The devastating March earthquake and tsunami in Japan is still fresh in our minds, and there’s still a lot of work to be done as the rebuilding continues. But where debris and images of the disastrous event may weigh on minds and hearts, signs of hope have sprung in the form of Mitsubishi i-MiEVs and Nissan Leafs.
How exactly did two battery-electric vehicles marketed as environmentally conscious city cars see major service as disaster-relief workhorses? The answer is pretty elementary. In the event of a natural disaster in urbanized areas, maintaining properly working civil infrastructure is a monumental task for local governments. Barring catastrophic damage, piped water and electricity are two major utilities that should quickly return to service. On the other hand, keeping gas stations brimming with fuel can be a logistical nightmare due to stifled travel and rubble-ridden roads.
Here’s where Mitsubishi and Nissan enter frame. The automakers’ respective EVs -- the i-MiEV and Leaf -- were pressed in to recovery effort service in the numerous affected areas. They wouldn’t be used for heavy lifting but for duties including shuttling supplies and refugees. In all, Mitsubishi dispatched 89 i-MiEVs (to be simply called “i” in the U.S.) to various prefectures impacted by the earthquake/tsunami.
Japan’s electrical outlets instantly found extensive use. Whether it was through the standard single-phase 100-volt outlet, higher-rated 200-volt, or a DC fast charger (generically between 300-500 volts), i-MiEVs and Nissan Leafs were taking as much electricity as they could add. In the city of Sendai, the electric cars congregated at city hall each night to charge the batteries before venturing back out for another day’s work. On average, the cars are being driven 30-45 miles per day, well within either EV’s battery range.
“There was almost no gas at the time, so I was extremely thankful when I heard about the offer,” Tetsuo Ishii told the New York Times, a division chief in Sendai’s environmental department. “If we hadn’t received the cars, it would have been very difficult to do what we needed to.”
Mitsubishi and Nissan aren’t alone in sending EVs. Other cities have loaned affected areas their own electric cars in hopes of aiding relief work. One of the city of Soja’s i-MiEVs took four days to make the 600-mile trek to the Tohoku region.
Japan’s electrical grid is heavily dependent on petroleum-powered generation (around 45 percent according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration) but the cost to recharge is still relatively cheap compared to a gallon of gas. According to the New York Times, a DC fast charge at a Nissan dealership costs around 500 yen, or $6.19 according to current currency exchange rates. A conventional overnight charge via AC outlet is 100 yen ($1.24), though the NYT article didn’t specify the vehicle being charged nor a kilowatt-hour amount added. But strictly for comparison, a gallon of gas in Japan would be around $7.