by Dan Fink.
- The 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
CHADRON, NEBRASKA—May 16, 2012. As I wrapped up teaching the pre-lunch lessons for our off-grid power systems class in Chadron, Nebraska last week, I could see a dust cloud coming up the dirt road and hear gravel crunching under vehicle tires. But oddly, I didn't hear the typical roar of the one-ton diesel pickup so common in the Nebraska Panhandle where cows, bison and beans are king, and "cow town" is a compliment, not an insult.
The electric car that bounced into view around the corner on the washboard road to our classroom was driven by cowboy-hatted local rancher and entrepreneur Chris Nerud. His spread is 100 percent off the grid, and powered entirely by solar arrays and wind turbines. The new 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV is just one part of his master plan to introduce sustainable living, energy awareness, and quality, healthy food to an area rich in renewable resources but unsure of how to start using them.
"I went off the grid because I'm so far from the edge of it," Mr. Nerud said. "The cost of running power lines and poles through my meadow was too much, I didn't want to look at them, and underground electric lines were even more expensive. "
Mr. Nerud and his outfit, King Canyon Buffalo, have been raising all-natural free-range bison and cattle on the site for years now; his family homesteaded the area in 1888. Nerud's newest business, King Canyon Alternatives, is an attempt to fuse all his passions together—an off-grid commercial bakery and catering service with all ingredients raised on site, plus a small event center for teaching classes on rural living skills including livestock, greenhouses, solar and wind power, gardening, brick-oven baking, beekeeping, beer and mead making, and more.
How does the new MiEV fit into the plan? As a money-saving delivery vehicle, and a small but conspicuous signboard for a new sustainable business and sustainable living in general.
"The car operates entirely on solar and wind power, and delivery is free if we can get there and back," Mr. Nerud told me. "This sets us apart, makes us recognizable, and will really make people talk."
The estimated electrical fuel cost for 15,000 miles of driving the MiEV is only $550, and Mr. Nerud will be generating all that energy himself with wind and solar. The car sticker price of about $33k minus the Federal tax credit put final cost at only around $24k, and the 8-year / 100,000 mile warranty—which includes the battery bank—was the tipping point for him.
Mr. Nerud thinks the EV will be a perfect fit for his operation. The EPA estimated average range of the car is 61 miles, but we achieved 75 miles despite some vigorous testing by myself and numerous other staff, instructors and students. Some MiEV owners report 100 miles range if driven carefully. Obviously headlights, heaters and air conditioners greatly affect actual range in any EV.
I snuck out of class during lunch break for a test drive and photo shoot with the MiEV. No smooth, wide test tracks here in Chadron—two miles of bumpy dirt road to reach the paved two-lane highway, then a roller-coaster ride of steep grades up and down through the gorgeous scenery of Pine Ridge south of town.
It's not built for luxury, either. Plastic and vinyl abound inside, though fit and finish were good—this car is placed firmly as the lowest-cost EV on the US market. Tall folks might grimace at first glance before climbing inside, but it's only an illusion, as the interior is surprisingly roomy and quite comfortable for four adults, even tall ones. Various audio systems are available and the one in this car sounded great, with integrated MP3 input.
The controls and gauges are minimalist...in a good way. Does a typical Toyota Prius driver really need to watch an interactive display of energy flow within the car while driving? Personally I'd rather they keep their eyes on the road instead! With the MiEV, the display is simple. When the needle is in the upper reaches of the gauge (in gray), it's showing power drain from the battery. The green part of the gauge indicates power drain at the most efficient rates—use your foot wisely to keep it in the green if you want to extend your range. Below zero on the gauge, the purple range shows regenerative braking that seamlessly charges the battery bank when you take your foot off the accelerator or apply the brake pedal.
There are three modes the driver can choose with the control stick. The "D" mode is the usual, and allows maximum acceleration. The "Eco" mode tries to keep the car in the green at maximum efficiency at all times, limiting acceleration, but giving you full power if you stomp on the pedal. Fine in the city, but drivers will want "D" mode on roads with faster speed limits. The "B" mode is like "D," but puts more emphasis on regenerative braking. It was the perfect setting for EV driving fun on the twisty highway through Pine Ridge, while milking out a bit of extra range for the drive back home, descending steep hills.
Electric vehicles are not usually all that practical in rural areas with long drive mileage, charging systems with limited electrical capacity, and rough dirt roads. But this case is a bit different, with Mr. Nerud's large solar and wind power generation capacity and only a 5-mile drive to town. And he'll be able to schedule the bulk of his charging for sunny and windy days when excess energy from solar and wind would otherwise be wasted.
King Canyon Alternatives thinks that the 2012 Mitsubishi MiEV will be the perfect fit for their business. But when it pulls up on site bearing steaming loaves of fresh brick-oven baked bread and pizza, plus other home-grown, home-cooked treats for hungry customers, all the talk about this new EV will be taking a back seat to the food—at least until after dessert. Then let the talk begin!
Copyright 2012 by Dan Fink
Used with permission.