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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Laggard, Part 2: Driving on Sunbeams

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November’s first Tuesday was mainly sunny in Northern California. The heart of our solar system showered an abundance of free energy on my roof, which was promptly captured and converted to electricity by the solar panels we put there this spring (see May 9 blog, The Laggard, Part 1). That electrified sunshine passed to my garage and via a charging port straight into our newly-purchased Chevy Bolt EV (Electric vehicle). By late afternoon, we had 238 miles of juice in the car. We’ve been driving on sunbeams for three weeks now.

And the surprising thing is how extremely enjoyable the Bolt is to drive. I never dreamed saving human civilization on the planet would be so fun. It’s been a kick, for several reasons. First: no gas stations. No standing around like sheep while we all pump explosive material (!?!) into our cars. Did I really do that?

Second: EV’s are silent and clean. No more clatter and sputtering as an engine warms up and struggles to move the vehicle. No more engine! No more oil to keep track of and maybe drip under the car. We depress the pedal, and the EV pulls away effortlessly, eagerly, smooth as silk.

Third: Remember those scenes in Star Wars when Hans Solo jumps the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace, leaving the stodgy craft of the Empire far behind? Our Bolt EV can’t do Solo’s “.5 past light speed,” but it does go from zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. Seriously. (By comparison, our Subaru Forester takes 9.5 seconds; but then again, my daughter Ashlyn and I can strap two kayaks atop the Forester to take us to the Sacramento River and its otters, ducks, and great blue herons. Not so the Bolt.)

But the Bolt’s smooth and powerful acceleration does make it a lot of fun to drive. Passing on the highway? Quickly accomplished. Entering a freeway flow of traffic from the on ramp? Substantially easier now—and safer. Heck, just pulling away from a stop sign is a kick, particularly if you’re executing a turn. Since the car is underslung with a slab of battery all along its underside, that low weight makes it virtually impossible to tip the vehicle over. (Note to Ray: easy with this, big guy. Safety first!)

In short: a smoother, effortless drive. If you’re so inclined, you can make it fun to drive again.

Did all of this cost us an arm and a leg, a la the original Tesla EVs? Nope. We got our 2017 Chevy Bolt EV (named the Motor Trend “Car of the Year”) for two grand below its MSRP of $37,495 by buying it at the end of the year. We’ll get a $2,500 California state rebate and a $7,500 federal tax credit, bringing the cost down to the mid-20s. Sweet.

All right. So it’s fun to drive, costs less than the average new car, and gives you the enormous satisfaction of being part of the solution to the gravest threat humanity has ever faced, by transporting yourself without pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Heck, in our case the energy comes directly from the sunshine hitting my roof’s solar panels. Maybe we should make use of this free, non-polluting energy source?!

But there are three concerns for anyone contemplating the purchase of an EV: cost, range, and recharging.

Cost: A number of EVs are available now in the low $20s and mid $30s (before rebates): our Chevy Bolt EV, the Nissan Leaf, the Ford Focus EV, the Volkswagen E-Golf. And Tesla, long the domain for only the rich (its Model S now goes for $95,000), is now producing (fitfully, while the supply chain is worked out) its Model 3, in the mid-$30s. Upshot: you can get an EV now for the same price as the average new car for a middle-income family.

Range: Once upon a time, only the Tesla gave you a big range on a single charge (351 miles in the Model S). All the others only conferred 100 or fewer miles on a charge. Until this year, when the Bolt EV burst onto the scene with 238 miles—“the first long-range, affordable EV from an established, mainstream automaker,” as Car and Driver put it.

238 miles! Enough for weeks and weeks of daily in-town driving. Enough to get me to the Sacramento airport (90 miles away) and back. Enough to get me 180 miles to San Francisco to see my two darling granddaughters. Cool.

But how do I get me and my Bolt back from S.F.?!

Recharge. This is the big one. How do you reliably and conveniently recharge an EV? There are 3 levels of recharge. Level 1 uses the normal 110v electricity available any room in your house. But it takes bloody forever—several days. So it’s not practicable.

Level 2 uses a 240v outlet, which most houses already have for appliances, perhaps the table saw in the garage. When we had our 6.2Kw of solar panels installed, we spent an extra $300 to get a designated charging outlet for an EV in our garage. Our Bolt recharges about 25 to 30 miles for every hour at 240v—starting from zero, some 8 or 9 hours’ worth. Overnight, then, drawing from our electrical utility (PG&E) if for some reason we can’t get it plugged in during the sun-filled day. If we’ve driven it down to 120 miles of charge left, it takes 4 hours or so to “fill ‘er up”—a morning or afternoon, often sunny, giving us several more weeks of driving.

