In September, 2020 I began a 24-month lease on a 2020 Nissan LEAF, a fully electric vehicle (EV). Since then, I’ve navigated the somewhat challenging, but ultimately rewarding combination of living off the grid and driving an electric vehicle. In this article, I’ll share my experiences with my EV and offer suggestions on living off the grid with an electric vehicle.
Before leasing, I had spoken with several friends that were also LEAF drivers, and I was impressed with their reviews of the car itself, and also the affordability of the lease, especially when compared to my older gas vehicle, whose repair and maintenance costs were challenging my budget.
When I began my lease, we were days away from moving into our off the grid yurt and homestead, so I knew I would need to be very creative about keeping my electric vehicle (EV) charged. However, when I looked to the internet world, I found very few references to charging an electric car while living off the grid, and few personal accounts of the pros and cons. I decided to take a leap of faith and trust that I could make it work out.
Electric Vehicle Range
My 2020 Nissan LEAF SV has a (fully charged) range of 150 ish miles in ideal conditions. The efficiency/range of EVs is affected by factors such as driving habits, driving conditions, and most significant for Vermont, hot or cold temperatures.
In the winter months, I typically experienced an average range of 100 miles on a full charge. This came as no surprise to me, as I had read that one might expect to see a decrease in up to 50% range in the winter months. But it is an important factor in deciding if an EV is for you, particularly if charging at home is a challenge.
A note: Because I had a very specific monthly budget for my lease, I opted for the LEAF SV, which comes with a smaller range. There are electric vehicles with a greater range on the market. For example, the 2021 Nissan SV plus has a 215 mile range, and the 2021 Chevy Bolt has a 259 mile range.
How to Charge an Electric Vehicle
In the EV world, there are what are known as Level 1, 2, and 3 chargers. Level 1 is a 120 volt charge that comes from your average, everyday home outlet. Level 2 is a faster charge that comes from a 240 volt source, and Level 3 chargers are “fast charging” stations that are very useful for road trips!
Many EV drivers will purchase and have an electrician install a Level 2 charger. If you have such a set up, you can expect to plug your vehicle in before bed and wake up with a mostly or fully charged vehicle. An EV plugged into a Level 1 charger, on the other hand, may take 24-30 hours to charge.
We do not have a Level 2 charger at home, so all of my home EV charging is done with a regular old extension cord plugged into our solar electric system (Level 1).
Living Off the Grid and Charging an EV
Before leasing my EV I had visions of plugging into my off grid power and charging my car – for free! – with just the power of the sun. The reality, in winter months especially, is a bit different.
I’m going to be honest: If you live completely off the grid, particularly if you power your home with solar electricity, keeping your electric vehicle charged may be challenging. I’m not going to say impossible, but it may require some pre-planning and creative thinking.
Let me set the stage: We live in Central Vermont, at about a 44 degree latitude. Our PV system consists of nine 310 watt panels, with electricity stored in two Eclipse 48 v batteries. From November to February we occasionally needed to use a generator to supplement our solar power.
However, with the increase in day length, come February, our generator use decreased significantly, and by March, we had virtually no need for a generator. On a beautiful sunny day, our home’s battery bank is fully charged by mid-day.
On sunny days, I can easily plug my electric vehicle into our home solar electric, and charge for several hours, while still filling our home battery bank to 100%.
Starting in March (and I expect, through September or mid-October), charging at home is mostly fun, free, and easy! Plugged into my home outlet, my car gets about 6 miles of charge per hour.
However, on cloudy days, or during the months of November, December, and January, there just isn’t a surplus of electricity with which to charge my car. I have to rely on the public network of charging stations to make EV ownership work.
How Public Charging Stations Fit Into My EV Charging Strategy
Fortunately, Central Vermont has a relatively robust network of public charging stations, some free, some fee-based. Most are Level 2, but there is one Level 3 (fast) charging station at my credit union.
While the Level 3 charger is the most expensive way to charge my EV, for convenience sake, it is the charging station I use most often.
I use a few apps to track local charging stations’ locations and availability. And I plan my trips to town to include a charge.
The Five EV Charging Apps That I Use
While at my dance class or other weekly appointments, I plug in at a public charger downtown. If I am driving past the Level 3 charger, I might stop for a half hour to top off my battery.
Yes, this can be inconvenient. Yes, it does require a lot of thinking and planning. No, I’m not prone to jumping in my car and taking spontaneous trips.
This summer I took a road trip with the kids to a destination about 4.5 hours from my home in Central Vermont. I mapped out my charging stops in advance, using the PlugShare app.
I found several Level 3 charging stations in spots that would make for convenient rest stops, a Whole Foods grocery store and an Antique Mall among them!
I anticipated the extra time this trip would take – about 6.5 hours instead of 4.5 – and approached it with a spirit of adventure. We were lucky – we never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a charging spot to open up!
Would I Recommend an Electric Car for Off Grid Living?
I admit that I have a tendency to overlook how challenging things might be when I really want them. (Case in point, building a second homestead from scratch!)
I am very, very passionate about my electric vehicle. I love the way the LEAF drives. I love how quiet the car is, how there is no smell of exhaust, and no maintenance aside from topping the windshield wash fluid. I love using our solar panels to charge the car for free.
I was recently talking to a good friend who is considering an electric vehicle. She lives on the grid and rarely travels further than 200 miles from home.
I 100% recommend an EV in this situation.
If you have the ability to install a Level 2 charger at your home, if you have access to a gas vehicle that you could use for longer trips, or if you’re willing to occasionally rent a gas vehicle, I wouldn’t hesitate to lease or purchase an EV. (Although, with technology changing so rapidly, I’m sticking with a lease for the near future.)
But what about my fellow off-gridders?
For you I will give my favorite answer: It depends.
- How sunny is your home?
- How large is your PV system?
- How much do you travel by car?
- Do you have access to a charging station at work?
- Do you live in a very cold or very hot climate that may reduce your range?
- Are you willing to THINK about using your car?
Perhaps that is the biggest question. Are you willing to think about your car use?
If you already live off the grid, you already monitor systems as a habit. The planning and forethought that an EV may require is probably second nature to you.
However, if you need or want your car to be effortless, and if you travel long distances regularly, an EV may not be for you. Perhaps a plug-in hybrid EV would be a better choice.
Even if charging at home is easy, the public charging infrastructre may not yet be adequate for your needs. Consider downloading an app like PlugShare and mapping out your usual trips to see what your charging options are. You may find that a robust public charging network exists exactly where you like to travel.
If you’re considering buying or leasing an electric vehicle, and live off the grid, I hope this account of my experience is useful. And I welcome your questions in the comments!