Everyday EV Notes
This post was mostly written while sitting in my new/second hand electric car at a public charging station, waiting for the 60 kwh battery to fully charge. Or more accurately, waiting for it to charge to 80% because it’s better for the health of the battery to keep charge levels between 20% and 80%, never fully charging or fully depleting it. As my partner put it one time when we were waiting for another vehicle to finish charging before we could connect, this is a specific time in history when there are enough EVs to warrant public charging stations but not enough that the system is robust or established. It’s a moment to reflect on and document the experience as it unfolds.
I am not deluding myself that any kind of individual consumer action is the solution to a catastrophe on the scale of what is happening to the planet’s climate, ecosystems, and life on Earth. But, for this reflection, I’m focusing on the EV, rather than get swept into general musings about the global and systemic nature of the problem.
I have mixed emotions about driving an EV in 2021. It feels like the only option in my life right now, as enmeshed as I am in the car culture of the sprawling city where I live and work. And since I require a vehicle to commute to work, and to do the necessary errands to sustain our family from where we can afford to live in the suburbs, having an EV makes sense.
Climate Crisis Undeniable
The last few years and this past summer especially, have brought some of the most significant, record-breaking extreme weather events in living memory and more significantly, these weather events have begun to be publicly explained as evidence of climate change. Mainstream media is finally reporting on climate change and linking it directly the devastating forest fires, extreme heat and unprecedented floods.
Living in Alberta, where oil and gas have been the dominant industry and source of economic flourishing for decades, climate change denial is the norm. Organizations like “Friends of Science” literally spent money on advertising climate change denial on giant billboards, explaining that the sun is the cause of global warming, and that weather and temperatures have always fluctuated. The fact that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than they have ever been in 200 million years (all of human existence) and that the CO2 molecules in the atmosphere are directly resulting from the burning of the fossil fuels that are fueling our economy is conveniently ignored. Friends of Science may have missed their mark in targeting people who actually understand science, but certainly serve to affirm the widespread commitment to oil and gas industry in the province and the refusal to accept responsibility for the consequences of a warming planet.
Car-Free vs. EV
For most of my adult life I have gotten by without owning a vehicle. Taking transit, cycling, walking and living close enough to my workplace. When I graduated from the Bachelor of Education program — a mid-life career change, anticipating a job on the other side of the city with a 2-hour commute one-way by transit, despite low funds we scraped up enough to get a car. We found an old beater on Kijiji for less than $1000. The seller asked for $999, which I thought was funny, and jokingly asked for the dollar change when we paid him in cash. The little black hatchback was banged up on the front bumper and hood from being in an accident, the headlights were very dim due to being cracked allowing dust to settle on the reflective surfaces inside. But it passed inspection and served us well for 4 years, much longer than we had expected.
Now that I’ve been teaching long enough to secure a permanent full-time position, to get out of debt and start to save a little every month, we have more options. Driving a beat-up older car with bad headlights becomes dangerous and irresponsible in the winter when commuting before sunrise and after sunset every day. As the tangible impacts of a global warming begin to be more frequent and more extreme, I could not fathom replacing our previous 2005 beater with a newer gas fueled car. So we set about researching and test-driving electric vehicles through Go Electric, a second-hand EV dealership in town. Go Electric brings in used full electric vehicles (EV)and plug in hybrid vehicles (PHEV)to provide a variety of affordable options across brands, models and years. We were very lucky to have such a resource in the city and to have their help to eventually arrive at a decision to get an EV that fit our budget and transportation needs.
Through our adventures in test-driving, we realized that with the lack of charging stations and our inability to charge at home in the condo parking lot, the standard 100km battery range was not enough for daily commutes plus necessary errands, let alone the occasional unexpected but urgent trip across town. After exploring the option of getting a plug-in hybrid, we ended up going with a more expensive used EV with closer to 300 km range.
Public Charging Stations Learning Curve
We discovered the inconsistencies of the charging station network one night while test driving a cute, compact and fun-to-drive Nissan Leaf EV. We drove around all evening, looking for an accessible charging station and learning through trial and error how to connect the cables and how to pay through various apps like ChargePoint or Flo and PlugShare, that must be downloaded and must have Wi-Fi or good network connection to load payment.
