NASHVILLE — In this family, we are not new-car people. My husband and I buy used vehicles, and we keep them until the cost of patching them up far exceeds their value, a time-honored practice known as driving a car into the ground. We don’t drive a lot, either: My husband works a mile and a half from our house, and I work from a home office. I kept thinking about electric cars anyway.
We didn’t actually need a new vehicle when we started shopping. My 2006 minivan was working fine, and my husband’s 2001 minivan was working fine, too. But it was 2019, and our youngest child was a junior in college. We had long since aged out of the minivan cohort.
Meanwhile, evidence of the growing climate calamity was becoming clearer and grimmer with every new study — and with every wildfire, every drought, every hurricane — even as the Trump administration kept rolling back environmental protections at a breathtaking rate. I felt a rising desperation to do everything possible to reduce my own carbon footprint, to foster as much biodiversity as I could on my own little half-acre plot of ground.
The earth cannot be saved by personal actions alone, but there are many practical ways a person can help the environment anyway: lowering the thermostat, buying organics, eating less meat, skipping the lawn-care chemicals, planting native shrubs and trees, buying carbon offsets, subscribing to a renewable energy program, eliminating single-use plastics and other disposables. All of those changes, and many others, are important because they mean treading a bit more lightly on a suffering earth.
But the single greatest change we can make is to change the way we get around. “Transportation is the largest source of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the United States today, and the bulk of those emissions come from driving in our cities and suburbs,” as Nadja Popovich and Denise Lu noted in a feature for The Times last fall. According to their interactive map, total greenhouse emissions rose 88 percent in Nashville from 1990 to 2017, and that’s not simply because of population growth. Per-person emissions were up 9 percent in the same time frame. Never mind the environment: At this rate, Nashvillians will soon find it difficult to breathe.
No doubt we already do. Data collected during the pandemic quarantines last spring suggest that deaths in the United States from illnesses like asthma, lung disease and heart disease dropped by roughly 25 percent because of the improvement in air quality while fewer vehicles were on the roads.
Biking and walking are the most ecologically sound ways to get around, of course, and taking public transportation is second best. But if, like my family, you live in a place with a profoundly limited public-transportation system and few pedestrian-friendly streets, driving is a necessary evil. If you have to go somewhere, an electric vehicle is the third-best way to get there.
The cost of an electric car can be prohibitive, it’s true, or at least it can appear to be from a glance at the window sticker. But we chose a Nissan Leaf, a vehicle made by our neighbors down in Smyrna, Tenn., and the model we bought qualified for the highest possible federal tax credit. So the actual cost of our car was $7,500 less than the price we paid for it, even if it didn’t seem that way when we signed the papers.
Besides the tax credit — which varies from vehicle to vehicle and has already expired on some of the most popular models, including all Teslas — electric cars are less expensive to maintain. A new analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the total cost of ownership is actually lower for many electric vehicles, over the lifetime of the car, than for their combustion engine equivalents. And from an environmental standpoint, there’s no comparison at all, even factoring in the higher emissions involved in producing an electric vehicle’s giant battery.
None of these things matter if you can’t afford to buy a car. So many people are struggling to pay for food right now that it feels unseemly to be discussing the economy of electric cars. But if the time is coming when you’ll need to purchase a car anyway, or if you’re the kind of consumer who tends to drive a car into the ground but can afford to rethink that policy, driving an electric vehicle has become a more practical option than you might realize.
Even without the tax credit, many upcoming models are projected to cost no more than their carbon-spewing counterparts. The number of purchase options is about to explode, too, so you don’t have to give your money to Elon Musk if you want to drive an electric vehicle.
It’s true that it can take some planning to keep the car charged. We don’t have a garage, so we can’t charge our Leaf if it rains, and even with a battery range of more than 200 miles, this car will never be our go-to vehicle for road trips. When public chargers become more plentiful, as they must for electric vehicles to become truly ubiquitous, there will still be the matter of how long they take to charge. The most powerful charger publicly available still needs close to an hour to charge our car’s drained battery, and the most powerful charger on the market isn’t available at the average highway exit.
But none of these potential liabilities should be deal breakers. I love our little red Leaf, and I have never had a single moment of buyer’s remorse since we brought it home. It’s quiet, it’s comfortable, and it’s amazingly fun to drive. Like every other vehicle we have owned, we expect to keep it for another 12 or 15 years. All I can hope is that by the time we need to replace it, all our options will be electric. Because if they aren’t, the planet will pay a terrible price.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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