Back in January, the Wall Street Journal released a 26-minute video called the Electric Vehicle Road Test. It chronicles the experience of eight of their reporters in four countries as they each push the limits of a different electric car, and perhaps more importantly, different EV infrastructures. Climate change demands electrifying much of our transportation sector and the big automakers are gearing up for it, but the WSJ wanted to know if we are actually ready.
This summer, I conducted an amped-up version of the same experiment. In early June 2020, I set sail from Burlington, Vermont in a Chevy Bolt, charting a winding course back to my pandemic hideout in Anchorage.
In the end, I drove 7,600 miles across twenty states, two provinces, and a territory. Like the WSJ, I found the road to an EV future paved with tough but surmountable challenges. The saddest lesson, though, was that few places have more work to do than Alaska.
The author’s approximate route driven in an all-electric Chevy Bolt.
If 2020 had gone to plan, I would have spent most of the year in Madagascar, spinning up a research project looking at whether and how reforestation could be wielded as a tool for reducing the risk of malaria in impoverished rural communities.
But, well, ‘Rona.
Long story short, I made a tough decision to abandon fieldwork as the mid-March travel bans started raining down. I came home to Alaska, figuring if I was going to be doing indefinite remote work, there was no reason to be based in Vermont.
The one problem was that my Bolt was still in Burlington, as was an apartment I had to clear out of by the end of May. Then, I remembered the WSJ video and had a crazy idea: why not do my own electric vehicle road test?
The longest road trips any of the WSJ reporters attempted were just over 500 miles. The biggest gripe was having to use slower ‘Level 2’ chargers that can only deliver about 20 miles of range per hour.
By contrast, driving from Vermont to Anchorage in an EV meant covering more than 4,000 miles and traversing a chargerless 826-mile stretch from Ft. St. John in British Columbia to Whitehorse in the Yukon, immediately followed by another 662-mile run to Palmer. Seemingly impossible tasks, even during the best of times.
I don’t think I need to remind anyone that 2020 was not the best of times.
What was entirely unclear was if I would be allowed into Canada at all. Only a handful of people have ever driven EVs from the Lower 48 to Alaska. I figured I’d be the only one attempting it in 2020, given the ban on ‘non-discretionary travel’.
These were the only non-Tesla fast-chargers for more than a hundred miles in any direction. Often the only warning for situations like this are comments left by other EV drivers on the app PlugShare.
A Chevy Bolt is EPA-rated for 238 miles of range, but that number is deceptively concrete. In reality, range is highly dependent on a host of factors–your driving speed, terrain, weather conditions, etc. The hypermiling record for a Bolt is 466 miles, but that’s still well shy of the 800+ mile gap I’d need to cross.
Several friends suggested bringing a generator and gasoline with me. But I knew of a better hack: RV parks.
As it turns out, Godzilla rigs, the ones that shudder down Alaska’s summer roadways like so many blood clots, chug quite a bit of juice when they are running multiple AC units and several kitchen appliances. Even medium-sized campers will want to hook up to something beefier than your standard wall socket.
Your typical North American RV park is generally built to accommodate these needs, offering not just 15-amp three-pronged outlets, but also meatier 30-amp (30A) and 50-amp (50A) outlets. I’ll spare you the physics lesson, but the important thing to know is that a 50A outlet can be the functional equivalent of a Level 2 EV charger. All I’d need were the right plugs and bingo-bango–I’d easily be able to cover 400-500 miles a day!
Or so I thought.
The AC/DC Journey
I zipped out of Burlington on June 6th, heading to the southeast, aka the exact wrong direction to reach my destination. Though it would have been fastest to pop over the border in Quebec and blast off down the Trans-Canada Highway, I had been advised that they almost certainly would not let me through and my best crossing odds lay in Montana, Idaho or Washington.
My first four nights, I camped out in the backyards of friends, BBQing and otherwise living my childhood dream as a 30-something. I made it as far as Rhode Island where I grilled lobsters with a college roommate before finally turning west.
For COVID-19 safety, the author generally camped alone throughout the drive. There were, however, a couple of cute exceptions.
And by west, I actually mean west by southwest–paradoxically, the fastest way to Alaska was via Colorado.
