John Eichberger |
For most people, purchasing a vehicle is not typically a fun experience but rather a necessity (I might be the exception – I love shopping for vehicles). Adding to the experience, for those car and truck owners attempting to transition to a low carbon alternative the effort can be expensive, inconvenient, and a logistical nightmare. In general, “we” are not good at change and sometimes the most minor level of discomfort dissuades us from pushing into new experiences, including when we might be interested in transitioning to the next level of decarbonizing our transportation choices. On top of this confusion, most do not know what questions to ask or even who to ask when walking through the unpleasant process of purchasing a vehicle. We are often basing vehicle choice decisions on exaggerated media hype and sound bites that are either completely negative or overly simplified and positive. We expect change to be a seamless and convenient process; unfortunately, it seldom is. Here is a recent experience I had that amplifies the challenges consumers might face.
I recently secured an apartment in Huntington Beach, CA, a part time residence where I can stay when visiting my family in Southern California. In setting up this home away from home, I have been looking for a vehicle. Given my role at the Transportation Energy Institute, I thought it might be educational to try an alternative vehicle. Well, that is easier said than done, even in Southern California. Here is what I have discovered as I explored my options.
Spoiler Alert – My research demonstrates we have a lot of work to do if we want any alternative vehicle and energy option to be a market success.
California is far and away the leader in the EV transition, with more registered vehicles and charging stations than any other state. The government has also adopted a policy to eliminate the sale of combustion engine vehicles by 2035. Given those facts, I figured it should be easy to transition to an EV here – but not so fast.
First of all, the apartment I rented does not have charging stations for EVs and when I asked if level 2 charging, for renters, was in their future plans I was met with a blank oblivious look. I am fortunate to have a first floor unit with a gate that leads to the parking area, but the parking space assigned to my unit is not accessible to an extension cord and does not have a power outlet to support even a Level 1 charger. I have no way to charge a vehicle at home, which means I need access to a public charger.
Unfortunately, the number of DC fast chargers in the Huntington Beach area is limited. In fact, according to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuel Database Center, there are only a handful of DC fast chargers within a few miles of my apartment. PlugShare shows the same number of fast chargers in the area, so I am pretty confident the population of options is limited. And if you are familiar with Southern California traffic, a few miles can take 20 minutes or more to travel. I know more public chargers are coming sometime in the future, but I need to make a vehicle decision now.
Think about this – in 2023, EVs represent about 7% of all new vehicles sales in the U.S. and nearly 27% during the third quarter in California. But, if you live in an apartment or are a garage orphan, it’s tough. The majority of people in the U.S. live in apartments, condos or houses without a garage (or a garage that is used for storage rather than parking). How are we supposed to scale EVs if we haven’t even made 110v outlets ubiquitously available near parking, let alone 240v or DC Fast Charging?
It would be great to use an EV in California, where the average retail price of 87 Unleaded in early December 2023 was $4.50 and above. But, even in the EV mecca of California, a lot more work needs to be done to provide confidence that an EV can suit someone’s needs – even if that someone is fairly well informed about the capabilities and advantages of an EV. Alas, an EV is not my immediate future.
I have long been a fan of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and discovered I could acquire a pre-owned FCEV for under $10,000. But again, as I looked at the market, refueling became a concern. California is the only state that has truly supported H2 infrastructure to date, but a look at the available options in the area left me wanting. There are two retail H2 stations within about five miles of my apartment, but beyond that the landscape is pretty sparse.
There also is some sticker shock when I think about the price of H2 – $30/kg or more. According to some sources, I could get about 60 miles per kg, so that comes out to $0.50/mile. By comparison, if I were to drive my old Jeep Wrangler, which averaged about 18 miles per gallon, and paid $4.50 per gallon, I would be spending about $0.25/mile. That is a bit tough to swallow.
I plan on owning this vehicle for five to 10 years and I need to know that the vehicle I purchase will be supported with fueling options and auto repair providers.