There are only a handful of working, publicly accessible fast-charging stations in the city, and a handful of slow charging stations mostly located in the Northwest quadrant. The PlugShare app that shows a map of all types of charging stations with post from users, is practical but often inaccurate because many of the stations listed on the map are either decommissioned, have disappeared or are in need of repair. The cluster of car dealerships near us on Deerfoot and Heritage had EV charging stations at one time but not anymore, although they still deceptively show up on the maps. Some condo buildings in wealthier neighbourhoods have charging stations listed on the app but they are private and located in underground parking garages for residents only.
We ended up driving around to 4 different charging stations, using up precious battery and range, and ultimately were unsuccessful. This experience persuaded us to look for an EV with a larger battery and longer range, to avoid the stress of accessing charging stations and worrying about running out of battery on the way to work or on the way home.
After bringing our Chevy Bolt EV home, the first time we tried to use the nearest public charging station with our newly purchased car, we had no idea how it worked, and we didn’t have the app or a way to pay. The instructions listed on the station itself were basic. I downloaded the app, using a lot of my data, and found the station on the map, clicked on it to try to activate it. The little screen on the charge box showed a message and then froze on that screen. We connected the cable but nothing would happen. We disconnected, reconnected, waited and gave it time to reset. I started panicking at the thought of not being able to charge that day and running out of battery, preventing me from driving to work. I realized how much I had taken for granted the longer range available with even a small and inefficient gas engine.
In the meantime, another car arrived to use the slow charging cable on the same station. They had their windows rolled down, said hi and helped us figure it out. They were helpful and friendly and talked us through the process of how to use the charging station. This wasn’t an isolated experience. Most times I’ve been to this and other stations, another car, usually a Tesla, is charging at the level 2 cable, with vehicle occupants hanging out in the car, listening to music, texting, talking on a device etc. And every time we’ve met other EV drivers at any charging station, in Canmore, in Field, in another part of Calgary, people have been friendly and generous with tips and support. It’s like a semi-underground community of early adopters, as EV sales begin to pick up and the demand increases.
EV Privilege and Risk Rant
According to climate scientists, we need to stop burning fossil fuels immediately if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Phasing out fossil fuel use over the next two decades will limit the most catastrophic impacts though we’re still in for extreme weather, increasing and unlivable heat and loss of biodiversity and agricultural productivity. And yet, the emissions from personal vehicles are only a small part of the problem, as burning of coal on industrial scale is far more harmful. If global corporations are unwilling/unable to stop extracting, processing and burning coal, will it even matter whether individual consumers continue to burn petroleum in their cars and trucks?
The privilege to take risks and the sacrifice of convenience are insurmountable barriers to widespread adoption of EVs in the immediate future. Risking running out of battery and getting stuck somewhere, risking disruption in schedule to stop for an hour to fast charge, risking unknown problems arising due to new systems and less available supports, are tenable for people like me who have enough free time to be flexible and who don’t have kids or elderly or disabled family members relying on them for transportation.
Economic inequity that means many people can’t afford EVs, puts us into an elite EV owning group of privileged and risk-taking early adopters. Even though second-hand EVs are available for $10 000 now and with financing options, the limited battery range and the lack of charging infrastructure for people like us who live in townhouses or apartments without garages or high voltage electrical outlets, makes it impractical.
Do our individual consumer choices help to push the culture towards sustainability for everyone? Will the majority of people be prepared to sacrifice convenience and mobility for a more ethical and sustainable investment? The answer is most likely no, however, the risk is far greater if we don’t do anything. If we do nothing, we are risking everything; loss of life, loss of biodiversity, loss of livelihoods, large scale economic disruption, food and water shortages, unlivable conditions, widening gap between rich and poor, political instability and more.
The fact is, we are interdependent on other humans and other species, and on the planet as a whole. Individualism is a myth, from this perspective. The personal choices we make can make a small difference, can influence others and build momentum for larger scale change. We need to act with increased awareness of this interdependence, or risk everything.
Change or Short Change
Where I once believed in a radical transformation of society, a timely end to capitalism and a full transition to renewable, sustainable, equitable and collectivist systems, I am now resigned to the overwhelming reality that we have passed the tipping points of climate change already. Transformation is still possible and in some ways is inevitable, but what will this transformation entail? Will it be reactionary change, holding on to harmful ways of life while pushing for technology and capitalism to save us from harm? Will it be visionary, holistic change in collaboration with diverse cultures and species to nurture life and ecological vitality? It is our responsibility as earthlings to care for our home and make the best of the situation, as individuals, with our families, communities, workplaces and governments.