Saturday, September 6, 2014

Commentary: Electric Cars in the Adirondacks

VoltOur 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.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

18 Responses

  1. southcove says:

    Interesting, nicely written. Surprising to see, but welcomed… I wonder what winter will bring re the new car.

  2. Alan Jones says:

    How does the Chevy Volt do in the winter at 20 below in heating the cabin? Or haven’t you driven it in the winter yet?

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    Ah, winter is the question, though for me not the temperatures as much as how it handles. I haven’t driven in the winter yet, which is why there will be a follow-up article in January or so.

    However I did my due diligence. People I talked to said handling in snow and ice is very good because of the weight of the car and the low center of gravity, both courtesy of the battery. Plus the direct electric drive is high torque and low spin.

    Clearance is an issue, something I will be covering next week.

    As to cabin comfort, I talked to owners here in Wisconsin where we get plenty cold. These cars are smartly designed with respect to cabin temperatures and work quite well. You have to keep your car plugged in when not driving (you want to anyhow) because in cold temps the car uses grid power to cycle warmed fluid through the battery to protect it and keep it in a more optimal range for operation. Also, the cars all have precondition features that operate from grid power, pre-warming the cabin for ten minutes before you get in.

    The Volt has heated seats and uses them to help precondition the cabin, then keep you warm with less cabin climate heating, as heated seats are more efficient than forced air.

    I’ve heard no complaints about Volt comfort, only complaints about reduced battery range. But all cars, gas or electric, lose a lot of efficiency in winter temps. In fact gas engines generally lose more effiicency. You just can’t beat those laws of thermodynamics.

    We’ll see!

  4. Dean cook says:

    Good work Pete for doing a electric car test for all of us who have been (like you) waiting for an electric car. You are right tesla is the
    Gold standard for electrics. Word on the street they will be coming out with a less expensive model next year. Stay tuned. Also like you I own a subaru (actually 2). And really Like the 4 wheel drive, which may be the real reason I don’t own an EC . We all will be waiting for the winter performance report on the Volt. Dean

  5. Paul says:

    ” You have to keep your car plugged in when not driving (you want to anyhow) because in cold temps the car uses grid power to cycle warmed fluid through the battery to protect it and keep it in a more optimal range for operation.”

    This is a tough one for some. I have an off grid place and I don’t have a plug there. If you want to go hike or camp or fish for a week or two this seems like a problem.

    My Honda Hybrid seems to work well in cold weather and with the snow tires I have it is great. This car with all the batteries might be heavy so maybe good in the snow compared to a similar size traditional car.

    On this one I don’t like the fact it only has two seats in the back. Pete is the newer ones still like that?

  6. Paul says:

    The Civic Hybrid I have sucks as far as clearance goes. I am always smashing the bottom but it seems to hold up.

  7. Hawthorn says:

    I imagine the Volt should be able to handle overnight cold soaking at 30+ below zero, assuming the gas engine starts, and you should have plenty of battery for that. Or, are its batteries not good at very cold temps? Still, unfortunately they are only for the rich as you will never save enough on fuel to pay for the initial cost, depreciation, etc. I imagine resale won’t be good after ten or 20 years as the batteries will be completely shot and would cost more than a used car to replace. I drive a 19-year old car with close to 200K miles. There is nothing cheaper than purchasing an old car cheap and driving it into the ground.

    • Paul says:

      Better make sure the 19 year old car has a good battery if you leave it for a few nights at 30 below!

  8. Hawthorn says:

    Further reading indicates the high-voltage battery electrolyte will freeze with prolonged cold temperatures and therefore the electronics won’t let you start the car until it has been plugged in for awhile in order to warm up the batteries. In other words, don’t leave your car for several nights at an Adirondack trailhead in the dead of winter!

    • Paul says:

      You could bring a generator and a bunch of gas and leave a sign on it for other hikers to “add gas please”!

      When I bought our hybrid new in 2007 I worried about all that sort of stuff resale etc. The car has 125K and never had a single problem (zero) still going strong and I am sure would be a cinch to sell. (of course it is a Honda and not a Chevy!)