I remain confident that H2 is a long-term viable fuel, but we need to see an expansion of infrastructure and dramatic reduction in fuel cost. That said, there remains significant momentum in the medium and heavy-duty space for H2 vehicles and I suspect as the market matures perhaps it could breathe new life into the passenger market.
Flex Fuel Vehicle
Another option I could consider is a flex fuel vehicle that can operate on straight gasoline or ethanol blends up to E85. In this scenario, I could refuel anywhere with gasoline and, when available, purchase E85 and save quite a bit of money at the pump. (Currently, E85 is selling for less than $4.00/gallon in Southern California.) And while production of FFVs has waned dramatically in recent years, there remain millions on the road and in the used vehicle market.
In terms of infrastructure for E85, AFDC shows there are a couple options in my area, but nothing really close. That said, I did notice when visiting my sister in Fullerton that there is an E85 station just down the street from her house, so the option to fuel with E85 would exists occasionally but I wouldn’t have to use E85 unless it was convenient for me to do so.
But there is another challenge – finding an FFV on the used car market. I spend a lot of time perusing the AutoTrader app, but when I tried to search for available FFVs, there is no such filter. So, finding one would require determining which vehicles in which years were available in FFV and then scrubbing used vehicle listings and calling dealerships to discover if their available vehicle is an FFV. And given my experience with salespeople at dealerships, that would likely involve several discussions explaining what an FFV is and then dealing with them not knowing how to answer my question. I anticipate this would be a frustrating experience, but the option of such a vehicle could provide a significant financial benefit through lower priced fuel should I be able to find one that I wished to purchase.
I love my Wrangler (I would love to drop the top, remove the doors and head to the beach!) and did a search at nearby dealers to see what deals might be available. One dealership has two 2022 Wranglers equipped with a diesel engine available for a massive discount. These Wranglers boast a fuel economy of about 25 miles per gallon, which is only slightly better than the 22 mpg rating for a typical gasoline version. But then I looked and found that diesel is selling for about $5.00 per gallon, a 50 cent jump over unleaded.
But wait, what about renewable and biodiesel? I looked to see what my options were to purchase a lower emitting, lower price biodiesel or renewable diesel. I have learned that the vast majority of renewable diesel in the U.S. is being sold in CA due to the policy incentives, so I was hopeful. But it seems where I have decided to reside is the Death Valley for alternative energy – there is only one renewable diesel and no biodiesel stations listed in AFDC in the area around Huntington Beach. If I can stomach the price per gallon increase, I still need to weigh-out the inconvenience factor of driving extra miles to fill-up.
We Must Collaborate to Build Infrastructure
It seems that if I want to live in Huntington Beach and have some sort of alternative powered vehicle, the most viable option today might be a traditional hybrid. These vehicles use regular gasoline, available at every station, and package it with a battery system to boost efficiency. Some models get more than 50 miles per gallon, and at $4.50 per gallon that can add up to a significant savings.
All this said, I was disappointed with the results of my research – I really expected that Southern California would present me with more options than it has. But it also demonstrated to me the critical need for us to work together to build out alternative infrastructure to present consumers with viable options. I can safely assume that very few consumers would have done the research I did – mostly because none of them have to write an article about transportation energy every month! But also because they don’t have the time or the commitment to figure this stuff out – selecting an alternative fuel vehicle or energy has to be easy for them and make financial sense.
While I am disappointed, I don’t consider the results a negative reflection on any vehicle or energy option – it is simply today’s reality. If we want to transition to lower energy intense and lower emissions transportation options, we have to make sure the infrastructure exists to support it – and we have a long way to go.
Someday, I hope and expect to show maps that are clouded with dots indicating publicly available alternative energy stations – DC fast charging stations, H2 stations, biofuel stations, and who knows what else. To achieve this vision, however, we must continue to work together to identify market needs, promote cost effective transportation, increase demand, and support the development of a business environment that delivers a reliable return on investment for the energy retailer. If we fail to create this market dynamic, years from now we will still be chasing our tails and relying on the government to prop up alternative options and we will never realize the true potential of innovative solutions.