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FAMILY ROAD TRIP: ELECTRIC BUGALOO

May 25, 2017

 

In a flurry of post-election and postpartum panic, I steered my household toward some major changes in how we live. Maybe there will come a time when I’m ready to engage the emotional and philosophical dimension of those changes, but for now, I’m just going to talk in a practical way about one topic: our new electric car. We recently purchased a Chevrolet Bolt, the all-electric subcompact that is advertised as having a 238-mile range, and we took it on a road trip to visit family in Kentucky—a little over 500 miles each way. We did this with a 3-year-old and 6-month-old in tow, and I’m here to say it’s a feasible way to travel long distances, and even a pleasant way. (Mostly. More on that below.) I am not—ha ha ha!—being paid to endorse the Bolt. We traded in a car and took out a loan to pay for it.

 

Why the Bolt? Well, it’s the most practical electric car on the market at price point within reach of a middle class family, at least once the federal tax credit ($7500) is kicked in. If you know all about electric cars, feel free to skip ahead. Otherwise, here are some of the questions my husband and I have been asked:

 

Where/how do you charge it? Not a stupid question—and in fact, I was a little confused about this even as I researched making the purchase. There are three ways to charge a Bolt (and this applies to other electric car makes):

  • Plug into a standard 110 (3-prong) outlet. That’s what we’re doing at home right now: running the cord through a window and plugging into a regular outlet. This is the slowest way to charge, taking almost two days to go from nothing to a full battery. AKA “Level One” charger.

  • Plug into a 220 outlet—the same kind of plug your dryer plugs into. We’re having one of these installed outside our home. Full charge takes about 9 hours. AKA “Level Two” charger.

  • Use a DC Fast Charging (Level Three) station. Full charge takes a little less than 2 hours.  The supercharging package is an upgrade to the basic Bolt—it costs about 1K.

How far can you go on a charge? Well, as I said above, GM advertises 238 miles. But that’s a number that depends on a lot of different factors: how you drive, what sort of terrain you’re on, the outside temperature, which accessories you use (most notably, the AC or the heat). We’ve not been brave enough to drain the battery to nothing, and we were forgetful about starting a mile counter each time we fully charged the battery, so I can’t give you an accurate picture of how long each of our charges has lasted. I can say, conservatively, that we’re definitely getting over 200 miles a charge. And our long trip took us over the Appalachian mountains, and we were running the AC on the way back, so those weren’t ideal conditions.

 

How much is your electric bill going to go up? This question always seems testy, slightly accusatory. I’ll get into that weirdness later, but for now, here are some numbers.

 

In NC, Duke Energy charges 9.3457 cents a kWh. Our car has been averaging (according to its stats) about 4 miles a kWh. To charge the battery its hypothetical 238 miles, then, we’d spend $5.56.

 

For comparison sake, let’s say our Nissan Cube averages 30 miles to a gallon of gas, and it has a 13.2 gallon tank. The average price right now for a gallon of gas is $2.361. The car gets you about 396 miles on a tank, then, at a cost to fill up of about $31.17.

 

Cost per mile:

Bolt: .023 cents

Cube: .078 cents.

 

The Bolt, then, costs about a third of the price per mile of the Cube.  Our bill will go up, but we’ll be saving on energy costs overall.

 

Now, let me add some qualifiers:

  • This is the cost to charge at home. Public charging stations are considerably more expensive. But the Bolt is a cost-efficient and convenient car for local driving, even if you only have a 110 outlet. Most people could probably get away with charging overnight once or twice a week, if that.

  • Gas in Greensboro, NC, right now is less than the national average: $1.99. So the current cost of the Nissan Cube per mile is about .066 cents.

OK, I think that covers the basics of electric vehicles and how the Bolt works specifically. Now to talk a little more about the experience of owning one and taking it on a long road trip.

 

I don’t have much to say about local driving because having an electric vehicle, for 95% of the driving we do, is as easy as having a conventional car—and easier, really. I don’t have to stop at gas stations. I don’t have to wait for a pump, or run my credit card, or get high on fumes. The car has zippy pick-up and runs so quietly that yesterday we could hear it when a piece of rock got stuck in our tire tread.

 

Longer trips are more complicated, of course. A 500-mile trip from Greensboro, NC, to Russellville, KY, takes over two full battery charges, even if the car is driving at the top of its range. And if we want to avoid days on the road, and plugging surreptitiously into slow-charging outlets via hotel windows or parking lot security lights, we have to rely on DC fast-charging stations, and those—at this point—are a mixed bag.

 

We departed Greensboro, of course, with a full battery, and we left our bed and breakfast, a week later, with a full charge. (The inn had a convenient outdoor plug, and our innkeepers were kind enough to let us use it.) Because we knew that charging would constitute several hours of each trip, and because we have two small children, we decided to break the trip up into two legs with overnight stops. I don’t think this was necessary, but it was certainly humane, and I’ll go into the costs and benefits momentarily.

 

On our east-to-west trip, we charged in Asheville, spent the night in Cherokee, did a brief lunchtime charge in Gatlinburg (unnecessary—we only gained a few miles via Level Two charge—but we wanted to give it a try), charged in Knoxville, and then stopped in Nashville to go ahead and do a full charge even though we were less than an hour from our destination at that point. On the west-to-east trip, we topped off in Nashville (took half an hour), charged in Knoxville, spent the night at a hotel off 1-40, close to the mountains, and then charged the next day in Asheville.