That’s because of superchargers. As the WSJ reporters discussed, road tripping in an EV is all about the ‘Level 3’ chargers, aka fast- or superchargers. Level 1 (‘trickle charging’ from a standard wall outlet) and Level 2 chargers provide AC electricity, which has to be converted into a DC current by the car. Fast-chargers, conversely, mainline DC straight to the batteries. How much DC current an EV can handle varies a lot and is an area of rapid technological improvement. My 2019 Bolt takes about a half hour to go from 5 to 55% charge at a supercharger, which while not an industry-leading stat, is still a far cry better than spending 8 hours at a Level 2 charger to top all the way up.
My fastest route across the US was a beaded string of superchargers slung low across the Lower 48. The upper Great Plains, as it turns out, is an EV quagmire. There are no Level 3 in the Dakotas, and the lone one in Wyoming is in Jackson, at the western end of the state. I needed to take I-70 through Colorado to Utah before finally turning north.
Photo of the author at Arches National Park. Nearby Moab has one of the few chargers on the border between Colorado and Utah.
I’ll skip over the rest of the drive through the Lower 48, except to mention two oddities of cross-country EV travel in the US.
One is that you spend a concerning amount of time at Walmarts. Aside from Tesla’s superchargers (which other EVs can’t utilize), charging networks are piecemeal and haphazard. I had a dozen apps on my phone for the different companies. The one I dumped the most money into was Electrify America, which partnered with Walmart to install fast-chargers along interstates across much of the country. They were inescapable and essential stepping stones from Pennsylvania to Kansas.
The second oddity is that you’re also likely to end up sheepishly loitering at car dealerships, which often avail their chargers to the public for free use. On July 3rd, I even ended up at Yellowstone Harley-Davidson outside Bozeman, Montana. It actually turned into one of the best moments of the trip. Not only did I score a free charge from the super helpful and friendly staff more than willing to let me use their fast-charger for free, but they also let me test drive the LiveWire, their all-electric bike.
The thing about electric motors is that there are no gears to cycle through, and they can provide 100% of their maximum torque from a full stop. I’m glad the Harley guys told me to hold on tight, because 0-60 in 3 seconds on two wheels feels like astronaut training. Is there an exact opposite of PTSD? Just thinking about ripping down a straightaway as I type this has me grinning ear to ear.
Routing through Yellowstone National Park, the author took a break to enjoy a two-night camping trip around Shoshone Lake.
The Border Crossing, eh?
On the 4th of July, I decided to try my luck with the Mounties at the Roosville crossing, just north of Eureka, Montana. I made one last stop in town to try to grab a bite, but the pizza joint I pulled into was closed for the holiday. I stayed in the parking lot for a few minutes to poach their unprotected WiFi.
Out of nowhere, the largest dust devil I’d ever seen swung around the corner and shattered my rear windshield. It was like a driveby by Tas, the Looney Toon.
I stepped out and took stock. There was some real cosmic irony to my predicament. The two neighboring businesses were both auto shops that had closed for the holiday. A banner hanging from Quick Stop Pit Lube even taunted me about their specialty in glasswork. My one break was that there was an open hardware store across the street.
As others fired up grills and procured fireworks, I spent my Independence Day using visqueen sheeting and duct tape to paper over the jagged, gaping maw in my window. I felt like Jared Kushner developing our national pandemic response.
I don’t know if the Roosville Port of Entry is normally bumping, but as I pulled up, I was the only car within eyesight trying to cross in either direction. Perhaps that’s why the Royal Canadian Mounted Police border agent took his time with the interrogation. He pressed me not only about my reasons for travelling to Alaska, but also about COVID-19 rates in Vermont, the details of my itinerary, and my plan for making it through Northern BC and the Yukon. He emphasized several times that if I was caught at tourist sites there would be consequences–just the week before, several Texans entered a restaurant in Banff National Park and bragged openly about using ‘the Alaska Loophole’ to get into Canada in order to sightsee. Their collected fines broke five figures. The border agent emphasized several times that the penalty for getting someone sick was a fine in the millions and a 6-month stint in prison.
His Mountedness also took pains to remind me that the Yukon government declared that those transiting to Alaska would only have 24-hours to complete the 577-miles between Watson Lake and the Alcan border. I recall the words ‘six months’ and ‘prison’ making another appearance in our conversation. Gulp.
The only matter that didn’t come up was what happened to my rear windshield. I don’t think he could see it through the side windows because the rear of my car was packed to the ceiling with moving boxes.
In the end, I must have convinced him that I really was there to just plug and chug. He handed back my passport and I took off without checking to see what he thought of the visqueen.
Is there anything duct tape can’t do? It’s the coconut oil of adhesives.