Level 2 is fine for everyday driving, in other words, if you have had a 240v port put in your garage. What if you don’t have a garage? If you live in a big city, you can park your car during the day in a public (or private) garage which has Level 2 charging stations. San Francisco has hundreds, mainly downtown and in commercial areas. But they are also found in airports, museums, shopping centers (Whole Foods grocery stores have them, for example, in S.F.)

In California, the utilities are earmarking the $800 million from the VW diesel emission cheating settlement for EV charging infrastructure. PG&E, the biggest utility in northern California, is spending another $130 million to install 7,500 charging stations, nearly half serving multifamily housing (i.e. apartment and condo complexes).

San Francisco, where 3.3% of new vehicles are electric (compared to the U.S. average of 0.4%; but in Palo Alto down the peninsula it’s 18%!), all new buildings, residential as well as commercial, will be required starting January to install wiring to enable 20% of parking spots to be electrified, with 10% ready to serve EVs when the building opens. Some California cities (Novato and Berkeley, for example) provide free street charging stations. There are several smartphone apps (ChargePoint, PlugIn) which show you nearby charging stations available.

But if you don’t have a garage or similar parking area attached to your home, and you don’t work in a big city where you’d park your vehicle anyway during the work day, and you don’t live in California (or New York)—then you’ll have to move to Level 3.

Level 3 is Fast Charging, and uses 480v or so of direct current (rather than the standard alternating current). You can add 90 miles of range to the Bolt EV in half an hour; two such sessions give you nearly 200 miles. (A Tesla EV gets 170 miles of range in half an hour in their designated charging stations.) Fast Charging requires a special option in the Bolt, costing $750. We didn’t get it, because we’ve got our Level 2 charging capability in our garage, and we got such a great deal on our LT model Bolt which didn’t have the Fast Charging option. We’re happy.

While charging stations with 240v outlets are very common in public garages, Fast Charging outlets are less common, but available. San Francisco has several dozen downtown; our little college town in northern California has a couple. So you can make it work for your EV if you lack a 240-volt outlet in your garage in your home, by getting the Level 3 capability in your EV, but it won’t be as convenient and you’ll have to be aware of when and where you’re going to access the nearest Fast Charging station indicated on your smartphone (or your wife’s, if like me you refuse to be swallowed up by this modern invention).

Clearly, recharging infrastructure is the big challenge in making EVs more widely adopted. Europe is ahead of us in this, but awareness of the need is widespread in the U.S. (particularly California and New York and some other states), and bright people are figuring out how to do it. If you buy a Tesla (remember: those moderately-priced Model 3s will soon be rolling smartly off the assembly lines), you get a designated system of charging stations that is widespread and intelligently spaced throughout the country.

So how am I going to get back to Chico from S.F. when I visit the grandkids? A few blocks from our favorite hotel near Union Square (Beresford Arms, with complimentary high tea--and only two blocks from the venerable Sears café, and their Swedish pancakes!) is a garage where I’ll charge (Level 2) the Bolt overnight. (Try finding a hotel near Union Square that you don’t have to use some garage somewhere anyway.) Or when I’m spending half a day in the Asian Art Museum near the Civic Center, I’ll park in one of several garages with Level 2 charging nearby. Or visiting the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, I’ll use the slots in their parking garage with Level 2 outlets. Heck, I’ve even discovered a Level 2 charging outlet a block from Vacaville’s Nugget Market, where we typically stop for a leisurely lunch halfway between Chico and S.F. It’ll all work fine.

But, really, the best thing of all is knowing that, finally, we’re part of the solution rather than the problem. This is a deep satisfaction, bone deep. Maybe it even mitigates my being such a laggard with the solar panels.

Sure, even EVs have a carbon footprint in their manufacture, as my good friend Al rightly reminds me. But the one-time manufacture footprint isn’t very much more than an internal-combustion-engine vehicle. And whereas those are spewing CO2 every time they rev up and move, day by day, year by year, even sitting in the ubiquitous traffic jams, the EVs are clean: zero emissions, always.

Plus, of course, without engines, the EVs are simpler and require fewer maintenance and repairs. If you’ve got solar panels on your roof, the energy pushing you around town is free, a gift from the universe. In California, at least, even if you recharge at night or on a rainy day, one-third the electricity you’re pulling from your grid is generated from renewable resources—soon to be one-half in less than a decade. Our local PG&E uses zero coal to generate electricity. Zero.

Plus the darn thing is fun to drive. Zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds! Effortless, quiet, silky smooth acceleration whether you’re going fast or slow. Ahhh.

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