My Nissan Leaf life: Why I bought a Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf will save $1,000 a year in fuel bills. But the real reason I bought one? 9/11.

Jeff Barnard/AP/File
In this March file photo, a Nissan Leaf tops off its battery in Central Point, Ore., at one of the charging stations along Interstate 5. Can all-electric cars enhance US security?

– First installment in an occasional series

I've had a Nissan Leaf for two months now – and things have started to change.

I pass gas stations without thinking about them anymore. I've got new "attitude," scowling at Toyota Priuses for their lack of gas-saving zeal. On Saturdays, when we do most of our driving, my wife and I sometimes calculate whether we can do all our errands on the  Leaf's 100-mile battery without finding a public charging station.

I never thought we would own an all-electric car. But the idea began to dawn over a kitchen table discussion last fall about a replacement for our 14-year-old Honda Accord.

Honestly, if we had not just refinanced the house, we might have ended up with a Honda Fit – not a Nissan Leaf. But we decided to use some of the housing-cost savings from the re-fi on new transportation. Fiscal discipline, we decided, would take a back seat this time to all-electric driving for one key reason: We won't have to fill up ever again (except when we use the minivan for long trips).

To be sure, the Leaf will save us $50 per fill-up, maybe $1,000 a year on fuel. But the Leaf lease payments will swallow those savings – unless gas prices go up maybe to $5 a gallon. No, the real reason Laura and I took possession of an "ocean blue" Leaf on an icy winter day in mid-February was 9/11.

After that terrible day, many people began asking: What can I do in my personal life to make sure this never happens again?

Not a lot, really, I thought at that time. But lately my view has changed. One thing is that it might help to refuse to give "people who hate us" a lot of money for their oil. Simplistic? Yes. Am I going to try it? Yes.

Another post-9/11 change: In reporting for the Monitor on energy and environment, I discovered Felix Kramer and a couple of his buddies working out of a California garage, trying to curb US oil use by turning a standard Prius hybrid into a cutting edge plug-in hybrid. It ran mostly on electricity and got the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon.

When Toyota didn't seem interested, Felix and his pals converted a lot more of them, hoping to shame Toyota and Detroit automakers into building production plug-in hybrids. Amazingly, they succeeded.

Last year, the Chevrolet Volt rolled into showrooms. It goes 40 miles on a charge before reverting to a gasoline engine for distance driving. Toyota finally began selling a plug-in hybrid Prius that goes 12 to 15 miles on a charge first, then a gas engine. Ford is deploying an all-electric Focus and a plug-in hybrid SUV. The list goes on – 11 automakers and a dozen new models this year – the year of the electric car.

Since most US oil goes to power automotive transportation – and two-thirds of all Americans drive less than 40 miles a day – a car like the Chevy Volt would let Americans duck the pump and substitute domestic fuel (electricity) for nearly all their driving needs. If enough people drove one, energy-security hawks like former CIA director James Woolsey and a bevy of former generals say it would greatly enhance US energy security.

Of course, you could get really radical and get an all-electric vehicle like the Nissan Leaf. That might save even more gasoline, albeit by living inside a 50-mile radius. This is the first in a series of blogs about what it means to live within that radius, about the often not-very-intuitive things that emerge as you step away from a gas-powered world, and what it's like to electrify your daily ride.

Welcome to my Nissan Leaf life.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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