The Final Boss
Range Anxiety is inescapable given our electric car infrastructure, as attested to by every single Wall Street Journal reporter in The Electric Vehicle Road Test. Given the newness of mass produced EVs, it’s no wonder. Imagine trying to go on a roadtrip when the first Model Ts were rolling off the production lines in the 1910s.
But there’s range anxiety and then range anxiety.
The crazy thing about EV batteries is how little energy they actually hold. My 960-pound lithium ion battery stores less energy than two gallons of gasoline. The reason it can get a car so far is that the electric motor is vastly more efficient than an internal combustion engine. It makes sense when you think about it: the former is just a magnet spinning a rotor, while the latter requires a convoluted process of literally harnessing explosions to generate forward momentum. No wonder EVs have a third of the maintenance costs of ICE cars.
The downside of the efficiency though, is that instead of being able to use waste heat from an engine to warm your car or defog your windows, you have to use precious charge to run an electric heater. Same deal if you need to condition your battery while it’s cold out. I knew I could squeeze 300 miles out of a full charge on flat, warm, dry pavement while driving like there was a Fabergé egg in between my foot and the accelerator. But I also knew that I was touch and go at the end of a 100-mile roundtrip from Burlington to Stowe last ski season despite leaving at close to 100%.
I blitzed up to Edmonton on southern Canada’s exquisite fast-charging network, but as the temperatures dropped and fast-chargers moved to the rearview, my progress slowed. In Ft. St. John, I bade goodbye to my last charging station for 800 miles.
The author’s all-electric Chevrolet Bolt at Muncho Lake in northern British Columbia.
On the crawl from RV park to RV park in northern BC, I had plenty of time to review my plan for traversing the Yukon in 24 hours. Everything was going to have to go right. I would have to hit the checkpoint at Watson Lake, top up to 100% at one of two RV parks, climb 257 miles to Whitehorse, fast-charge to 100%, then drive 277 miles to Beaver Creek, home of the only other RV park in the Yukon with a 50A charger. There, I’d power up just enough to make it to Tok, 109 miles down the road.
Successfully traversing the Yukon in under 24 hours hinged on those two 50A charges. As it turns out, the more common 30A outlets only provide a single 120 volt ‘hot’ wire (same as a standard wall outlet in North America—the other prongs are ‘neutral’ and ‘ground’). 50A outlets have a second hot wire, which stacks with the first to provide 240 volts to the EV. The rub is that Bolts (and most other EVs) are hardcoded to treat any 120 circuit as if it’s a wall outlet, and never draw more than 12 amps. EV engineers must be paranoid about overdrawing a home plug–a recipe for a tripped breaker at best, but a house fire at worst.
If all that’s Greek to you, here’s the punchline: using any RV plug other than a 50A outlet would take 60 hours, or exactly 1/73rd of a COVID-violator’s Canadian prison sentence, in order to give me a full charge.
My delicate plan started falling apart almost as soon as I pulled out the COVID checkpoint at the edge of Watson Lake, the first habitation one hits upon crossing into the Yukon.
I drove 15 miles past town to an RV park that had prominently advertised 50A chargers. But after inquiring at the front office, I was informed that they had not turned them on for the season, and received oddly evasive answers about whether they could be turned on at all. My only choice was to backtrack to Watson Lake. It meant losing time I didn’t have, and stretching the jump to Whitehorse to an anxiety-inducing 272 miles.
Initially, reaching Downtown RV Park in Watson Lake did little to assuage my anxiety. The grumpy proprietor scoffed when I told him about what had happened down the road. He told me that his establishment was in fact the only one in the Yukon with 50A chargers–all the others were false advertising, including my planned destination in Beaver Creek.
My jaw dropped. If that were true, there was absolutely no chance that I could have made the crossing in 24-hours, even if I only stopped to charge long enough in Beaver Creek to limp over the Alcan border (which would leave me stranded on the far side).
Initially, I was skeptical. Who was this dude? During our first interaction, he seemed annoyed that I was wearing a mask and implied he thought the pandemic was overblown. He spoke with a layered accent, the base of which sounded Irish to me. But maybe that’s because he was a dead ringer for actor Brendan Gleeson.
A red fox visits Downtown RV Park in Watson Lake, Yukon Territory.
I stepped away and called the Beaver Creek RV park. Sure enough, imposter Gleeson was right. Chastened, I went back to his office ready to be the padawan seeking his sensei’s wisdom.
