On November 19, 2008, the BMW group unveiled what they're calling the Cooper Mini E at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The vehicle, a 204 horsepower electric-powered version of the popular Mini hatchback, will make BMW, “The world’s first manufacturer of premium automobiles to deploy a fleet of some 500 all-electric vehicles for private use in daily traffic.”
The new Mini E’s are scheduled to be on the road sometime in June, and are being offered on a limited-production basis only. Qualifying customers—those who have access to lockable garages or similar structures and who can afford a monthly payment of over $800—will be granted one-year leases, each with an extension option.
BMW seems basically to be treating the Mini E's launch as an experiment, as is evident from the following statement:
By introducing the MINI E, the BMW Group is underscoring the resolve with which it works towards reducing energy consumption and emissions in road traffic. The BMW Group is drawing on its unique technological expertise in the field of drive systems to develop a vehicle concept enabling zero emissions without renouncing the joy of driving. Putting some 500 cars on the road under real daily traffic conditions will make it possible to gain widely applicable hands-on experience. Evaluating these findings will generate valuable know-how, which will be factored into the engineering of mass-produced vehicles.
I’ve read this statement a number of times and, every time I do, I find myself asking the same question: Can plug-in electric vehicles like the Mini E really be the solution to the United States' energy and/or environmental problems?
Let's examine the evidence...
BMW claims the Mini E draws a maximum of 28 kilowatt-hours from the grid per charge, and that this translates to approximately 5.4 miles per kilowatt-hour. Based on this, they say that the Mini E, “offers significant economic advantages over a vehicle powered by a conventional internal combustion engine.”
I, however, was unable to find any side-by-side comparison between a Mini E and an internal combustion vehicle to substantiate this claim. So, I did what any logical person with too much time on his or her hands would do: I took the specs provided by BMW and did a comparison of my own. The following compares the Mini E with a 2009 Mini Cooper S:
Cooper Mini E—
According to the official BMW specs, the standard charger for the Mini E is a 208 volt, 60 amp unit (208 volts x 60 amps = 12,480 watts [or 12.48 kilowatts]).
12.48 kilowatts (kW) x the 5 hours needed to charge the vehicle (BMW’s original press release claimed the vehicle could be charged in 2.5 hours, but this has since been revised) = 62.4 Kilowatt-hours (kWh) per charge—34.4 kWh more than BMW’s press release claimed was the maximum draw per charge.
Under ideal conditions, the Mini E has a range of 156 miles, which means you get roughly 2.5 miles per kWh—again, this is less than advertised, this time by a total of 2.9 miles per kWh.
For the sake of this comparison, let’s assume that a Mini-E owner drives 40 miles per day. This would mean that he or she would have to recharge the vehicle every 3.9 days (bear in mind that this does not take into account any charge lost by the battery while vehicle is not in operation).
If you take a 30 day month and divide by roughly 4 days per charge, you get 7.5 times per month that the Mini E must be recharged.
62.4 kWh per charge x 7.5 charges per month = 468 kWh per month that the Mini E will add to the owner’s electric bill.
Since I live in Westchester County, New York, I calculated the cost that 468 kWh would add to a residential customer’s electric bill from January 9th to February 10th. It came to $105.19.
Keep that figure in mind.
Cooper Mini S (high-performance gas-powered engine)—
According to the Mini Cooper website, a 2009 Mini Cooper S gets roughly 30 miles per gallon and has a 12 gallon tank.
12 gallons per tank x 30 miles per gallon = 360 miles per tank.
Again, assuming that the owner drives 40 miles per day; 360 miles per tank divided by 40 miles driven per day = the vehicle must be refueled every 9 days.
So, a 30 day month divided by 9 days per tank of gas = 3.33 times per month that the vehicle must be refueled.
Since the Mini Cooper S is powered by a high-performance engine, the owner has to use Premium grade gasoline, which in Westchester County this month has cost roughly $2.39 per gallon. This means that the Mini Cooper S’s 12 gallon tank would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $28.68 to fill.
$28.68 per tank x 3.33 refuels = $95.50 for the month—or $9.69 less than the cost of driving a Mini E.
What did BMW say again? The Mini E, “offers significant economic advantages over a vehicle powered by a conventional internal combustion engine?”
I admit that my comparison may be rudimentary, but either my math is way off, or the significant economic advantages BMW was talking about only apply when comparing the Mini E with—I don't know—a Hummer H2.
The truth is any economic benefit that the Mini E offers is menial at best. And, while I haven’t seen any real figures on the environmental benefits of plug-in electric vehicles, I have a hard time imagining how they could be any great improvement over internal combustion vehicles. After all, all we’re doing is trading gasoline emissions from the car for natural gas or oil or (god forbid) coal emissions from the power plants that will have to produce more electricity in order for PEV owners to charge their vehicles’ batteries.
The only way I can see that PEV's would offer an environmental benefit is if the electricity used to charge them was produced using renewable resources—which, in this country, is at best many, many years away from being a reality on a large scale.
So what's the verdict? The whole thing sounds like another example of GreenWash to me (if you are unfamiliar with the term GreenWash, see my earlier post).
...But at least it looks cool.