A complete decarbonization of our lifestyle. It’s a pet dream of mine. The Hokkaido Wilds headquarters (i.e., my apartment here in Sapporo City) is already 100% carbon neutral in terms of the energy it uses. This is thanks to carbon-offset as part of our electricity plan with Shizen Denki (our apartment is 100% electricity).
But our transport still depends on the burning of fossil fuel.
It always feels somewhat paradoxical. Reveling in the beauty and grandeur of Hokkaido’s wild places, but unsustainably burning fossil fuels to get to them.
What if we could access those places without burning fossil fuels? This simple question is what has led us to investigate the feasibility of electric cars for our escapades into the Hokkaido outdoors.
To do that, we’ve been hiring Nissan Leaf cars to test their carbon-efficiency and feasibility for travel here in Hokkaido. In this Part 1 of the series, we hired a 2019 Nissan Leaf 40kWh electric vehicle from Nissan Rent-a-car in Sapporo City (13,090yen for 24 hours).
Hokkaido produces dirty electricity, but even then, a Nissan Leaf 40kWh electric vehicle is at least 25% more carbon-efficient than a similar-sized hybrid vehicle. Fast-charging stations are prevalent in rural areas near Sapporo, but are limited to 30-44kW charging speed max. Winter range is limited to about 150km in a 40kWh Nissan Leaf in Hokkaido.
Car: 2019 Nissan Leaf G 40kWh 2WD
Motor: 147bhp (110kw)
Air temperature: -7°C to -1°C
Start battery level: 85%
Total charging time en route: 45 minutes
Tires: Dunlop WinterMaxx
Passengers: 3 people (including driver)
NISSAN LEAF 2019 40kWh CARBON-EFFICIENCY IN HOKKAIDO
Before getting into the feasibility of driving a 40kWh Nissan Leaf on longer trips to the Hokkaido outdoors, let’s take a look at whether they’re actually better for the environment than other options out there.
Hokkaido’s electricity is dirty
An electric car is only as clean as the power going into it. For Hokkaido, this is not a good thing, because Hokkaido’s electricity is dirty.
Hokkaido Electric Power Company (北海道電力/Hokuden) is the sole electricity producer in Hokkaido. The elephant in the room is that as of 2019, only 14% of energy produced by Hokuden was renewables. For every 1kWh of electricity Hokuden produces, they emit 601g of C02 (source).
If we were to count Hokkaido as one OECD country, it would rank 32 out of 40 in terms of emissions per kilowatt hour (see the OECD comparisons in the figure to the right or below). Hokkaido does better than Australia and China, but worse than most other countries from which overseas visitors to Hokkaido come from.
This is not a great start, and already puts electric cars on the back foot in Hokkaido.
So, is a 40kWh Leaf kind on the environment in Hokkaido?
To answer this question, I used a fantastic tool developed by the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology called Electric or Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle? This tool allows users to compare the lifetime carbon and greenhouse gas emissions of various electric cars versus internal combustion vehicles.
I used this tool to compare two similar sized vehicles: the 2019 Nissan Leaf (40kWh) and the 2017 Toyota C-HR Hybrid. Based on our experiences driving a Nissan Leaf in winter here, we set the battery performance ratio summer/winter parameter to 0.7, meaning a 30% reduction in battery performance in winter (the default is 0.9).
40kWh Nissan Leaf charged only using public chargers (601g of CO2 per kWh)
Using only public charging stations in Hokkaido will mean that your electricity mix will be essentially exactly what Hokuden reports: 601g per kWh. Even then, however, over the lifetime of the vehicle a 40kWh Nissan Leaf has lower CO2 emissions than a Toyota C-HR Hybrid (see the figures below; source). About 25% less emissions than the hybrid C-HR.
Here are the emissions of both cars, expressed in equivalent grams of CO2 per km.
40kWh Nissan Leaf charged on Shizen Denryoku’s SE100 residential electricity plan (0g of CO2 per kWh)
If, in a perfect world, you owned a Nissan Leaf 40kWh and charged it only on your own carbon-credited residential zero-carbon electricity plan, the math tips the scales impressively in the Leaf’s favour. Here is the Nissan Leaf 40kWh vs. Toyota C-HR Hybrid simulation again, now with electricity-mix carbon emissions set at 10g, the lowest it’ll go on the app (source).
