Ten years ago, I decided to get rid of all machines, motors and engines that were powered by fossil fuels. At the time, I was driving an old petrol-guzzling Renault Kangoo and felt a pang of conscience each time I ate a piece of meat. Some of my colleagues were buying new cars at that point. Thinking about what I could do with my money, I decided to become independent, to liberate myself from the constraints of a society running on fossil fuels. I made a fundamental decision and didn’t buy a new car. Instead, I simply carried on driving my badly dented old banger, manufactured back in 1998, right into the year 2015 (880,000 km). I didn’t care what people were saying about me behind my back. The first thing I did was invest in 40 solar panels placed in two solar trackers that produced their own clean electricity from morning to evening. Whirring away very quietly, they transformed sunlight into electricity. While I was lying in my hammock reading a book, the solar modules were working for me, producing three times more energy than all of us were using in the house. I was even able to sell the excess energy. That was the first step. From then on, I began to feel a bit better.
The never-ending test drive
My goal was clearly defined. I wanted to become climate-neutral. From the beginning, I knew where my decisions would take me, and I was also aware that I myself would have to evolve. And if I wasn’t able to achieve this in one step, then I would have to take lots of small ones. Five years later, I took the second step and purchased an electric car, deciding on a Renault Zoe. My footprint continued to shrink. I was determined that the silent car should have a minimum range of 250 km, and for me it was important to be able to charge its battery using green energy that I myself had produced. My 40 solar panels were already raring to go. I had been waiting for a vehicle like this since 2010. The automobile industry, however, hadn’t quite got there yet. I had to wait five years before I was able to afford the car, and another five years before the cost of its production was paid for in ecological terms: ZERO emissions both from the car itself, and from my own mobility. After completing 75,000 km with this car, travelling all over Portugal and neighbouring Spain, I am now taking the liberty of writing a test-drive report. Because driving that many kilometres in an electric car gives you a level of experience that you can really write about. And there are some more secrets that I’ll reveal a bit later.
But, first, let’s look at the myths. Electric cars are supposed to be climate-friendly, journalists say, which is why the car industry is investing billions. This statement is wrong. Renault makes money with its electric cars. Environmental friendliness is not discussed: it’s a quality that you possess and display – or not, as the case may be. The rest is greenwashing. Cars are not environmentally friendly and never will be. Renault has been making money for a hundred years with petrol-driven and diesel-fuelled cars; now they are doing the same thing with electric cars, hoping that they will be well placed to continue their journey in the future. One generation follows the next: that’s the way it is. This transition process is excruciatingly slow. The demand for electric cars is always greater than the supply. This means that, mentally, customers are already way ahead of manufacturers. You have to wait some time for your electric car because there are many petrol-driven cars still being produced. This is why delivery takes so long.
Nowadays, people are showing ever greater concern about human rights and the protection of the environment. Many of the raw materials needed to make the batteries are produced under precarious conditions: child labour is used to extract cobalt in the Congo; the toxic slag is polluting the environment; the profits are used to finance wars. In order to produce lithium, people living near salt lakes are literally having their water supplies swept from under their feet. ECO123 has already reported on a British consortium’s plans to mine for lithium in northern Portugal. Nearly every time, the looting of Mother Earth’s resources involves some form of environmental crime. Isn’t investing in an electric car better than purchasing a vehicle that runs on fossil fuels? Everyone has to discover their own answer to this question.
If you are considering buying an electric car, then, whatever you do, don’t buy a plug-in. This is a complete waste of time and money. But let’s return once more to the minerals that are used, the so-called rare earths. In the future, European car manufacturers hope to source both of these key minerals only from certified mining. Will this happen? By doing so, they say, they are going beyond the OECD guidelines, which largely relate to social issues. I am curious. In order to also minimise the environmental risks of mining raw materials, the European manufacturers have raised the bar in terms of the standards required in the auditing of mines. Suppliers are now required to respect the mining standards of IRMA (Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance). ‘In the future, we will only work with suppliers who agree to these guidelines,’ says the head of Renault, Luca de Meo (not to be confused with the telecommunications provider with the same name). Much more important than the certification, however, should be the recycling of the battery. When I researched this question, none of the Renault dealers were able to give me any definitive, clear and authoritative information as to what a car owner should do with a battery that is already past its lifespan. When you purchase an electric car, ask the dealer to state in writing that not only can you return the battery, but also that you will be paid its salvage value when it has reached the end of its useful life. The minerals that it uses are very valuable. Or you can just simply rent your battery. The Renault portfolio includes this option for you.
