As new technologies continue to emerge, carmakers struggle to explain their newest products. Some consumers are confused about the difference between hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles. This article will give you clarity about these vehicles by teaching you the basics about electricity in vehicles.
What is Electrification?
Electrification is some degree of electric drive. This includes electric vehicles, which have no gasoline engine, and part-time EVs such as plug-in hybrids and regular gasoline hybrids that you can’t plug in. Range is important as charge points are not as common as gas stations. Range is the driving distance using only electricity stored in a vehicle’s battery pack.
The EnerGuide Label for Vehicles
On the EnerGuide label for vehicles, we’re familiar with litres per 100 kilometres (L/100 km) and what it means to a gasoline vehicle. But the window stickers of electric cars and plug in hybrids have something called Le/100km instead of L/100km for gasoline cars.
Le is how engineers have identified fuel consumption in terms we can understand. However, it gives some people the wrong impression that electric cars use gasoline. Comparing the costs of paying in litres of gas (L) for gasoline cars versus Le for electric cars would be difficult because the prices of gasoline and electricity are not related this way.
There’s another way to compare electric vehicles. Another measurement is kilowatt-hours (kWh) which is best since that is what you're buying. The kWh rating is also on the EnerGuide Label – kilowatt-hours per 100 kilometres (kWh/100 km). That's the efficiency number you should be looking at when you shop for an electric vehicle.
What is a Kilowatt-Hour (kWH)?
A kilowatt-hour (kWh) is a quantity of electricity. To understand the kWh, we’ll start with understanding a kilowatt, which you already would understand if you knew how lightbulbs work. For instance, some light bulbs are rated at 100-Watts. 100-Watts is its brightness and its power output if you turn it on. W in Watt is capitalized because it stands for James Watt, a Scottish inventor. Imagine that you have ten 100-Watt bulbs turned on all around your home.
10 x 100 watts = 1000 watts = 1 kilowatt
Kilo- represents 1000. So, 1000 Watts is one kilowatt if you leave the lightbulbs on for an hour.
1 kilowatt (kW) x 1 hour = 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh)
We get one kilowatt times one hour, which is one kilowatt-hour. Because of the time element, we're talking about an amount of electricity, not called kilowatt per hour, but kilowatt-hour (it is multiplication, not division).
Let's take the idea of a kWh and related it to cars. Kilowatt-hour is an amount of electricity that you use and it's also an amount you can store. The battery size of an electrified car is measured in kilowatt-hours.
Think of kilowatt-hours like gallons in the gas tank, but don't ruminate on gallons more than that. We should keep focused on kilowatt hours because electricity is sold in kilowatt-hours. Here is a sample electricity bill from the Ontario Energy Board. On the left is the bill for house holds and small businesses on Time-Of-Use rates. The right is for households who have signed an energy contract. The on-peak time-of use rate in Ontario as of 2022 would be $0.17 per kWh when someone plugs in their electric car.
If you drive a regular car around like crazy, that will use more gasoline since the engine is being asked to create more horsepower. The same is true with electrified vehicles, except heavy acceleration on the pedal will drain more kilowatt-hours from the battery pack, reducing range and costing money.
Now, you know more about electrified car batteries. You also know that the amount of energy they can hold is measured in kilowatt-hours and you know what a kilowatt-hour means. Let’s talk about 3 main types of electrified vehicles: 1) hybrids, 2) plug-in hybrids, and 3) electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are popularly discussed, so we’ll begin with that.
Electric vehicles refer to all electric vehicles or EVs (as a shortened acronym). They are more specifically known as battery electric vehiclesor BEVs. They have no engine, no gas tank, no gasoline, and have no tailpipe. EVs have big electric motors because they are the only propulsion source for the car. So, their batteries are large and often lay under the whole floor of the car. Their storage capacity ranges from 32 to more than 100 kilowatt-hours, depending on the model and how much you want to pay (like any other vehicle consumption).
The most efficient EVs are rated to use about 25 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles, while heavier and sportier models are in the mid to high 40 kWh per hundred-kilometre range. And contrary to L/km, lower is better with kWh because this is a fuel consumption rate. If you use less, you pay less. If you drive 12,000 miles a year, that's 1000 miles a month. If your car is rated to use 26 kilowatt-hours every 100 miles, simply multiply by 10 to get 260 kilowatt-hours for 1000 miles. In my case, I'd multiply that by $0.17 per kWh and get $44.20 per month for fuel.
Range is overhyped. Few of us drive 300 miles in a day. For those of you who do, an EV probably isn't the right solution. If you can plug in every night, it's better to think about how many miles you drive in a day, not a week. 100 miles is fine if you have a second vehicle to use on longer trips. If you want 150 or 200 miles because you like to take weekend trips, don't over-buy. Batteries cost more, and they take up space. Buying too much could be a barrier to entry that you don't need to really worry about.