The reality, however, is that even on a long daytrip you’ll need to charge your car at some point. So your per-km CO2 emissions will in all likelihood be somewhere in between the 45g to 125g of CO2 per km.
40kWh NISSAN LEAF PRACTICALITY FOR WINTER HOKKAIDO
We’ve established that a 40kWh 2019 Nissan Leaf is at least 25% more greenhouse-gas/carbon efficient than an equivalent-sized hybrid vehicle in Hokkaido. But the 40kWh Nissan Leaf has an EPA-standard range of only 240km. The Toyota C-HR Hybrid has essentially unlimited range with re-fueling taking mere minutes. What about the cold? Does it affect range? Can you drive a two-wheel drive car in Hokkaido in winter?!
We took a 2019 40kWh Nissan Leaf on a 130km daytrip to find out.
Our Route for the Day
WINTER RANGE OF A 40kWh NISSAN LEAF
We’ve found the Leaf’s range estimates to be overly optimistic when it comes to winter driving here in Hokkaido. Realistically, we were getting only about 160km on a full charge, which is about 30% less than the EPA estimate of 240km. Most of that is probably due to the cold temperatures. On this 130km daytrip, we had temperatures ranging from -7°C to -4°C. It didn’t get above freezing for the whole day.
This definitely induced no small degree of range anxiety. We have Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) memberships, which includes complementary roadside assistance. But JAF in Hokkaido doesn’t have mobile charging stations, unlike in other parts of Japan. If you run out of juice in an electric vehicle in Hokkaido, the only option is to get towed.
That said, on this short daytrip from Sapporo City to Yubari City, we were mildly impressed by the charging options available. There weren’t any chargers in Yubari City (pop. 8,612), but not far away in Kuriyama Town (pop. 12,365), we did find a 30kW ChaDemo fast charger outside a Lucky Supermarket. We searched for charging spots on Google Maps – results include charge speed notes.
While we did some shopping and exploring around this small town, we got in 40 minutes of charging, for an extra 18kWh or so of charge. Enough to take the edge off the range anxiety.
In reality though, I do wish for faster chargers. In Hokkaido, the fastest chargers available are 50kW chargers at expressway rest areas. The next-fastest are 44kW chargers at Nissan dealerships, even in very small towns. Then there are 20-30kW chargers dotted around the island. Most large hotels will also offer 200V slow charging for overnight charging (about 3kW).
Even if there were faster chargers, however, the current generation of Nissan Leaf only has air-cooled batteries. This limits the speed at which they can be charged. I’m not sure how much this is an issue in winter at below-freezing ambient temperatures though.
Electric rental cars come with free charging – We’ve been impressed so far with the fact that Nissan Leaf rentals come with a free charging card. Travelers can use these at all ChaDemo EV charging spots. This makes the somewhat higher rental costs more palatable compared with a petrol car.
NISSAN LEAF STORAGE SPACE
The Nissan Leaf is a large hatchback. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s not an SUV, nor is it a people-mover. That said, it has plenty of room for three people plus skis and backcountry day-trip gear, with all of that gear (including skis) stored inside the car. We had room to spare. In reality it would be better to strap the skis to the roof. We’ll post a report on doing that in a 62kWh Leaf in Part 2 in the coming days.
The Nissan Leaf is limited to 2WD. In reality we didn’t have any issues with this at all for the daytrip. There were times when the roads were very icy, but apart from some very minor spinning of the wheels on take-off from traffic lights, this didn’t impact the performance of the car. The Leaf has very good traction control, so there’s very little need to think about working the accelerator. The car came with Dunlop WinterMaxx snow tires.
That said, in a Leaf, we still haven’t experienced everything that Hokkaido roads can throw at drivers in winter. We’ve ploughed through considerable snow depths in the mighty Honda Elysion (Chris’s beast of a 4WD V6 3.0 litre people-mover). We look forward to putting a Leaf through that some time in the future too. For research sakes, we are fully committed to one day getting a 2WD Nissan Leaf properly stuck.
As for actual performance of the car…well…it’s an electric vehicle. Acceleration is stupidly fast (when not in Eco mode). It is an awesomely responsive vehicle. The ride is harsher than the plush magic carpet that is the Honda Elysion, but…oh the acceleration.
Keep tuned for Part 2, coming soon, where we drive a 62kWh Nissan Leaf at temperatures down to -25°C.