How electric cars will save you money

If you are someone who watches your dollars and cents, you probably don’t own a plug-in hybrid. Sure, they deliver good gas mileage but it’s not good enough to offset the higher sticker price needed to cover the costs of the battery. (That’s why I own a Honda Fit.) Cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are expensive ways to say, ‘I’m green.’

Nissan Leaf

Electric cars are another story, and that’s why the arrival of the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt in just a few months could become a watershed moment for the auto industry, as well as for the environmental movement. Unlike the Prius, the Leaf and Volt are not aimed at the early-adopter, eco-conscious, well-to-do niche buyers on the coasts and in places like Amherst, Ma., and Ann Arbor, Mi. They are being built for the mass market.

The economics make all the difference.

That, at least, is my takeaway from a discussion about electric cars held earlier today at a Washington Post Live event called Energy Now. (Video will be posted on the site, the newspaper says.) The panel was stacked with electric-car enthusiasts–Tony Posawatz from Chevy, Carlos Tavares of Nissan, David Crane of NRG Energy, David Vieau of battery-maker A123 Systems and a lone skeptic, Alan Crane of the National Research Council. But with the exception of Alan Crane, they all argued that electric cars will be not only fun to drive, not only convenient (because you don’t need to drive to a gas station to refuel) and not only good for the climate and for U.S. energy security, but also cheaper to own over the life of the car.

Chevy Volt

That’s essentially because (1) electric car engines are more efficient than internal-combustion engines and (2) generating electricity from a big coal, natural gas or nuclear plant is more efficient than burning gasoline in millions of cars.

This isn’t a new argument. I’ve heard it from people like David Sokol of Berkshire Hathaway and BYD, and from Shai Agassi (See Electric cars: all systems go) but David Crane’s explanation today laid out the math in clear terms.

Describing NRG’s plans in Houston (see Why the Petro Metro wants electric cars), Crane said the NRG-owned utility company, Reliant Energy, is working with Nissan and plans to offer Leaf owners an all-you-can-eat model for buying electricity to power the car. Here’s the selling proposition:

First, NRG would buy and install a Level 2 car charger for the home. Those are worth $1,500 to $2,000, Crane said, and they can fully charge a Leaf, which has a range of about 100 miles, in four to eight hours. “You come home from work, you plug it in, and in the morning it’s ready to go again,” he said. Second, NRG will build a network of charging stations around the city of Houston. “At no point will you be more than five miles away from a fast charge,” he said. )The business model for sustaining the stations remains uncertain.)  Third, NRG will offer  unlimited mileage for three years at a price still to be determined, but estimated at $70 to $80 a month, added to the utility bill. After the three years, the price would drop because by then NRG will have recouped the cost of the charging station and would only need to pay for the electricity.

So how does the math look? At $80 a month, fuel costs for the Leaf would be $960 a year. By comparison, assume that you drive a conventional car 15,000 miles a year and get 20 mpg. You’ll buy 750 gallons of gas. At $2.58 per gallon, the current average price on the Gulf Coast, you’ll pay just under $2,000 a year.

You can challenge my assumptions, but that $1,000 a year in fuel savings will over time offset the upfront cost of the Leaf, which is roughly $25,000 after a federal rebate in most places and $20,000 in California which offers a state rebate as well. If gas prices rise, the deal looks sweeter. It looks better yet if, as seems likely, the costs of batteries (and the sticker price) falls.

Then there are the psychic benefits. A123’s Vieau said the company has already hired 300 people at the battery-making plant it just opened in Livonia, Mi., and expects to hire many more. “We’re shifting dollars spent on oil overseas to create jobs at home,” Vieau said.

People who care about the environment, meanwhile, can take pride in the fact that they are driving cleaner cars.

“American’s want to make a difference if they can,” NRG’s Crane said. “Look at the organic food business.”

Now, a couple of caveats: Today’s electric car business is heavily subsidized, it must be noted. Buyers get tax breaks. Battery maker A123 got a $249-million stimulus grant, a federal loan guarantee and state subsidies and Nissan was given a $1.4 billion energy department loan guarantee to retool a plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. GM, of course, got bailed out.

The second caveat is that it will take years for electric cars to have a major impact. The Chevy Volt will be available in only seven states at first, Posawatz told me that Chevy will make only “thousands” of the cars in the first model year, and “tens of thousands” after that. “If the demand is there, we’ll keep building more,” he said.

Nissan will make about 60,000 Leafs in  Japan during 2011, for the world market. Nissan had been taking pre-orders for the Leaf on its U.S. website, but stopped today because 20,000 have been ordered. The company will be able to build more starting late in 2012 when it opens the Smyrna plant, which has a capacity of 150,000 units a year.

To put that in context, there are more than 250 million cars on the road today in the U.S.

Still, I received an interesting 62-page report earlier today from HSBC Research called Sizing the Climate Economy. (If you Google it, you can download a PDF.) Its best guess is that the market for low-carbon vehicles — essentially, electric cars — will grow to $473 billion worldwide by 2020, making low-carbon transport business a bigger investment opportunity than low-carbon energy.

