Our most recent time in the Adirondacks had an interesting dimension for Amy and me. In early August, right at the height of our busy performing season – during which we are almost constantly on the road – our beloved Subaru WRX blew its engine. Thrillingly for us it was just out of warranty, guaranteeing that the curve to fix it, both in time and money, would be a long and brutal one. Having an immediate need to hit the highway for several weeks straight, we were faced with three choices: rent (ouch), buy a used car and hope for the best, or buy a new car.
The only sure option was the last one and although it was a financial obligation we’d rather not have taken, it presented us with an opportunity to take the plunge a few years earlier than planned on a long-term dream we have harbored: to own an electric car. So we did our research, selected a brand, test drove a demo, measured the trunk length with the seats down (very important for professional stilt walkers), miraculously secured credit approval and bought ourselves a Chevy Volt.
Our first week on the road was to a county fair in Wisconsin. That proved successful when the Volt surprisingly managed to accommodate a couple hundred pounds of gear and costumes just as well as the Subaru. But the real test was coming: how would an electric car fare in the mountainous, expansive Adirondacks, on a variety of roads and under a variety of conditions? After all, we will be moving to the region soon; this new car must be a practical, capable choice for circumstances not usually associated with electric cars. After two weeks all over the park, we have an answer.
We thought we’d share our experiences with readers, for surely we must not be the only people around who savor the thought of driving through our beloved Forest Preserve without a tailpipe. We imagine that those of you who would covet an electric car for its environmental and aesthetic benefits have wondered if it is a practical choice in a large, rural region that lacks a population of electric cars and the infrastructure to support them. Our answer is an enthusiastic yes, though we have some caveats.
In Part One of this three part series we’ll look at some background and options for electric cars in the Adirondacks. In Part Two we’ll share our personal experience driving an electric car extensively throughout the park. In Part Three I’ll talk about whether an electric car is as good a deal as it seems and how to make it a better and more practical option in the Adirondacks. I’m excited for Part Three because there is a clear and effective path to do so that we all can implement ourselves.
Electric Car Options
Electric cars vary a great deal in range, performance and features. Since I happen to own a Volt I will talk more specifically about it, however in doing so I don’t mean to endorse it over any other electric car. The industry acknowledges that virtually all the electric cars on the market are solid, high-quality designs. Comparisons aside, I will say this much: as a demanding owner and driver I love the Volt. It is exceeding my expectations in almost every way.
The first question in people’s minds is undoubtedly about range, as living in the Adirondacks entails driving long distances. Is an electric car a reasonable or even safe choice when a day’s “commuting” might easily exceed a hundred miles? The answer depends largely upon what type of electric car you buy. The other three major factors are how you drive, the weather conditions and how willing and able you are to plan a charging strategy. I will discuss those factors in Part Two of this series.
There are lots of “electric” or “EV” or “plug-in hybrid” cars and the terminology used in the consumer world is not standard, therefore sorting it out can be confusing. Let’s first distinguish between hybrids – the Toyota Prius being the classic example – and all the other choices. Hybrids use both electricity and gas but require gas in order to run. There is no option to plug the vehicle in and run off power obtained from the electrical grid. We’ll leave hybrids out of the discussion from here as they are already well accepted as mainstream vehicles and they offer a different value proposition than electric cars.
In the remaining field there are two main categories: cars that are pure electric – no gas engine – and cars that have both electric motors and gas engines. Either category of car is a “plug-in:” you literally plug them into an electrical source and charge them up. The ones with gas engines can switch to gas as needed – more on that later. However unlike hybrids, gas usage in these models is not a requirement. Indeed if your driving needs are modest you may never use gasoline at all. The Volt has technology to measure if the gas in its modest nine gallon tank has aged too much, a necessary feature because many Volt owners go more than a year without refilling.
So is it reasonable to operate a pure electric car in the Adirondacks? I don’t think so… at least not yet. There are two big problems with a pure electric option.
First, the necessary range just isn’t there. The Nissan Leaf, the most mainstream pure electric car, is by all accounts a great vehicle. But its range is 70 – 80 miles under the best conditions. That’s not enough for Adirondack commuting. Not only that, those numbers comprise the top end of a highly variable spectrum. A winter drive from Saint Huberts up through the Cascade Pass to Lake Placid in below-zero temperatures will get nowhere near that kind of range, inviting the experience of a new term in the American lexicon: range anxiety. In a pure electric vehicle once the battery is drained you are done. Thus if you’re halfway between Tupper Lake and Long Lake in cold weather with big hills ahead and a plummeting battery life, range anxiety will be an acute experience.
This brings us to our second problem, a lack of infrastructure. The only way to get a pure electric car back on the road is to get to a plug and stay there for a while. Any well-grounded outlet will do but as we all know well-grounded outlets don’t grow like trees around every bend in the Adirondacks. If you are far from an outlet you are going to be in a world of hurt.
Once you secure an outlet you must be prepared to wait a long time. An hour at an average 120 volt power source will give you roughly three miles of battery range – not much. A full charge is an overnight deal. Level 2 Chargers – high voltage charging stations designed to power up electric vehicles much more quickly, are still a proposition measured in hours. Not only that, currently there is only one Level 2 charging station in the entire park, at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. Even state-of-the-art DC Fast chargers (which are not yet standardized and which are quite hard to find) cannot, at half-an-hour, come remotely close to the convenience of gassing up a car in three minutes.
Tesla Motors, the gold standard in pure electric cars, offers the Model S which has a range of more than two hundred miles. But be prepared to pony up $70,000 for it (I’ve read that the battery array to give it that kind of range costs $35,000 by itself). Plus in my world of Adirondack driving, even two hundred miles would not always avoid range anxiety. Tesla has been installing super chargers across the country that can reload their cars’ batteries in less than 30 minutes, however currently the closest such charger to the Adirondacks is just outside Albany. We’re still early on the mainstream electric car curve.
That leaves electric cars with gas engines, our Chevy Volt being a typical example of that approach. These vehicles eliminate range anxiety, since one always has another option even if the battery is drained. The switch from battery to gas is seamless: executable on the fly either automatically or at your command.
The combined gas and electric range of these cars is comparable to any other car on the road. In fact I have discovered that if I drive my Volt carefully my total range is nearly 500 miles, significantly more than my Subaru. Being that Amy and I might drive as many as a thousand miles in single day, this kind of electric car was the only option for us.
The big differentiator among electric-gas cars is battery range. Toyota makes a Prius plug-in, but it can only go about six miles on battery alone. The Ford C-Max Energi can go 20-25 miles on battery. The Chevy Volt is rated in the high 30’s, though my practical experience (heavily dependent upon driving style) is about 50 miles per charge.
A battery range of forty or fifty miles starts to make a real difference for all but the most hard-core daily long-distance drivers. The Chevy Volt’s gas engine does not have as good a mileage rating as a Prius, but even though Amy and I have had to rely upon the gas engine more than we’d like, having already put 4,000 miles on the car in a month, our primary use of the battery has meant that our lifetime mpg blows a hybrid out of the water.
The bottom line is that electric-gas plug-in cars theoretically fit the Adirondack world just fine. They are as drivable as any gas car; one’s mileage is then simply a matter of how much one is able to use the battery versus the gas engine.
However we all know that theory is different than practice. How does a battery powered car actually perform in our mountainous region? How much battery life can one really get in such conditions? Is the measly 1.4 liter gas engine able to deliver enough power on the steep climbs? Is there any way to practically charge the car in our region?
We put our Volt through heavy duty Adirondack paces for two weeks. Next week I’ll share our results.
Photo: our Volt charged up and ready to rock.