Mid winter is the wonderful time of year when I wake up every morning wondering if I need to shovel snow. To be honest, I don’t mind the chore when I have the time to do it. I do mind that its work that I wouldn’t have to do if my household wasn’t reliant on a car. I’m thankful, though, that we made the move away from gas guzzlers. Our primary vehicles are my bicycles and an electric car.
You’ve probably seen the marketing campaigns for electric vehicles (EV) or a charging station along a highway. But given that EVs still represent a small portion of cars on the road then maybe you haven’t spoken to anyone who owns or drives one. As one such person, please allow me to share some of the advantages and frustrations of electric vehicles.
My wife and I purchased a Chevy Bolt in 2019 when we lived in western Washington. She had an unreasonably long commute, her 2011 Subaru Forester wasn’t as efficient with gas compared to its youth, and gas had been hovering around $3.50 per gallon or higher at the time. Plus, the climate and pollution impacts of its internal combustion engines wasn’t something that I could ignore anymore. I did some basic math and found that driving an EV would be far less expensive than driving her Forester. We made the purchase and haven’t looked back. (BTW, we still own the gas guzzler, but we’ve hardly driven it in the last three years.)
We plug in the EV at home at our convenience and only need to consider using a commercial charging station on trips more than 200 miles. There’s no engine oil or transmission fluid to worry about. In fact, the only liquid I’ve ever given the car has been for the windshield washer. The Bolt has an approximately 65 kw battery* and we pay about $0.16 per kilowatt-hour for electricity so it costs us $10.50 to fully charge the car. Its range in summer is about 300 miles. In winter, it’s closer to 250 or 200 miles depending on how cold the air temperature is and how much we need to run the heat and defroster (more on that later).
*The battery’s true capacity might be a little less than this it’s but definitely above 60 kilowatts.
To compare that to a gas-powered car, let’s buy 3 gallons of gas at $3.50 per gallon, which is $10.50, exactly what it would cost us to fully charge the Bolt from a near dead battery. A gas car would need to get 67 miles per gallon to equal the Bolt’s charging cost when the batteries provide 200 miles of driving range. A gas car would need to get 100 miles per gallon to equal the Bolt over 300 miles. That’s just money, though, not true efficiency. A battery-powered car is able to apply more than 60% of its energy under ideal conditions toward propelling the vehicle. An internal combustion engine in a car is remarkably inefficient, using only 12-30% of its energy to move a vehicle forward.
Overall, the Bolt is quiet, clean (there are no emissions), and far cheaper to use than the Forester, yet we’ve never taken it on an extended trip until recently. In late November and early December 2022, my wife and I drove from northern Maine to Pittsburgh to Cleveland and back. We knew that we’d need a little more patience and time to get where we wanted to go.
Nov. 23: Home to Augusta, Maine
Distance: ~200 miles.
Northern Maine is a bit of a EV charging station desert. Even Tesla, which has an extensive charging network for their vehicles, only has one charging station north of Bangor currently.
We’ve made the mistake of almost running out of juice a couple of times returning home from central and southern Maine. It’s a bit alarming when the car no longer tells you an estimated range, starts beeping warnings, and flashes a low battery warning light. Thankfully, there’s no worry for us today. We leave home with a full charge and the weather cooperates with above freezing air temperatures. After 200 miles of mostly interstate driving, we use a high capacity (level 3) ChargePoint charger for about 45 minutes south of Augusta to push the battery up to about 66%.
This being the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a lot of people were on the road. At the Gardiner rest stop on I-95, there are four L3 chargers, but only two were working reliably that evening and both were occupied when we arrived. We wait about a half hour for a space at a working charger. This turned out to be a prologue. High demand and too few working chargers would be a repeated frustration over the next several days of travel. It wasn’t the waiting that was the issue, necessarily, but waiting, instead, simply because the charging stations aren’t working.
Nov. 25 Augusta, Maine to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Distance: ~250 miles.
