an electric road trip adventure!

Last weekend, Liz (of Moontree Studios) and I went up to Michigan State University for one of my favorite conferences of the year, The Stewardship Network. It’s a great blend of non-profits, consulting firms, local/state/fed governments, and indigenous communities, all focused on restoring native ecosystems across northern Indiana and Michigan.

I’ve been going since 2013. I have a soft spot in my heart for it… the ecological restoration community isn’t very big, so we all know each other & enjoy catching up on research, new projects and the like. In 2016 I found a job posting on a piece of paper for an opening that was just 7 miles from my home, and here I am (thank you, Sr. Mary). As we say, “The Universe is conspiring!”

This year, I gave a talk on our research with co-locating pollinator plantings in and around solar energy installations.

After confirming with Liz that she was ready for an adventure, I decided to take our all-electric Nissan LEAF for the journey up to East Lansing. It has a 40 kWh battery, which is good for up to 150 miles in ideal driving conditions.

Knowing we would be setting out at highway speeds, in windy & cold January, our range was going be substantially reduced, maybe 100 miles when full. I wasn’t going to skimp on the heater, so I adjusted for that as well. I wouldn’t have sent anyone unfamiliar with the vehicle out in the wild like this, but we made a plan and hit the road!

Planning… courtesy of the PlugShare.com (& app)

I thought it might be interesting to record some brief videos during our stops, so I’ll be posting them here as a way of telling the story.

I had an errand to do in the Mishawaka area, so I stopped to calculate our remaining range. Unfortunately, I’ve found Nissan’s range estimator to be overly optimistic, failing to take into account fast driving and cold weather. So as an easy rule of thumb, I just assumed each 1% of battery would yield me 1 mile, for a total range of 100 mi.

Mishawaka errand

We then needed to stop for dinner. We stopped at an Electrify America quick charging station at the Wal-Mart in Portage/Kalamazoo, MI. There is only a single plug that was compatible with the LEAF, but there are still so few LEAFs in the Midwest that I didn’t expect to find it occupied. (You can look on the app in real time to see the charger’s status). Fortunately, it wasn’t! We arrived with 13% battery remaining after covering 92 miles.

After sitting down for dinner, the car was back up to 97%, so we hit the interstate without delay.

I drove conservatively at first to build in some margin. It was fairly adverse conditions, chilly & windy but the road was dry. As we approached our destination, I hustled along so we could get to the hotel. (I had made sure to locate a charger some distance before our destination, just in case we needed to activate a Plan B).

The 82.4 mile trip took us down from 97% to 10% charge remaining. Dividing the miles by the % battery used, (82.4/0.87), this implies a range of just 95 miles on a full battery. Had I decided to plod along behind the semis on the interstate, we could’ve extended that, but high speeds & cold definitely take a toll.

I made sure to book a hotel with a car charger so we would wake up with a full charge and be off to Michigan State, which was several miles up the road.

The conference, as usual, was fantastic. It is always a weird mix of being energized and drained at the same time.

Observing plant response to thinning and burning in areas that historically had open oak woodlands and savannas.

We participated in a water ceremony led by indigenous leaders, who shared the water-songs they sung at the Standing Rock occupation. It was chilly!

Smudging with sage, before we received the water blessing.

Ok, time for the road trip back.

On our last morning, I arrived to the conference center with 90% charge. I had hoped to top off at a public charger there (Plan A), but the single spot was occupied. Not surprising when you have an ecological conference.

I snuck out to the garage at lunch and, after verifying that the other car was at full battery, I helped myself by unplugging them and trying to top off. But… then I ran into another problem. It had snowed several inches the night before when our car was charging at the hotel. Normally not a problem, but I neglected to take 5 seconds to brush the snow away from around the port before I unplugged it. As I unplugged, loose snow fell down into the open port. When I tried putting the plug back in, it only packed the snow in further, just enough to prevent the car from making a connection to charge. Yikes!

The universal, slower charging port is on top (J1772, speeds up to 7 kW). The LEAF-specific fast-charger is on bottom (CHAdeMO, speeds up to 50 kW).

Like I said, always have a Plan B! The fast-charging port was covered and fine to use, so we had to make an additional stop in Lansing to top off. We probably could have made it, but I didn’t want to cut it too close.

