To Plug In or Not to Plug In? That Is the Question

Nissan Leaf

Here they come—cars powered by batteries that anyone can own. A Ford Transit van and the Nissan Leaf hit showrooms in early 2011 powered entirely by batteries. A small 5-passenger hatchback sedan, the USEPA rates the Leaf as the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon with a practical range of 73 miles on a full charge. You'll need to install a 240-volt charger and spend 7 hours to "refuel" (no public charging stations yet, but they're coming), and you'll achieve typical highway speeds and performance with no pollution from the car itself. Bonus eco-points for the fact that fabrics, floor covering, and even parts of the instrument panel are made out of recycled water bottles.

Of course the true measure of the Leaf's eco-friendliness is the source of the electricity used to charge the battery—very green if you're in California, where most energy comes from low or no-pollution sources; much less green if you're in the Midwest or east coast where electricity comes from burning coal. Price? About $35,000, but you may recoup a third of that from state or federal tax breaks. Annual fuel cost will be about $561, a national average, compared to about twice that for a comparable gasoline car.

Tesla and Fiskar sell high-end battery-powered sports cars today and depending on public acceptance, expect two dozen competitors on the market in the next three years. Another option hitting the market now is the Chevy Volt, a Leaf-comparable sedan that has a range of only about 35 miles on battery power, but also has a gasoline powered generator that can recharge the battery as you drive. USEPA rates the Volt at 93 miles per gallon on batteries alone and 37 mpg when using the gasoline engine. Sticker price will be around $41,000.

But what if you aren't among the lucky few who will get a battery car? Well, the real goal of going green is to cut pollution and save money, right? So why not start today, regardless of what you drive? Here—in order of importance to the environment and your wallet—are the Top Five things you can do to cut your gasoline bill by as much as 25% right now.

  1. Don't speed—the difference for most cars between driving 60 mph and 75 mph is about 15% of your fuel economy.
  2. Accelerate gradually—it takes practice—but if you spend a lot of time in city traffic, it can cut another 3% from your fuel bills.
  3. Inflate your tires. Yes, everyone's heard this one and knows that properly inflated tires cut 2% from your fuel consumption, but who has time to do it? Here's a tip—check the tires every season—summer, winter, fall, spring—just those 4 times per year will do the trick for most tires.
  4. Tune your engine—just once a year—and you'll save another 5% on fuel, especially as your car ages past 30,000 miles.
  5. Empty the trunk—most of us carry an extra 50 pounds of stuff we're not actually using today, which wastes 1% of our fuel.

Shakespeare also said "Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend, and so, when Nature calls thee to be gone, what acceptable legacy canst thou leave?" Buying a more sustainable car or using eco-driving techniques are at least small steps to a greener legacy for us all.

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