Electric cars, in other words, are going to be a very big deal.

It’s time to rethink nukes

If climate change is the greatest threat facing mankind, what are the odds of the big environmental groups rethinking their longstanding opposition to nuclear power?

They appear to be slim. Here’s what Environmental Defense says on its website:

Serious questions of safety, security, waste and proliferation surround the issue of nuclear power. Until these questions are resolved satisfactorily, Environmental Defense cannot support an expansion of nuclear generating capacity.

And this comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council website:

New nuclear power plants are unlikely to provide a significant fraction of future U.S. needs for low-carbon energy. NRDC favors more practical, economical and environmentally sustainable approaches to reducing both U.S. and global carbon emissions, focusing on the widest possible implementation of end-use energy-efficiency improvements, and on policies to accelerate commercialization of clean, flexible, renewable energy technologies.

Supporters of nuclear energy—including those who strongly support climate regulation to curb emissions of global warming pollutans—say that doesn’t make sense.

“They (environmentalists) love to hate the biggest thing that can move the needle with respect to climate change,” says David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy. NRG is a member, with NRDC and EDF, of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of big companies and environmental groups that back a cap-and-trade program to regulate greenhouse gases.

Crane spoke last week during a lively discussion of nukes led by my colleague David Whitford at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment. I wish we’d invited an EDF or NRDC representative onto the panel, but the focus was money, not safety, security or waste. David began the conversation by inviting everyone to “consider the evidence and think anew about something about which many of us had made up our minds.”

Good idea. Many years ago, I covered protests again the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire for a left-wing publication. My sympathies were with the protestors. Now I’m firmly undecided, and determined to learn more. Given the threat of climate change and the safety record of nuclear plants in the U.S. since Three Mile Island—especially compared the alternative of mining and burning coal—it seems like the right time to rethink nukes.

Here’s what the directors of the national energy laboratories said last year in a report called A Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy:

Today, nuclear energy provides 16 percent of the world’s electricity and offers unique benefits. It is the only existing technology with capability for major expansion that can simultaneously provide stability for base-load electricity, security through reliable fuel supply, and environmental stewardship by avoiding emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Furthermore, it has proven reliability (greater than 90 percent capacity factor), exemplary safety, and operational economy through improved performance.

One of the signatories to the report was Steven Chu, now the energy secretary.

Here are some things I heard during the panel:

As thing stand now, we are unlikely to see the so-called nuclear renaissance that was talked about just a couple of years ago. The global economic slump is the reason why. Lenders are more risk-averse than ever, and few businesses need more capital and pose more risk than new nukes. Demand for electricity is slowing because of the recession. And natural gas prices are down, making it easier to meet new demand for electricity by building natural gas plants.

The U.S. government has set aside about $18 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear plants. That will underwrite perhaps three plants, our experts said. “I’m convinced that there will be three nuclear power plants built in the U.S. in the next 10 says,” said Kevin Book, a partner at ClearView Energy Partners, a research and consulting firm.

Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess. The utility industry wants to build more—there are 24 applications for new nukes pending at the NRC, all of two to be located near to existing sites, where local support for nuclear energy is strong. No new plant has been approved since the 1980s. By contrast, there are 45 plants now under construction outside of the U.S., most in China, India and Korea, according to Book.

Like beauty, “clean” energy is in the eye of the beholder. Notice how the NRDC statement above says the group would prefer clean and renewable energy to nuclear. Well, Alan Hanson, an executive with Areva, the big French nuclear power company, says that the nuclear waste issue is closer to being solved than, say, the solar waste issue.

France, where more than 80% of the electricity comes from nuclear power, uses a safe and sophisticated system to recycle spent nuclear fuel, Hanson says. (You wouldn’t expect him to say anything else, but still…) Nuclear waste can be stored on the sites of plants “for the next 500 years in we want,” he said—plenty to time to ease the transition to a renewable, low-carbon energy economy.

By contrast, he says, burning coal creates not on CO2 but mercury and other pollutants. And many solar photovoltaic panels are made of cadmium, among other things, for which there’s no recycling plant. “I don’t know of any part of the electricity generating world that treats its waste as well as the nuclear industry does,” Hanson said.

The politics of nuclear are complicated. Chu, who’s probably the smartest guy in the Obama cabinet, supports nuclear energy but Carol Browner, who’s an experienced Washington power player (no pun intended) is said to be a strong opponent. Liberal Democrats on Capital Hill—Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid—also oppose nuclear power. Given a choice between nuclear and coal as a source of baseload power, they’re likely to favor coal.

Crane said: “Right now the dominant wing of the Democratic Party knows they need to accommodate the coal wing of the Democratic Party in order to get energy and environmental policy passed.” That leaves nuclear out of the deal-making.

resident Obama hasn’t said much about nuclear. It may well be that technology breakthroughs in solar, geothermal, wind or battery storage will mean that we don’t need nuclear energy as a source of low-carbon power. But until those breakthroughs come along, shouldn’t we keep the nuclear option open?