During the past day and half, we mooched electricity from a regular wall outlet at my in-laws to top off the car’s battery. Starting the day fully charged, we drive south. At the Kittery rest stop just north of the Maine/New Hampshire border, one of the level 3 ChargePoint chargers is occupied while the other isn’t working. However, our afternoon destination is Lowell National Historical Park and we have more than enough juice to get there. At Lowell, we park in a garage with a level 2 charger, which is equivalent to our plug at home. This charges at about 6 kw per hour while we visit the national historic site and eat a late lunch.
Afterward, we drive in the dark via various interstate highways. I have trouble connecting the the car to a large bank of level 3 Electrify America chargers at a mall. It’s probably just a quirk of the electronics or car’s charging port because the issue repeats at several stations. The charging cords are stiff and heavy, which might hinder a proper connection. I found that holding the plug firmly while the charger initiates gets the station to connect without further issue. In Springfield we spend the night in a hotel with a L2 charger and plug in overnight.
Nov. 26 Springfield, Massachusetts to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
Distance: ~200 miles.
Breakfast is at an Italian bakery with a most excellent chocolate cannoli. We then spend an hour at the museum for Springfield Armory National Historic Site. On the drive south through Connecticut, the weather is mild with temperatures in the 40˚s and 50˚s F. The Bolt continues to get about 4 miles per kilowatt even while driving 65 miles per hour most of the way.
We stop at an Electrify America L3 charger located in a Walmart parking lot in Newburg, NY. A line of people already wait there. Two of the four chargers are out of service on one of the year’s busiest weekends for travel. We stay only about 15 minutes then leave when it looks like our place in the queue wouldn’t get us access to a working charger for at least an hour. This turned out to be the right choice anyway. There are few things I consider less pleasant than visiting Walmart and they are doubly hellish spaces on the weekend after Thanksgiving when the worst of the mass-consumption brainwashing compels people to buy garbage that they don’t need.
Our alternative was another level 3 charger about 30 miles away in Middletown, NY. This turned out to be one of the more enjoyable places we stopped to charge. The charger worked without issue, it accepted a credit card so we didn’t have to download and use a special app, and there was no one else waiting to charge, I could walk through the town to stretch my legs, and there were a few restaurants within easy walking distance. More towns should put EV chargers in their city center rather than sprawling parking lots surrounding monuments to runaway consumerism.
We detour through Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area at sunset on the way to our night’s destination. I wish we would’ve had more daylight to explore the forest and river. Our hotel for the night advertised an EV charger but neither of the two stations are working when we get there (lesson: call ahead and ask). We poach some electricity by using a 110 volt wall outlet on the outside of the hotel.
Nov. 27: East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Distance: ~200 miles.
We leave the hotel with the car’s battery charged to about 60%, which is more than enough to get us to an Electrify America L3 charger in Allentown. It’s early on a Sunday morning but three of the four charging spots are occupied and the fourth doesn’t work. We wait about 20 minutes to plug in to jump the battery from about 45% to 66%—enough to probably get us to Gettysburg without issue. We assist a couple who are driving a new Bolt but have never stopped at one of these chargers before.
After a rainy walk through Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, we plug into a free level 2 charger while we eat lunch at Furnace Creek State Park. I would’ve liked to have spent more time exploring here if it weren’t for the limited daylight hours of late fall.
We make it to Gettysburg with about 25% of our battery left and plug in for the evening at a hotel. At dusk, I walk along a nearby section of the battlefield and national cemetery feeling profoundly sad for the pain and death that happened there. Later, I can’t sleep and get up to unplug the car after it is fully charged at 1 a.m., you know, just in case some other EV drives up in the middle of the night.
Nov. 28: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Distance: ~200 miles.
We tour the park’s museum and battlefield in the morning. The level 3 chargers at the museum don’t work so I’m glad for the hotel’s overnight charging option.
We mostly follow U.S. 30 to Pittsburgh, which is a mountainous route by PA standards. On the steep, long climbs the car uses a lot of electricity, but on the way down we recoup some of that energy using the regenerative braking system. This helps to milk the best range out of the battery. Trying to drive in the most efficient manner also motivates you to not drive like an asshole. We add a kilowatt of energy to the battery when dropping off Laurel Ridge into Ligonier.