 

Our total charging station costs were $62, which reflects a much higher rate per mile than charging at home—about .062 a mile, which is (in fact) very close to what we’d pay to travel in the Nissan Cube at Greensboro prices per gallon. A little less, but not much. However, we did, I think, charge too often, out of range anxiety, and we spent less on the return trip. Next time we’ll be more comfortable only charging as much as we need.  For example, we don’t need to charge all the way to a full battery when we make our Nashville stop on the trip west, and this will save us time on the road, too.

 

However, we did incur various other miscellaneous costs that we might not have, had we not had to make long charging stops. We spent $237 on two hotels stays—one for each trip. Did we have to do this? As I said above, no. But the days would have been pretty long, otherwise, and we didn’t want to overtire the kids, or ourselves.

 

We also spent more money on food, since eating is a good way to while away a leisurely charge, especially if you happen to be marooned in a place like downtown Asheville, NC.

 

Oh, and at our Nashville stop—which is at the gargantuan, soul-sucking Opry Mills mall—I spent a small fortune on merry-go-round rides for my son. I’m sure you would make better choices than that.

 

The miscellaneous charges speak to the challenge of charging, or at least one of the challenges of charging. You’re looking at nearly 2 hours to reach a full charge on a Bolt at a Level 3 station. The Asheville stop was a wonderful place to spend 2 hours, since Asheville is such a fantastic little city, and the town’s two charging stations are both conveniently located in the heart of their charming downtown. (One of the stations is at least partly solar powered, which is also cool.) Less charming is the gas station in Knoxville, which boasts a Subway and not much else. (This Subway DID have an amusing young man/sandwich artist, who happily chatted us up as we slowly ate our six-inch sandwiches. So that was more fun a stop than it ought to have been.) Opry Mills in Nashville is at least a climate-controlled space with plenty of room to walk and exercise, and lots of (overpriced) dining options, but it’s also sort of dreadful. If you’re a person who wants to do something good for the environment via electric car, you might, like me, find that two hours in Opry Mills sends you careening into a pit of despair.

 

Operating the charging stations is also, occasionally, a pain. This pain fell almost entirely on my husband, since he has a newer phone than I do and has downloaded all of the apps for Chargepoint, Blink, and so forth. On the return trip, the Knoxville charger kept stopping on its own, before the battery was full. And the EvGO-brand chargers all limit sessions to 30 minutes, which means you have to keep starting new sessions to top off a drained battery. In Nashville, this meant that my husband had to keep stepping outside, leaving me alone in the mall with our kids. (That’s why I bought so many merry-go-round rides.)

 

Still, the trouble felt worth it to us, and in many ways we liked the slower pace of our trip. We liked meeting nice people such as the Subway kid, or the balloon artist at Opry Mills who made my son a Spiderman. We liked going off the interstate to take slower-paced highway routes through the mountains, as a way of getting more miles out of the battery. And—this surprised me—I found that the electric car significantly alleviated my motion sickness, which is acute whenever I’m anywhere in a car other than the driver’s seat. I spent hours of each trip in the back, sandwiched between a crying infant and a bored toddler, and I never once got queasy.

 

I’ll end by meditating on a subject I raised briefly above, when I noted that people are occasionally testy or weird when they engage us on the topic of our electric car, or the solar panels we’ve just had installed on our home. There’s a defensiveness in people, as if our choices are a judgment of their choices, and I suppose in some ways they are, though we’re also standing in judgment of ourselves, since we were driving an SUV and firing our computers and AC entirely on coal-fired power a mere six weeks ago. But the defensiveness always latches on to arguments sort of like this:

 

Electric cars are just putting another kind of pollution into the air. And yes, to some extent that is true. If you don’t have solar power, you are reliant electricity and all of its baggage: carbon emissions, mountaintop removal, waste runoff, etc. However, consider the following:

  1. Coal is a domestic product. We don’t have to get into wars to get it, and it doesn’t have to be shipped across an ocean to get here.

  2. Technology exists to capture CO2 from coal and natural gas plants and use it as a commodity, and it will become more and more commonplace.

  3. Utility companies such as Duke Energy in NC are already mandated by the state to invest in renewable technologies, so about 6% of our electricity is powered by solar or wind.

 

 

Solar isn’t efficient enough to meet energy demands. This one really gets me. It’s the all-or-none mentality: if solar can’t currently do it all, then why let it do any?

 

Solar technologies are getting rapidly cheaper and more efficient. It says something that my own middle-class household has been able to make the investment. And whether I’m talking to my libertarian, NRA-member neighbor or the guy who blew insulation into our attic—and their arguments were both, essentially, “Solar won’t save you money for X number of years”—I find that people mostly miss the point. My family invested in solar to reduce our carbon footprint. We’re willing to cut out other luxuries to do that. But even so—and I’ll be able to back this up soon, I hope, once our panels are operating and we have some longer-term data—we’ve financed our solar in such a way that our costs are basically neutralized. What we save on utilities constitutes our payment. I’ll eventually write about that topic, too.

 

Will our electric car and solar panels save the world? No. Does my family still pollute? Yeah. Too much. Though we’re trying to do better. (Our power bill went down dramatically after we started air-drying most of our laundry, for instance.) But we’re taking steps that are within our power, and I feel good about that. If everybody who can do something does something—not everything!—that will make a difference.

 

If you’ve made it this far and still have questions—and I’ll answer as frankly as I can—hit me up!

 

 

 

 

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