I was told that the reason the RV parks could get away with advertising 50A was because of One Simple Trick. If there were two adjacent 30A plugs, a special splitter and an extension cable would let you charge from two at the same time, tricking an RV into thinking it was just pulling from the two hot 120V wires in a standard 50A outlet. He must have sensed me perking up because he noted the same trick works on electric cars.
Not only did this mean I wouldn’t be stuck for days after sputtering into Beaver Creek, it meant I could stop earlier, at a place cheerily called Destruction Bay. It was the lone location with an open RV park on the 277-miles stretch between Whitehorse and Beaver Creek. Charging there could get me all the way to Tok. A 24-hour transit through the Yukon was once again on the table!
As we kept speaking, I was reminded never to judge a book by its cover. It turned out my interlocutor was a former electrical engineer that spent his career supervising projects on nuclear submarines for the American, Canadian, Japanese, and Chinese militaries. He told me at least five Tesla drivers had come through his park in recent years, and he had to teach them all how to use a splitter and two 30A outlets. We ended up chatting for the better part of an hour. He was loaded with fascinating stories, though frequently had to gloss over state secret details.
It was getting late when I was ready to hit the road again. I reached Whitehorse in the middle of the night, then drove through the wee hours to Destruction Bay. I passed out as I charged, and awoke to a full battery, warm, sunny skies and an empty road beckoning me to the border.
A wood bison stands his ground on the side of the highway near the British Columbia-Yukon border.
The State of Alaska
There was no question about which WSJ reporter had the easiest time with their EV: the one based in Shanghai. About half of all EV sales worldwide happen in China, where they are heavily promoted because they offer a solution to the country’s notorious urban air quality issues. Unlike most other nations, China has a centralized authority that has built out a thoughtful and well-maintained fast-charger infrastructure.
My tribulations and winding path home are testaments to the inadequacies of North America’s charging infrastructure. But as tough as boreal Canada was, nowhere is as ill-equipped for EVs as Alaska. During the final leg of my drive, not a single fast-charger popped up when I opened the widely-used app, PlugShare. Aside from the Juneau area, there hasn’t been a readily apparent effort to set up Level 2 stations where they are most needed, at least not one that has successfully established a network of chargers at key points, such as along Alaska’s highways.
Perhaps some of you reading this are thinking that Alaska has no business having EVs in the first place. Wasn’t I just bemoaning range loss in the cold? But here’s the thing: EVs actually have some great features for Alaska living. They let you avoid our famously expensive gasoline. They can help eliminate air quality nightmares during cold inversions in the winter. With real time pricing of electricity, they could also help us manage the load on our electric grid, particularly as we bring more and more renewables online. With a little hacking, pretty much any EV on the market today can even power a home during a blackout or act as the battery bank for solar panels on an off-grid home or cabin.
Plus, it’s a pretty moral thing to do in a state where whole communities are literally melting into the ocean because of climate change.
View of the Nelchina Glacier from the Glenn Highway.
So what would Alaska have to do to become more EV friendly? The biggest need right now is a fastcharging grid. Even if the state didn’t want to fund it directly, they could partner with the private sector to create a well-designed network, running at least from Fairbanks to Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. They could also work with the Yukon Territorial government to build a network running along the entire Alcan.
To promote sales, the state could waive registration and titling fees, and provide property tax credits for the home or business installation of EV supply equipment (EVSEs–basically Level 2 chargers for home use).
Lastly, the state could install or incentivize destination chargers at popular stopping points around the state. Level 2 or even Level 1 chargers at national park entrances, remote trailheads, and other sites on the road system would allow recreationists to leave an EV for several hours to several days. At off grid locations, destination chargers could be powered by solar panels or small wind turbines.
Long journeys in an electric vehicle can be an adventure–for now–particularly in a place like Alaska. But I’m looking forward to the day it is an everyday occurrence.
Edit: Astute readers have pointed out that Chevrolet of Wasilla is now home to mainland Alaska’s first public DC fast-charger, and that there are a further four fast-chargers in and around Juneau with CHAdeMO plugs, used by Nissan Leafs and certain other brands for Level 3 charging (Bolts use CCS). Language in the article has been edited accordingly, as well as to more clearly reflect efforts by at least one local utility outside of Juneau to incentivize the installation of public level 2 chargers at interested businesses.
Tim is an Alaskan, ecologist, and occasional science writer. He is currently a Gund Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Vermont, where his research looks at whether and how reforestation can be used as a tool for combatting malaria in Madagascar. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow. More at www.timothytreuer.com.