In Bedford, we wait about 15 minutes for space at a level 3 charger. Almost predictably, one of the four chargers was out of order. We leave after bumping the battery up to 80% full since at least two other EVs are waiting in line.
A stop at the Flight 93 National Memorial breaks up the day but triggers a lot of emotions. Around dinner time, we get to Pittsburgh with about half the battery’s charge left in the tank. At my sister’s house we can’t plug in for the night. Her house is perched on a steep hill—one of those Pittsburgh houses you need to ascend the equivalent of two flights of stairs to get into. Adopting an EV would be a challenge for her and others who live where the only parking option is on the street. (And, FWIW, my sister doesn’t own a car which is much more of an environmentally friendly choice than owning an EV. She does, however, have a Pittsburgh toilet.)
Nov. 29: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cleveland, Ohio
Distance: ~170 miles.
At a gas station surrounded by four to six lane highways in Cranberry, northwest of Pittsburgh, two of the four Electrify America chargers aren’t working. Luckily, we only had to wait about 5 minutes for a spot. Once plugged in, our charge speed varied between 20 – 30 kw, which is typical for our Bolt at all level 3 chargers we’ve used. Since our car is a 2019 model, the electrical system doesn’t seem accept the same amount of juice as a newer versions. Eavesdropping on the charging speeds of most other EVs plugged in at the same time, they’ll get 50, 75, even 125 kw of power.
I get dropped off to visit my mom for a few days while my other half continues to Cleveland for a conference. Before she departs, I take the car to the level 2 charger at Jennings Environmental Education Center, which I love. It boasts an extensive, well maintained trail system that takes you through some unique habitats with locally endangered species. I grew up nearby but didn’t fully appreciate the spot when I was younger. The car is almost fully charged when my wife needs to leave about three hours later. She drives to Cleveland without needing to stop anywhere to charge.
A few days later, I take a bus from downtown Pittsburgh to downtown Cleveland in the morning. My wife parked the EV at a nearby garage to charge during the morning so I go pick it up. The charge was free but parking in the garage was expensive.
Dec. 3: Cleveland, Ohio to Canandaigua, New York
Distance: ~275 miles.
We leave Cleveland with a full charge and head east on I-90. Some of the level 3 chargers on the way to Buffalo were reportedly not working (surprise!) so we stop in Erie after about 100 miles of driving. No one is at the Electrify America station when we arrive. The chargers are in another crummy location—another Walmart parking lot surrounded by more parking lots and big box stores. At least we can see the lake in the distance.
The weather remains mild for the season and the roads are free of snow. Outside of Buffalo, we stop at another level three Electrify America station where, once again, only 3 out of 4 chargers are working. It’s located at another Walmart in retail sprawl. Ugh. But it gives us the juice to get us to our night’s destination with a 50 mile buffer in case the hotel’s charger doesn’t work, which at first it did not.
Unable to charge, I go to the hotel’s front desk to find that the attendant couldn’t help because there was no maintenance person on duty that day. This was a non-networked station, which meant that there was no customer service to call. I searched and found a wall outlet to plug into but decided to try the charger again after noticing that the light indicating a fault error on the charger was off. I plugged in and it worked, thankfully.
Temperatures remained in the 40˚s throughout the day and the car got about 4 mi/kw again despite driving almost entirely at interstate speeds of about 65 miles per hour.
Dec. 4: Canandaigua, New York to Saratoga Springs, New York
Distance: ~233 miles.
Full charge by the morning. We get to Women’s Rights National Historic Site to explore its museum as soon as it opens. After continuing east, we take a break to walk outside the fort at Fort Stanwix National Monument even though the visitor center, fort, and the parking garage with a charger are closed for the day. We hit a L3 charger in downtown Utica, and spent the charging time looking for a place for me to pee, finally deciding just to sneak into a hotel and use their restroom since the few open shops didn’t provide the proper facilities. It was getting to a point where I was considering using an alley. After a short stop to Saratoga National Historical Park at sunset, we charge the car overnight at a hotel in Saratoga Springs.
Dec. 5: Saratoga Springs, New York to Augusta, Maine
Distance: ~300 miles.
