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Dear EarthTalk: With plug-in hybrid and electric cars due to hit the roads sometime soon, will there be places to plug them in besides at home? And if so, how much will it cost to re-charge?  -- Nicole Koslowsky, Pompano Beach, FL

Gasoline-electric hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, are all the rage due to their fuel efficiency, and consumers have been clamoring for carmakers to up the ante and give these vehicles a plug. This way the batteries can be charged at home and not just by the gas engine and other on-board features, thus greatly reducing the need for gas except for long trips. And purely electric cars, like the Tesla Roadster already on the market, will be making more appearances on the streets as greater production brings the costs down.

So what’s an electric or plug-in hybrid driver to do when they need a charge and they’re nowhere near home? Plug-ins are expected to reach up to 60 miles on a charge (great for a commute but not for a longer trip); and though the Tesla reportedly went 241 miles on a charge in a recent European road rally, its everyday stop-and-go efficiency will likely be less and drivers will need “pit stops” far from home.

A few forward-thinking large companies have installed electric outlets accessible to employee parking, but most plug-in hybrid and electric car drivers will be looking for help well beyond the scope of their commutes. In the U.S., several cities in California, as well as Seattle, Chicago, Phoenix and others are now setting up recharging infrastructures. Paris, where Toyota is testing plug-in hybrids, already has over 80 recharging stations throughout the city and suburbs. Across the channel, London is working with the nonprofit Environmental Defense to install upwards of 40 electric recharging stations around town.

According to the California Cars Initiative (CalCars), which promotes plug-in hybrids, Americans recharging their plug-ins via a regular 120V outlet should expect to pay about $1 per gallon equivalent. “Using the average U.S. electricity rate of nine cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), 30 miles of electric driving will cost 81 cents,” the group maintains. “If we optimistically assume the average U.S. fuel economy is 25 miles per gallon, at $3.00 gasoline this equates to 75 cents a gallon for equivalent electricity.”

For its part, Toyota has already released a few hundred plug-in Priuses in the U.S. to university and commercial fleet customers. The company will monitor the vehicles’ performance and use the data to tweak the design for a consumer-friendly version sometime after 2010. Pricing on the vehicles, which get 65 miles per gallon or more in combined gas/electric mode and can run on electricity alone, is as yet undecided. But chances are the car will command a premium of several thousand dollars over the cost of a regular hybrid Prius. The fact that such a feature might obviate the need for gasoline entirely—save for long trips away from charging facilities—may well make it worth the extra up-front cost for some buyers.

Those unwilling to wait for a mass-market plug-in can have their existing Prius or Ford Escape hybrid converted accordingly by any of several “aftermarket” companies at a cost of $6,000 and up. CalCars provides a comprehensive listing of vendors across the U.S. and elsewhere that can do the conversions, and also offers its own instructions for those engineering-savvy hybrid owners who can do it themselves.

CONTACTS: Tesla Motors, www.teslamotors.com; Environmental Defense, www.edf.org; California Cars Initiative, www.calcars.org; Toyota, www.toyota.com.
 
Dear EarthTalk: How does the microwave compare in energy use, say, to using a gas or electric stove burner to heat water for a cup of tea?  -- Tempie, Dexter, MI

The short answer is that it depends upon several variables, including the price of electricity versus gas, and the relative efficiency of the appliances involved. Typically, though, a microwave would be slightly more efficient at heating water than the flame on a gas stove, and should use up a little less energy. The reason: The microwave’s heat waves are focused on the liquid (or food) inside, not on heating the air or container around it, meaning that most if not all of the energy generated is used to make your water ready.

Given this logic, it is hard to believe that a burner element on an electric stovetop would be any better, but an analysis by Home Energy Magazine found otherwise. The magazine’s researchers discovered that an electric burner uses about 25 percent less electricity than a microwave in boiling a cup of water.

That said, the difference in energy saved by using one method over another is negligible: Choosing the most efficient process might save a heavy tea drinker a dollar or so a year. “You’d save more energy over the year by replacing one light bulb with a CFL [compact fluorescent lightbulb] or turning off the air conditioner for an hour—not an hour a day, one hour at some point over the whole year,” says consumer advocate Michael Bluejay.

Although a microwave may not save much energy or money over a stove burner when heating water, it can be much more energy-efficient than a traditional full-size oven when it comes to cooking food. For starters, because their heat waves are concentrated on the food, microwaves cook and heat much faster than traditional ovens. According to the federal government’s Energy Star program, which rates appliances based on their energy-efficiency, cooking or re-heating small portions of food in the microwave can save as much as 80 percent of the energy used to cook or warm them up in the oven.

The website Treehugger.com reports that there are other things you can do to optimize your energy efficiency around the kitchen when cooking. For starters, make sure to keep the inside surfaces of your microwave oven clean so as to maximize the amount of energy reflected toward your food. On a gas stovetop, make sure the flame is fully below the cookware; likewise, on an electric stovetop, make sure the pan or kettle completely covers the heating element to minimize wasted heat. Also, use the appropriate size pan for the job at hand, as smaller pans are cheaper and more energy-efficient to heat up.

Despite these tips for cooking greener, Bluejay reiterates that most of us will hardly put a dent in our overall energy use just by choosing one appliance over another. According to his analysis, for someone who bakes three hours a week the cheapest cooking method saves only an estimated $2.06/month compared to the most expensive method.

“Focusing on cooking methods is not the way to save electricity [at home],” says Bluejay. “You should look at heating, cooling, lighting and laundry instead.”

CONTACTS: Home Energy Magazine, www.homeenergy.org; Treehugger, www.treehugger.com; Michael Bluejay, www.michaelbluejay.com.
www.Dishmag.com / Issue 98 - September 2018
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