So, I remember my first long drive with the Renault ZOE: from Monchique to Idanha-a-Nova, and then to Coimbra, continuing on to Lousã, and then back to the Algarve. Do you want the full story or should I keep it brief? I always carry a normal charging cable with me, so that I can charge my EV at any regular power point in hotels, restaurants, at friends’ places, etc. One habit I’ve lost, however, is driving at speed. A little while ago, a student asked me how I’d managed to come to terms with the slower speed of my movements. I remembered the electric car, which I used as my example to explain this to him. You become calmer, slower, more zen. While the electric engine powers up the car extremely quickly, providing drivers with an enormous sense of security when overtaking, a lot of patience is required whenever you charge your vehicle from an electric socket. I normally use this time to go and have a coffee. When I’m visiting Lisbon or Porto, however, I use the train. I drive my electric car to the station and then continue my journey in comfort on the Alfa Pendular or Intercity.
My ZOE ZEN is an electric car that I will drive for a long time – for as long as it continues to work, anyway. So far, the ZOE has only let me down three times in five years, on each occasion relating to problems with the battery-charging mechanism. Those, however, were just teething troubles, and Renault provided me with a replacement car while the ZOE was being repaired at its workshop in Lisbon. In southern Portugal, there are no garages equipped with the facilities needed for the repair and maintenance of electric cars. Why not, I ask? When I bought the car, I was given a five-year guarantee; those five years are coming to an end now. On the way to the festival at Idanha-A-Nova, I spent several nights on campsites and charged the car from the electric supply point belonging to the space where I’d pitched my tent. No problem at all. When the battery starts to drain more quickly, I automatically slow down, which extends the battery life and increases the car’s range, providing me with extra kilometres. An electric car behaves rather like a Perpetuum Mobile. While I’m driving, the battery recharges a little. At some point, as I trundle along, the cars behind me start sounding their horns. But I don’t care. In this way, the car becomes even more frugal. My average consumption stands at ten kw/h per 100 km. That is actually quite sensational, as, like this, if I charge my car overnight (using the special day/night tariff offered by the green energy provider Coopernico), then 100 kilometres of travel only costs me 90 cents. It all has to do with the electric vehicle’s operating mode: comparing the five years that I’ve spent driving the ZOE with the petrol-driven Renault Kangoo that I used to drive, then over these five years I have saved 2,000 euros a year, while covering the same number of kilometres. I drive about 15,000 km per year, for which I pay a grand total of 135 euros. This is without factoring in the fact that there is no need for oil changes, as well as the other savings compared to a fossil-fuel car.
What bothers me most about Renault is the expensive cost of their inspections. Toyota offers free inspections for the first 75,000 km. In this instance, Renault should really take a leaf out of Toyota’s book. In five years, I’ve already spent 500 euros on inspections with Renault. My other concern with the ZOE is the roof truss that it has for supporting vertical loads, situated on the left side of the windscreen. Here the designer has truly dropped a clanger. While you’re driving, the truss gets in the way every time you enter a bend or want to turn off. It takes away half of your field of vision, because it’s simply too wide. Another thing Renault should improve is the seats of the ZOE; the headrests cannot be set up individually. Each of the headrests should be adaptable to the height of the driver or passenger. As for the legroom, with four passengers, it’s satisfactory, but, with five people aboard, it becomes problematic. The electric car’s road handling feels very safe indeed. The batteries are kept under the front seats, which provides greater stability. The hardness of the bumpers is just right for this car.
As for the charging process, six months ago I applied for a card from a small, but friendly service company, receiving it three days later. The whole business was conducted without any great bureaucracy or trouble. The name of the company is https://factorenergia.pt. They are based on the beautiful island of Madeira and I recommend them very highly. It’s a good service provided by friendly people. My card has a small three-digit number. There can’t be that many electric cars over there yet. So, do spread the word. At some point, before the end of the festival in Idanha-a-Nova, I drove west for quite a long time from the east of Portugal and arrived quite late at night in Coimbra, where two friends were patiently waiting for me, together with my best friend Max. With the 24kWh battery, I had managed to do 263 km, which I would say is a record. I arrived at the fast-charging station with my very last drop of power in the tank. Then we drove into the mountains, parked the car and went hiking. Nothing can beat walking through the mountains, surrounded by age-old chestnuts, in a forest near Lousã. All the while, my ZOE was recharging at an electric socket, getting ready for new adventures…