We drive a meandering and hilly route back to Maine through Vermont (one of three U.S. states I’d yet to visit) and New Hampshire. In Rutland, VT, we stop at a L3 Charge Point charger for about 45 minutes to get the battery up to 80 percent. One of two wasn’t working but luckily no one was at the chargers when we arrived. Through New Hampshire and back in Maine at dusk, we stop at another L3 charger in Windham. This was also surrounded by retail sprawl but at least there was a decent sushi restaurant nearby where we could eat dinner while the car did its thing. Finally, and less than 10 miles from the in-laws’ house, we use the L3 chargers at the West Gardiner rest area on I-95.
Dec. 6: Augusta, Maine to Home
Distance: 200 miles.
By jumping the car’s batteries back up to 80% the night before and combining that with the juice we get from the in-laws’ 110v wall outlet overnight we have a near full charge by morning when we make our way home. Temperatures stay in the 40˚s F. We make it home with about one-third of the battery to spare.
You may have noticed that we weren’t in a hurry. Our itinerary was relaxed, giving us the opportunity to take lots of breaks and make many stops. We looked for charging stations more frequently than necessary too since so many were broken. I didn’t want to deplete the battery too far and limp to a charger that didn’t work. We were also fortunate on the road trip since there was no particularly cold weather or snow. As I write this in late January, I’ve had plenty of time to become reacquainted with the wintertime complications of the EV driving experience.
First, the Bolt’s batteries are certainly less efficient when temperatures are below 30˚F (-1˚C). This is especially true when temperatures are below 10˚F (-18˚C). We don’t have a garage (and there’s no way I’m building one), so the car sits outside and during cold days the batteries will use some energy to condition themselves for more optimal performance. Using any climate control accessories like the windshield defroster and heater also eats noticeably into the batteries’ energy stores. Instead of the 300 miles per full charge the Bolt gets in the summer, it is much closer to 200 miles and sometimes less in winter. Gas guzzlers are far less efficient in cold weather too. To me, however, the impacts to the EV’s driving range seem more conspicuous compared to a traditional car.
I should note that I don’t typically enjoy driving and I often find road trips to be frustrating endeavors. The pace is too quick and travel by car insulates you from the landscape in a negative way. And, before you comment about how EVs are not the best solution to our transportation issues and climate change woes: I agree. Roadway deaths in the U.S. are as high or higher than ever before even as cars get safer. Automobiles are a disaster for wildlife too. Tires leach chemicals that kill salmon, and hundreds of millions of vertebrate animals in the U.S. are killed when they are struck by cars. In more ways than one, EVs perpetuate this unacceptable status quo. My favorite vehicle remains my trusty steed, Rocinante, and we certainly need to prioritize passenger trains, buses, and safe biking routes over more cars. The environmental impacts of mining minerals to produce EV batteries can’t be ignored either.
And, before you comment about how EV’s are too inconvenient to usurp internal combustion engines for commuting and long-distance passenger travel, please consider instead that convenience should not be our first consideration in today’s world. Certainly not with a very real climate crisis. We could’ve and should’ve started transitioning to renewable energy and electrifying our transportation grid in the 1990s when it was already clear that climate change was coming fast. But our elected leaders did virtually nothing and the public wasn’t demanding change, partly because the threat seemed abstract and distant (at least that’s how I remember thinking about it; people—including me—generally aren’t good at seeing past our immediate needs and wants) and also because fossil fuel companies used a disinformation campaign straight out of the tobacco company playbook to successfully sow doubt about climate science and create apathy for change within the public. It worked on me too. I can remember stating that the consequences of climate change were not well understood during programs that I gave as a park ranger. Now the stakes are higher and the changes necessary to stave off the worst climate impacts are harder. Convenience, therefore, cannot rule the day. That opportunity is long gone.
So if you’re going to buy a car or another car, should it be an EV? Get a traditional bicycle or an electric-assist bicycle, first. Then if that can’t work for you then get an EV. If it’s not for the pollution benefits, then get it for the low operating and maintenance cost (cheap to drive, no oil changes, no expensive gas, etc). Although a little more patience is necessary on long trips currently, an EV will get you where you need to go.