      Like Hybrids electric cars will maybe become popular at some point. Toyota was laughed at for the Prius since they lost so much money selling them. Now they are making out like bandits.

      The power for the electric car mainly comes from burning coal that is really the green issue.

      Hydrogen fuel cell cars will be an issue up north since the fuel freezes at 32F.

      • Pete Nelson says:

        The statement about coal is not true. That’s one of the beautiful things, Paul. Almost all the energy we use to power our car is renewable. When you are a consumer of electricity you have more choices than when you are a consumer of gasoline, where all of it is sucked from the Earth with tons of equipment and refined with loads of chemicals and emissions and so forth. Our home power is 100% green, therefore when we charge at home it’s all green too. The charging stations in Madison are 100% green as well, all powered by wind farms. I believe the one charging station in the park, at the Wild Center, is green as well. I’d say 3-5% of our charges so far have not been green.

        Bottom line: electric cars are as responsible in electricity consumption as you are. No matter what it’s better than gas, but it can be nearly all renewable if you plan that way and make those choices yourself.

        • Paul says:

          Pete, I wasn’t talking about your car specifically. Electricity to power most electric cars comes mainly from burning coal. Hopefully that is changing but for now it is still “mainly” from coal.

          39% as of 2013:

          67% from fossil fuels.

          Don’t get me wrong the 38 miles someone can drive these type of cars on electricity cuts down on some emissions for sure.

          But your point on “choice” is well taken.

  9. Paul says:

    Pete did you buy in NYS so you could get the tax incentive? Hawthorn these cars are not only for the rich they start under 30K. I mean unless cars like the Honda Civic and the like are only for the rich?

    • Hawthorn says:

      Chevy Volt, MSRP $34,170. Sure, some people are eligible for a big tax credit, assuming you make enough to get the full $7500 credit. Maybe “rich” was a little extreme, but my basic point is they are not an economical choice for most people that don’t owe enough taxes in the first place to get the full income tax credit and will never save enough on fuel to make up the difference. Plus, you have to buy new to get the credit, meaning higher insurance, taxes, etc. A lot of resources and energy are used to build a new car, and those batteries involve a lot of toxic stuff. Batteries have a finite life–all batteries. I wouldn’t touch a used 2007 hybrid or electric with a 10-foot pole unless someone else was going to pay for the new batteries that will be needed. There are tradeoffs.

  10. Hawthorn says:

    From what I read Prius batteries are guaranteed for 10 years, and then cost around $3000 to replace. I’ve seen some estimates that the Volt battery will cost around $8000.

  11. Dean cook says:

    Hawthorn, etc. There is something to be said for doing the right thing for the planet , your kids, grand kids, and other life forms. If money is your only reason for doing something then I think a priority check is in order.

    • Hawthorn says:

      Sure, but a lot of us simply can’t afford it. Cars are expensive enough as it is. By the way, I walk to work, commuted by bicycle for years, had compact fluourescent bulbs and now LED lights before most, and live in a tiny house compared to most. Homes are a huge energy waster too. Have you downsized your home? That would save a ton of energy and money. There are lots of things you can do for the environment that are not only affordable by the well off.

  12. Jim Craft says:

    Thanks for the thorough thoughts, Pete.

    I’ve been considering the Volt to get my wife out of a 2007 Cobalt (took months to get a new switch; thanks, GM!…you should be guaranteeing trade-in value for the survivors). My first choice was a Prius but she has a City commute that would be all-electric and her Dad worked at GM (nice employee discount).

    I own a 2006 Civic Hybrid; still strong and generally happy after 170K and I figure I saved $25K over 7 years (~ 45 MPG vs high teens for my truck) plus lots of emissions avoided. So I have the money to buy another hybrid.

    I get the argument about buying used and driving into the ground; I’ve done it much of my life (and still driving into the ground). But the peace of mind of reliability of a new car (and avoiding lying in the slush in Feb. fixing whatever) and a tiny help for the planet with a hybrid seems worth it.

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