Two women coursed thru the 2019 Philly Auto Show in search of all-electric cars, also known as BEV (battery electric vehicles).

They were aware of the recent IPCC report that we need to get off fossil fuels within a decade, and that an electric car would have 60% less emissions than a comparable gasoline car, even when charged with electricity from our current grid mix. So, having heard that most auto manufacturers now have an electric option, they were keen to check out their options for a future car purchase.

About fuel choice these days…

Gasoline cars 

Gasoline cars are what most of us have driven all our lives. From a climate perspective, they emit about 19 lbs of CO2e per gallon.

Hybrid cars

Hybrid cars, made popular by the Toyota Prius, use the electric motor and battery for starting and stopping, and the gasoline engine to maintain speed. They also use energy generated from braking to recharge the battery, a term called regenerative braking. Though still fueled by gasoline, hybrid cars greatly improve the fuel efficiency of a car. 

This technology is also used for hybrid buses, which run a diesel engine in conjunction with the battery & electric motor. SEPTA, our local transit agency, has contracted for 525 hybrid (diesel-electric) buses to replace retiring diesel buses.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) 

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles allow the driver to recharge the battery by plugging it into an outlet.  Offering a range between 20 and 53 miles per charge, a PHEV can be used around town on the emissions-free electric motor & battery, with option to use the gasoline engine for longer trips.  

At the auto show, we saw these PHEV models:

We know college students as well as retirees that have opted for a PHEV. For the student, the range on the electric motor & battery is adequate for daily needs and the backup gasoline engine gets used when exploring the new state during weekends. The student is happy to be driving a zero-emission car for urban needs. The PHEV serves the retiree well too; the electric system is adequate for around town needs, and the gasoline for occasional trips to the farm in upstate New York.  

Battery electric vehicles (BEV) 

Battery electric vehicles have no gasoline tank or engine, running purely on batteries. These have no spark plugs, no muffler, no tailpipe and no need for oil changes and are often called zero-emission vehicles. The battery can be recharged by plugging into a standard 110V outlet. This is called Level 1 charging. Level 2 charging requires a charging device and a 240V circuit. This offers twice the recharge speed than Level 1. DC Fast charging stations are often installed at turnpike rest areas, offering an additional 50 miles of travel with a recharge time of  20 minutes.

This technology of battery electric vehicles is also available for transit buses, delivery & trash trucks. We need our state & local agencies to transition fleets to battery electric vehicles when replacing current vehicles.

At the auto show, there were these electric vehicles (EVs) with zero tailpipe emissions, all battery powered:

You’ll often find people driving a BEV talking about the range their car offers. Many are happy with stated range of 75 miles. And know that when they need to travel farther there’s always the option of taking train, or renting a gasoline car for the day, knowing that at least the majority of their driving is has significantly less emissions than a comparable gasoline car. 

Many also pair their transition to an electric vehicle with an investment in rooftop solar at their home. When the car is charged from home, especially on a sunny afternoon, the ride could be considered zero-emission. for more info about rooftop solar in our region, see Solarize Southeast PA

Know that as batteries age, the range is reduced. This is no different than your cell phone or laptop no longer holding a charge all day; you either live with it, or splurge on a new battery. 

We looked up fuel efficiency numbers for our current cars on the US DOE’s Fuel Economy site, and found we can use the same tool to compare another model. We like the consistency of MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), gallons per 100 miles, and the greenhouse gas emissions for each model. 

About charging a battery-electric vehicle

Level 1 charging offers an additional 2 to 5 miles within 60 minutes, about 12 hours charging for a 60 mile range. You can utilize this with a cable that has a J1772 plug at one end and a standard 3- pronged plug at the other. The J1772 plug goes to the car, and the 3 pronged plug goes to a nearby outlet. 

The dealer often sells you this cable when you get the car, whether it’s an Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Chevy, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Porsche, Tesla, VW, or Volvo.

Level 2 charging offers an additional 10-20 miles within 60 minutes, about 5 hours charging for a 70 mile range. The J1772 plug goes to the car, but the other end requires a connection to an EV charger with 220V service. For charging at home, you’d need to buy the charger and have an electrician do the wiring. 

