Sven Thesen describes himself as an electric car evangelist.

His conversion began several years ago while he was working as an air-quality consultant in California. He switched diesel agricultural pumps over to electric as part of a program to cut air pollution and says he witnessed something incredible, an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. He began to think it might be possible to create similar efficiencies for your average family car.

Thesen decided to experiment. He ‘hacked’ his 2004 Prius hybrid into a plug-in electric vehicle or EV. It was the beginning of an obsession. He even negotiated with the city of Palo Alto to get special permission to install a curbside charger outside his home. Now he’s known for devoting his time to getting more consumers on board with electric.

Many people are familiar with hybrid vehicles, those that run using both an electric motor and petrol. Electric takes that further, fuelled entirely by electricity. 

What you’ll pay to go green

While electric cars aren’t yet associated with luxury or glamour, their silent driving and instant torque (turning power) are starting to grab the attention of auto buffs globally. But, they can be expensive in comparison to a hybrid or traditional petrol-fuelled vehicle.

Tesla, among others, is at the forefront of the electric car market. The all-wheel drive Model S 85D costs $85,000 and can run for about 270 miles between charges, while the least expensive, the $70,000, rear-wheel-drive Model S 70, goes for about 235 miles. The company debuts its Model X mid-size crossover, featuring rear-doors that fold up like falcon wings (think ‘Back to the Future’) later this year.

But going electric needn’t cost a small fortune. In 2013, Thesen picked up a 2011 Nissan Leaf on Craigslist for $20,000. He sold it earlier this year for $12,000 and began a three-year lease on a 2015 Kia Soul EV. (A new Kia Soul EV retails at $33,700). The Soul gets a range of about 93 miles per charge, compared with 84 miles for the top-selling Nissan Leaf (US list price $29,000) and competitors like the Chevy Spark EV ($25,170), the Volkswagen e-Golf ($35,450) and the Fiat 500e ($32,300 ) or the Honda Fit EV.

At the luxury end of the market, Audi, Cadillac and Porsche have so far stuck mainly to plug-in hybrid cars (which recharge batteries by regenerative braking and plugging in to a power source). BMW meanwhile has the popular, all-electric, BMW i3 but has also teamed-up with Brilliance China Automotive Holdings in 2003 to develop electric vehicles such as the Zinoro, tailored specifically for the Asian market.

According to the Electric Power Research Institute in California, electric vehicles are cheaper to operate and maintain than their petrol-pumping counterparts in the long run. Most models plug straight into a standard 110-volt outlet, or a faster 220-volt system. Custom chargers can be installed at home for $500 to $3,000, and smartphone apps such as PlugShare can help locate public chargers around the globe. Residents of the UK are eligible for the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme, a program that provides up to £700 ($1,093) for installing a home charger.

How to buy one — and what to consider

Drivers in many parts of the world can hire an EV from a rental or car share program like Autolib’ in Paris, or test drive one at a dealership or Tesla showroom.

With the exception of a Tesla, which customers must order online or at a Tesla-run showroom, electric vehicles are sold through traditional dealerships, and also are offered to lease.

Once you decide to buy an electric vehicle, you should consult an online buyer’s guide through the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association or PlugInAmerica.org as well as websites such as GreenCarReports.com to compare prices, range and other specifications.

Before you buy, consider the mileage you will drive and your estimated length of ownership, as well as incentives.

For Thesen, depreciation and new technology were the biggest drivers for leasing instead of buying. His first-generation Nissan Leaf depreciated $8,000 in just two years, so he thought the $7,400 price tag to lease the Kia Soul over three years was a better deal. Beefed-up batteries, such as the ones GM and Nissan are working on, and self-driving technology might further reduce the value of older electric cars, Thesen said.

“Right now I would not buy a new gasoline car or a new EV; I would just lease,” he said. “The technology is changing so fast that you don’t want to get left holding the bag.”

Tax breaks and perks

California is one of the world’s biggest markets for electric vehicles; anyone who buys or leases a battery-powered car in the state receives a $2,500 rebate. The federal government then kicks in an additional $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the make and model.

Plug-ins are also a good value in Norway because of tax breaks, said Petter Haugneland, communications manager for the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association. High-emission cars are taxed heavily, while zero-emission models are exempt from the import tax as well as the 25% sales tax (VAT). In addition, electric vehicles can drive in bus lanes and don’t pay parking fees or highway tolls. Electric cars have been a tougher sell in nearby countries like Denmark and Sweden, which don’t offer the same benefits, Haugneland added.

“If you have to pay something like £8,000 ($12,497) more for an EV than a similar petrol car, you have to be very environmentally concerned,” he said.

The UK has offered a £5,000 ($7,810) subsidy towards the purchase of plug-in cars since 2011, and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reported that more than 6,000 were sold in March 2015, compared with around 1,200 the previous March — a 400% increase. Other UK breaks include the road tax exemption and free entry into London's congestion zone, which normally costs £10.50 to £14 ($16.40 to $21.87). Buying and leasing credits in Japan and subsidies of up to 100,000 yuan ($16,100) in China have also spurred growth.

Keeping it ticking over

The battery is the most expensive and important part of an electric vehicle, so maintaining it is crucial.

John Kongoletos, who works in the mechanical engineering department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, recommends keeping a battery between 30% and 90% absolute charge, which might appear as 20% to 80% “state of charge” on the dashboard.

“Similar to a gas engine, you don’t want to run your fuel tank dry,” Kongoletos said. “In a battery system, when you start discharging that far, the voltage decreases more rapidly, which can damage the cell.”

The worst enemy for a battery is heat, so electric vehicles should be stored in a cool, shaded place. While cold regions like Norway are good for overall battery life, lower temperatures reduce range, as does increased speed and running the heater or air conditioning.

Some electric vehicles come with smart phone apps that display remaining charge and remotely control actions like heating, cooling and even starting the vehicle.

“When you get into an EV ask yourself, just like you asked yourself when you got that first smart phone, how could you ever live without it?,” Thesen said.

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