Calvin J. Frye

GEM car logo

Nearly-Perfect Commuter Car.

Since I got a new job, my commute has gone from half a mile to 45 miles between home and office. The GEM cars weren't going to make it any more. So I took advantage of depreciation and the habits of lease holders, and bought a 2015 Nissan Leaf.

My Leaf

Perhaps I could put a solar collector on my roof. Case Western Reserve University has a large wind turbine on campus, along with smaller solar installations, helping to recharge the Leaf with clean electricity at work.

I should also mention the Oberlin College's large array located in the fields north of my house. It's a 2.3MW, sun-tracking array that helps offset the College's electricity consumption. This is part of the College/City participation in the Clinton Climate Initiative, called "The Oberlin Project." Perhaps I'll buy a 1000' extension cord...

Who makes it? Is it American?

The Leaf was made in Smyrna, Tennessee, in 2015 by Nissan. They started producing Leafs (Leaves?) in 2010, and there are about a quarter-million on the road (103,000 in the US alone). It's the best-selling electric car in America.

The Leaf is an all-electric car, meaning there is no gasoline engine, no gas tank, and no tailpipe emissions. It also means there is no alternative besides plugging it in when the battery gets low.

Why would you want one?

It's fun! Unlike my GEM cars, and unlike the Smart and other tiny electric cars you may have seen, the Leaf is, well, a car. It's a four-door hatchback, seats four comfortably, has provision for child seats, and looks normal enough I had to jazz it up a bit to advertise its features.

Bumper Stickers

It can plug into a standard 110v 15A outlet, but that would take maybe 20 hours to fully recharge. I purchased an upgraded charger and installed a 30A 240v outlet in my garage, so I can recharge in 4-6 hours, or overnight. If it's plugged in at 7:00am, I've got it set so the climate control system brings the cabin temperature to optimum levels before I set out.

At my destination, I have a choice of four so-called "level-2" charging stations, one conveniently located in my assigned parking garage. Other charging locations can be found by consulting Plugshare. At many area Walmarts, EVgo has placed DC fast chargers, which can top off a Leaf's charge in half an hour! So yes, even I can be seen parked at Walmart from time to time...

Is it "environmentally friendly" and all that crap?

Sure! Let's look at the operating numbers. I'm assuming that I charge it at home, instead of off the photovoltaic array (better picture here) at the College, my municipal electricity costs $0.112 a kiloWatt-hour, and gasoline goes for $2.50 a gallon. Let's compare it with my minivan, the car this replaces...

The minivan actually gets 20 mpg. $2.50 divided by 20 shows a cost-per-mile of $0.125, twelve-and-a-half cents per mile.

The Leaf's instruments tell me I've been averaging 4.0 miles/kiloWatt-hour, which is pretty good. I set it for eco mode and have largely abandoned my leadfooted ways since getting the car. This comes out to $0.028 per mile, call it three cents.

So my operating costs are a quarter of the minivan's, and I can skip oil changes and tune-ups, too. Note that my wife's CR-V also gets around 20 mpg, and the costs compare. I know the Leaf isn't as big as the minivan!

But electric vehicles are merely "local emissions-free" - instead of polluting at the exhaust pipe, my pollution is at the power plant, which in Oberlin could be any number of things but is still all too often from a coal-fired plant. Oberlin's municipal utility has achieved some 86% supply from alternative sources like wind, solar, and landfill gas, but let's use the national average figure for carbon dioxide produced from a dirtier mis of electricity generation to be fair.

Gasoline produces 19.643 lbs CO2/gallon consumed. The US average is 1.306 lbs CO2/kWh of electricity produced from a mix of sources. At 20 miles/gallon, my minivan produces 1 lb/mi CO2. To be fair, often the van was driven around with just a single passenger. Look around you on the highway to see how often this is the case.

At four miles/kilowatt-hour, or 0.25 kWh/mi, I would generate 0.33 lbs CO2 per mile driven in the Leaf, one-third that of the minivan. Not perfect, but better. Here are some figures for comparison:

Transportation mode CO2 per passenger-mile
My Minivan
0.98 lb
Airline travel, optimal
0.88 lb
City bus
0.66 lb
Amtrak (heavy rail)
0.42 lb
Commuter light- rail or subway
0.35 lb
My Leaf
0.33 lb
Long-distance bus
0.18 lb

(other transportation figures from

To the extent that we use greener electricity sources here in the People's Republic of Oberlin, my Leaf ought to be doing better than these figures suggest. But even so, it's the best four-wheel way of getting around town. (okay, but for this) -- and we don't have a rail system here in town any more. Even driving to the RTA station and taking light rail the rest of the way winds up being fractionally more polluting.

As far as other pollutants go, it's far, far easier to clean up soot and hydrocarbon releases at the power plant stacks than on each and every tailpipe in America. Centralizing pollution controls helps keep the air cleaner, and electric vehicles are one way of moving the pollution problem to an easier location for removal.

Check my EV resources page for links about the Leaf, the GEM, and electric vehicles in general!