At 84 and 20 years into retirement, James Brazell of Asheville, North Carolina, has the distinction of being probably the oldest customer for the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid to date. But something far more interesting about him is his background: Brazell retired in 1990 as coordinator of worldwide exploration and production for oil giant Texaco. And he's worried -- let's make that very worried -- about what's happening to the world oil supply.
It's not just that prices at the pump are zooming upward faster than a helium-filled balloon. Brazell speaks from an insider's perspective when he says, "I think we're very close to peak oil," he said. "Production might plateau where we are for a while, maybe a year or two, but then it will start to decline. If demand [especially from China] keeps rising as it has been, the stress point on worldwide production is going to be reached, and that will happen this decade for sure."
Peak oil sites like this one offer more background on the topic, which is sure to polarize any dinner table conversation. You either believe that we're headed for oil disaster or the world is swimming in the stuff, with huge fields awaiting the driller's art. Certainly, as Brazell points out, higher prices offer an incentive for trying to reach supplies previously considered uneconomic for development.
Brazell spent four years as head of Texaco Iran in the run-up to the Islamic Republic, so he knows what it means when turmoil disrupts oil production in Muslim societies. "It's been a topsy-turvy world there since the late 1940s," he said. If you remember your history, you'll recall that Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953, with the help of the CIA's Kermit Roosevelt, after he nationalized the Iranian oil industry.
To keep production running full-tilt to meet rising demand, the world is going to need a steady flow from the Middle East and Africa, Brazell said. "The oil price is very sensitive to the ability to produce," he said, "because supply and demand are so close together -- any disruption can cause prices to spike."
But we're getting away from the Volt, aren't we? Less than 1,000 have been delivered so far, to customers all around the country. Brazell picked his up at the local Chevy dealer, and has had the car for just 10 days. He loves it. "I'm still learning what it can do," he said. "It's a great car, and it meets my needs very well. I'm retired, so I don't do a lot of driving every day and can operate mostly on the electric motor. But if I go to Charlotte to see my teams play it's a 230-mile trip, and I don't have to worry because the gas engine takes away all the battery anxiety. I can hardly tell when the gas engine starts. And I have a 220-volt charger in my garage so I can plug in for two hours and get another 15 to 20 miles of electric range."
Brazell said he's been interested in electric cars since GM brought out its battery car, the EV-1, in 1996. "It didn't have the range of the Volt, but I drove one and thought it was a great car, too," he said.
Consumer Reports offers a negative review of the Volt in its annual April auto issue, pointing out that its electric range is much reduced in cold weather, which also challenges the heating system. It also said that the Volt costs $15,000 more than a Toyota Prius, meaning it will take a long time to earn back that premium through reduced operating costs (the Volt is 5.7 cents per mile in electric mode, and the Prius 6.8 cents as a hybrid).
That's true, but the cold weather issues haven't affected Brazell in Asheville, where he runs the heater in "comfort" mode without much loss of range. It could be that the Volt (and other battery cars) end up much more successful in the Southern and Western states, because they work better there. And, of course, the Volt offers a huge benefit that the Prius, wonderful as it is, can never deliver. For people like Brazell, without long daily commutes, it can be driven as an electric car most, if not all, of the time.
The Volt is a plug-in hybrid, not an "electric car," but it offers EV benefits to many of its owners. And if they're worried about high gas prices, there's a lot of comfort in that.