So that was an additional 1/2 hour. However, I powered through some e-mail clean-up (a never-ending task) so was able to put that time to use.

We arrived back at the same charger in Portage, where we were more than happy to grab dinner at the same Thai place, and pick up my daughter who was visiting grandparents nearby.

We initiate the charging session via a smartphone app, where we can see the current charging speed, payment, etc.

We ate dinner quickly and left as soon as we were done. It was cold (19 deg F) and we had a 25 mph headwind, so we added a stop at the University Park Mall. Fortunately, the roads were dry, so we hit the toll road and sped right along. This killed efficiency (see below) but we were eager to get home.

Our last stop was in Mishawaka. We arrived at 17% state of charge.

The charger didn’t hit the max speed of ~45 kW, and I’m not sure why, so it took about 25 minutes to get up to 53%, which I figured was enough get the last 34 miles home.

A picture of the dashboard halfway through the last charge session
Home sweet home.

So… let’s look at the numbers.

RANGE: We traveled 355 miles round-trip over the course of 3 days. We used 381% of the battery. Dividing miles/% used (355/3.81) implies a range of just 93 miles per full battery (100% charged) on a new 40 kWh battery.

Taking the most extreme segment, our last leg home from Portage was at high speeds and low temperatures, with wind, with an implied range of 86 miles. Ouch!

COST: Charging costs were $47.01 at the fast-charging stations. We picked up free charging at the hotel. So fuel costs ended up being about the equivalent of driving a minivan.

TIME: Because we were traveling around dinner time there and back, we were able to double up eating & charging, such that charging didn’t add any time to those stops.

We had a 1/2 hr stop in Lansing on our way out, which I used to check e-mail. And 25 minutes at the mall before the final stretch.

It’s not the incredible convenience of having gas stations every 5 miles like we’re used to. This infrastructure was built up incrementally over the last 100 years. We still need a lot more charging stations out there, of all types. But this trip would have been impossible just 9 months ago, before the Electrify America stations were up and running. Things are finally coming together.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is developing a grant process to deploy more charging infrastructure throughout the state. We just finished up the public comment period, and hopefully we will see applications for projects later this year.

FUTURE TRIPS: I hesitated writing this narrative simply because I expect the user experience will keep improving pretty quickly. Early adopters don’t mind waiting 25 minutes for the joy of driving emissions-free, but convincing the next swath of buyers will require additional improvements. Like it or not, we American consumers are demanding.

The good news is that of the 6 top-selling fully electric vehicles in the U.S., the 40 kWh LEAF is the only one with a range < 200 miles. There is already a 62 kWh LEAF available as an option (226 mi range). With this vehicle, we would have had zero waiting time during the entire trip, considering that we had to stop for dinner.

3 of the 6 top-selling models are Teslas, and they have their own proprietary charging network that is fast, ubiquitous, and reliable. This all greatly reduces logistical hurdles. But… for the rest of us, for now, some planning is still involved at this stage in the energy transition.

Sorry, I know this was a long post. Please let me know what I could’ve explained a little better. See you on the road!

5 Replies to “an electric road trip adventure!”

  1. Linda Volk

    Electrifying, Adam!
    Felt like I was on the trip with you minus the good eats (-) and the cold temps (+).
    I learned a lot about something I know little about. Thanks.
    Sr. Linda

    Reply
    • Adam Thada Post author

      That was my goal! I know I have all the data, I just need to work on communication, so that it’s clear to audiences of all stripes.

      Believe it or not, there are people on YouTube who make high quality and well-edited videos of entire roadtrips (condensed down to 15-60 minutes). That’s beyond my scope. Some of them even make a living making YouTube videos (income generated through ads).

      Reply
  2. mary

    Adam,
    I was looking for a picture of the dash to familiarize us all with how
    You know what percent of battery you’ve used. Pictures of the inside plus pictures of the charger. Lots of folks have never been in such a vehicle.

    Reply
    • Adam Thada Post author

      Sr. Mary:

      I’ve added a picture of the dashboard towards the end of the post. The % battery bar is at the bottom.

      A picture of the charging ports themselves is in the post. I think if you read the post directly from your e-mail inbox without clicking it open into another window, some of the photos don’t come through.

      Reply

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