DC fast charging can become important if you opt for more range and most current EVs can support it. It's mainly only necessary if you will take the car on long journeys and your route will generally be confined to where the electric networks go. Anything with over 100 miles of range is going to be comfortable only the road warriors. Daily charging is where it's at and that's typically done at home while you're asleep. The car’s included cord will have 120-Volt plug that's designed for a household socket, but that's not fast enough if you're going to drive more than 30 miles a day. In that case, a 240 Volt home charging station is the way to go because it's much faster. You'll have to have an electrician install one, but it's a worthwhile expense. EVs are best for people who are homeowners, the household has more than one car, and for people who have consistent access to a 240 Volt home charger if you drive more than 30 miles per day.
If you're not sure you can plug in everyday, if you will only have one car or if you like to take spontaneous road trips, you should consider a plug-in hybrid or PHEV. They are part-time EVs that are initially powered by its electric motor and battery, but also have a gasoline engine and a gas tank. You fuel PHEVs up two ways: plug them in and gas them up. PHEVs have medium sized plug-in batteries that enable them to operate as electric vehicles for 17 to 53 miles and when the electricity runs out, the gasoline engine comes on automatically and powers the car like a regular gasoline hybrid. Some of them will turn the gasoline engine on even if the battery is full if you floor it to give you a little extra acceleration, but that's far from universal.
Their EnerGuide labels contain two ratings. On the left, electric range is in Le per kilometres and consumption in kilowatt-hours per 100 kilometres. On the right, the familiar L/100km on gasoline. Remember you’re buying kilowatt-hours when you’re plugged in. Statistically, you probably drive less than 30 miles in a day. In that case, if you plug in nightly and have that short commute, you might not buy gas for weeks or even months. What if you have a longer commute or are going on road trip? No problem - the gasoline engine will keep you moving. The battery of a PHEV is smaller compared to an EV, and this varies with range. To qualify for the maximum amount of the $5,000 federal tax credit, longer range plug-in vehicles should have an electric range equal to or greater than 50km. PHEVs with shorter electric ranges qualify for less, only up to $2,500. There are also up to $5,000 federal tax credits for battery electric vehicles or BEVs as well.
PHEVs are best for people who are homeowners with: one car, consistent access to a charger at home or work, (but not necessarily 240 volts) and who want an EV but don’t want to be limited by range concerns.
Hybrids have been around the longest. They are known as hybrid electric vehicles or HEV. The “electric” in HEV confuses people. Any true hybrid is 100% gasoline fueled, which means you can’t plug them in. Their EnerGuide labels have regular litres per 100 kilometres (L/100 km). Yes, sometimes they are driven by electricity, but other times they are driven by gasoline and often it is both. They have a gasoline engine and electric motor; a transmission that can combine the two. They also have a battery.
The electricity for that battery comes mainly from braking, and to a smaller extent by draining a little excess power from the engine while it’s driving the car. Hybrids are electricity scavengers. The braking is known as regenerative breaking and that’s a key feature that all three types of electric cars share. Regenerative braking means the electric motor becomes a generator by working backwards, so to say. When you press on the brake, the generated power is transported to a dedicated battery. The battery doesn't need to be big because it only has to hold the electricity that comes from a few city stops. For instance, a Prius battery is only one kWh big, maybe less. A Prius can accomplish more than over 50 miles per gallon in the city because the kinetic energy that is normally wasted as heat in the brakes is recovered, saved in the battery, and then used to get the car moving again and delay the ignition of the gasoline engine every time you leave a stop light.
Some hybrids choose to use their stored energy for performance instead of outright fuel economy such as the Acura NSX and even Formula one race cars. Those cars are still hybrids, and they count as electrified vehicles. But true hybrids have no rating for electric range. If they did, it would be measured in yards, not miles. Don't let hybrids run out of gasoline. In other words, EVs are just like any other normal gasoline vehicle. Hybrids are best for people who live in apartments, want high gas mileage or low carbon footprint, but don’t have consistent access to a charger or don’t want the hassle of it.
Electrification doesn’t mean the end of gasoline engines; it simply means a wider range of choices. At the one extreme we have EVs which are 100% electric, but at the other we have pure gasoline fueled hybrids that recycle normally wasted energy to reduce their use of gasoline. In some cases, to go faster in the middle we have plug in hybrids which act as EVs around town but can use gasoline for longer trips. Among these three choices, there’s an electrified vehicle for everyone.
Which one is best for me?
Electric Vehicle (EVs)
Household has more than one car
You have consistent access to a 240 Volt charger if you drive more than 30 miles per day
Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs)
Homeowners with one car
If you’re not sure you can plug-in everyday
Charger access at home or work (but not necessarily 240 Volts)
If you like to take spontaneous road trips
No concerns with range
Live in an apartment
Want low-gas mileage or low carbon footprint, but don’t have consistent access to a charger