at least enable us to significantly reduce our own CO2 emissions not just in relation to a single purchase, but on an ongoing basis for the foreseeable future. In our assessment, doing something is better that doing nothing, plus whatever we can do at a given time is surely what we should do, and this is the best we can do at the moment. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as Voltaire (more or less) put it.

So having decided to take the plunge, Mr Blue-Shirt did yet more research, this time into the different vehicles on the market in our price range. Then once movement restrictions permitted, we booked extended test-drives of the vehicles he had short-listed which enabled us to see what the driving experience was like and how accurate the range data were, to see how the charging process worked, and to test out the public charging network. One early contender was swiftly abandoned as it had been discontinued and, bafflingly, replaced with an eye-wateringly expensive alternative, another was rejected, despite its impressive performance, because it was too uncomfortable to sit in for longer than about 15 minutes, and a third was rejected without getting in it because it was so horribly ugly and dated both inside and out, despite its hefty price-tag. So in the end, the Leaf was the Goldilocks option for us, partly because of its features, comfort and styling, and partly because of the combined effect of government subsidies, the manufacturer’s discount and the dealer’s special offer that gave us a ‘can’t afford not to’ 35% off the list price. The real slam-dunk, however, was Nissan’s decade-long proven track record in electric vehicle technology.

 So what has our experience of electric motoring been like so far? Well, for a start, like all electric cars, the Leaf is extremely quiet and extremely smooth, giving the relaxing impression of gliding effortlessly along the road. ‘Range anxiety’ is seldom an issue since its 62kw battery gives us a maximum range of nearly 400km/250 miles, which is more than enough for our day-to-day needs, especially since up to 25% of the energy used comes from the car’s regenerative braking system whereby the energy expended in braking is recycled back into the battery. Incidentally, since we have had the car, around 98% of the energy we have used has come directly from our solar panels, and when we do require top-up from the grid, the mains supplier we use provides exclusively green energy. And on the rare occasion we do need to ‘fill up’ at public charging points, we are still not using that much fossil-fuel-based energy since nearly 40% of Italy’s mains power supply now comes from renewable sources. Added to which, any dirty energy we use to recharge the car when we are out and about is always partially and often completely offset by the unused clean energy that we are generating at home that goes straight into the national grid.

Naturally, there are some differences that take a little getting used to. Firstly, charging is generally a slow process that takes up to 8 hours from flat to full using our domestic supply, so we have developed a habit of topping up after practically every trip. This also means that longer journeys do need to be planned: itineraries worked out, distances measured and charging points identified – and there are lots of apps available for doing this. That said, the apps are sometimes inaccurate, or not completely up to date and consequently can be contradictory, with one app telling you, for instance, that a given charging point is available, while another tells you it is out of service or occupied.  In addition, the charging infrastructure is not yet as comprehensive as it needs to be if electric motoring is to become as widespread as most policy-makers wish. Charging points are often located in out-of-the-way places beyond walking-distance from other amenities, and fast charging points that can take a car from almost flat to full in under an hour are still few and far between. That said, more and more points are popping up in more and more places all the time, with car manufacturers themselves becoming proactive in the expansion of the network, having realised that motorists won’t buy their electric cars until and unless a comprehensive charging infrastructure makes electric motoring a viable choice. There is one quite disproportionately satisfying little win-win we have discovered, though: in places where parking is at a premium, we quite often find that the only available spaces are in fact electric car charging points where the parking itself is actually free; you only pay to top-up your battery, which seldom costs more than the parking would have done, but you get a few more kilometres of range thrown in.

Since we got the car, we have driven just over 8000km/5000 miles. This has saved us a jaw-dropping €600 in diesel we haven’t bought (offset by just €25 or so for the power we have bought). More significantly from an environmental perspective, however, is that based on the same mileage in an equivalent non-electric vehicle, in under five months we have saved a staggering 938kg in CO2 emissions.

So no, our Leaf’s green credentials may not be perfect, but they are still pretty damn good. And doing even a little bit of good is surely better than doing a whole load of nothing.

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