With the same list of autos with a J1772 plug, Level 2 charging has become the standard at public EV charging stations. Public EV charging stations are often at supermarkets, hospitals, car dealerships, parking garages, and curbside parking spaces. Places like supermarkets, hospitals and car dealerships often offer free charging. Private spaces like parking garages charge for a charge. 
There are national EV charging networks, such as Chargepoint, Blink, Greenspot, EVgo and more. Typically, you have the option to pay by simply swiping a credit card.

DC Fast Charging offers an additional 50 to 70 mile range within 20 minutes, ideal for turnpike rest areas. Vehicles that support DC Fast Charging would have either a J1772 combo port (aka CCS/SAE) or a CHAdeMo port

There are two types of DC fast charging in the United States, other than Tesla.  One is trademarked as CHAdeMo, a standard in Japan. The other is SAE Combo CCS which is the standard for US & European cars. These are generally upgrade options when purchasing the vehicle.  The Pennsylvania Turnpike seems to only have the CHAdeMo ports, while New Jersey Turnpike seems to have both at their fast charging stations. There are CCS ports available near the turnpike provided by EVGo.

Currently, BMW, Chevy, Tesla & VW cars have the J1772 combo plug, while the Nissan, Mitsubishi, Tesla, Toyota cars have the CHAdeMo plug. These are typically commercial installations, not residential.

The Tesla Supercharger charges an additional 170 miles within 30 minutes.  The only cars that can use these charging stations are the Tesla models. The Tesla combo plug port is installed by the manufacturer.  There is currently one Tesla Supercharger location in Center City Philadelphia, inside a parking garage, with the capacity to charge 10 cars.

When looking at a car, look for the plug type. This’ll help you determine what type of charging infrastructure you’ll need to look for when it’s time to recharge.  

Where to recharge?

Automobiles have proliferated in the US because the oil industry invested in filling stations to refuel cars. Until electric utilities step in to fill the gap, it’s ideal if you can charge overnight, at home. The transition is easier if your home has a garage or off-street parking. This is one reason there is more EV adoption in Montgomery County than Philadelphia!

Before you drive home an EV (electric vehicle), we highly recommend the website and the associated smartphone app plugshare, where you’ll see nearby charging stations. Some are public, while some are private at people’s homes, which are available to share if you’re stuck. Talk about the sharing economy!

Cost to recharge?

The fuel economy site, managed by the US Department of Energy, tells us that the cost to recharge an electric vehicle “depends on your electricity cost, your car’s fuel efficiency, and the number of miles you drive on electricity in a month.” They offer an example… “if you drive a Nissan Leaf (a sedan) 12,000 miles a year, your electricity costs $0.12/kWh, and you only charge at home, it would add $37.50 to your monthly electric bill.”  This translates to about $450 annually. Compare this to your current gasoline costs!

Have a specific car model you’re considering? Look up miles per charge, as well as MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) for the model here.

Tax credits, grants & rebates

Though the sticker price may seem high for these reduced emission new technology vehicles, you should be aware of the tax credits and grants offered. Currently, here’s what we know of:

  • up to $7500 Federal tax credit on all-electric vehicles, per Edmunds
  • up to $4,502 Federal tax credit on Hybrids
  • Pennsylvania currently offers a $1,750 grant for people that buy EVs.
  • PECO offers a $50 rebate for registering your EV with them.

Instead of purchasing one of these cars, leasing is also an option. The lease transfers the above tax credits to the leasing company, resulting in an affordable zero-emissions vehicle for those that don’t pay much tax. 

We hope this helps you decide that your next car will be all-electric or a plug-in hybrid.

A collaborative post by

  • Jean MacFarlane (who drives a 2018 Subaru Crosstrek AWD, leads hikes with the Appalachian Mountain Club, and is a member of the Sierra Club);
  • Marion Biddle (who drives a 2019 Chevy Bolt);
  • Meenal Raval (who drives a 2018 Nissan Leaf, and is a member of the Sierra Club)

This blog was included as part of the 2019 Winter Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition!

This was originally written for Sierra Club’s Southeastern PA Group and published here.