This is the first of two posts recounting the author’s experiences travelling by electric car from Cincinnati, Ohio to Fairbanks, Alaska. In this first post, Philip Wight details planning a 4,300-mile EV road trip, acquiring a used electric vehicle, and the initial charging lessons between Cincinnati and Calgary. The second post outlines the scenic journey along the Icefields Parkway and Alaska Highway—one of the most remote highways in North America.
In the early 20th Century, gasoline and electric vehicles (EVs) fought for market share. In 1910, Thomas Edison participated in a 1000-mile endurance race with a Bailey Electric Phaeton automobile. It was meant to demonstrate advances in battery electric vehicles, yet struggled to keep pace with its gasoline competitors.
Much has changed in the last century, yet questions remain about the viability of electric vehicles—especially for long-distance travel. This is an important moment in the coming energy transition. Electric vehicles are now more than 5% of market share—a widely considered crucial tipping point—in both the United States and Canada. In just the last nine months, automakers have sold 70% more EVs than this time last year.
But can electric vehicles really go the distance? Are there sufficient electric chargers to drive 4,300 miles across a vast swath of rural North America, from the Eastern Prairies to the Arctic? On a recent road trip, I discovered the joys and pains of long-distance electric mobility a 112 years after Edison’s journey.
The trip was off to a kinetic start as I heard the crunch of metal on metal. The driver of the brand-new Kia EV6 offered a loud four-letter reaction out his open window as he sideswiped a sports car while backing into the electric vehicle charging spot in the Indianapolis parking garage. My father and I were standing a few awkward feet away when the stranger hit the parked car. It was not the first EV lesson that day but it left an impression: careful where you place EV chargers—each person’s ability to park in tight spaces is not equal! From the very beginning, my electric road trip from Ohio to Alaska proved illuminating.
Months earlier, this trip took shape from the needs of my life in Fairbanks, Alaska. My wife and I were expecting our first child and although we were proud to have been a one-car family for a decade, we sought the freedom and convenience of a second vehicle.
As an environmental historian focused on energy, two things were clear to me: EVs offered impressive environmental benefits (even with a fossil-heavy electric grid) and the far north has a long history with electrification. This convinced me buy a used Chevy Bolt EV—the first affordable EV with over 200 miles of range.
Prices on used Chevy Bolts were quite reasonable for an electric vehicle. The car had experienced a recall on its lithium-ion battery, depressing its resale value. Soon after though, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provided significant EV subsidies and increased consumer demand and prices.
Since cars in Alaska are more expensive than in the lower 48, I wondered: why not just purchase the vehicle from somewhere we can get the best deal (the Midwest as it turned out) and set off on an epic 4,300-mile EV road trip to Alaska? (This is not an uncommon practice amongst Alaskans). When I called my dad, Rob, to get his thoughts on the provocative idea, his initial reaction was decisive: “When do we leave?” Only after did he ask, “You’re sure this is possible, right?” I used a combination of the EV apps A Better Route Planner and PlugShare to ensure that the Bolt could go the distance.
From an academic perspective, this trip also offered an insightful window into the status of EV charging infrastructure at a pivotal moment in US, North American, and global energy history. A year or two earlier, it would have been much harder to make this same journey, but Canada had recently installed several new crucial EV chargers in British Columbia and Yukon. Following the trip, President Biden’s administration also approved the first $5 billion in National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure funds for EV chargers across the United States, which is dramatically changing the EV landscape.
I found a used 2019 Chevy Bolt with 46,000 miles and a brand-new 66 kwh battery for just under $22,000. Best of all, the new battery pack came with an additional 27 miles range and a with an 8-year, 100,000 mile warranty—it was as though I had purchased a new car.
From the very inception of the trip, people within the electric vehicle community were exceptionally supportive. Tim Treuer, an Alaskan who had made a similar journey from Vermont to Alaska in 2020, provided a detailed spreadsheet of all the RV sites and chargers along the remote Alaska Highway. A Reddit user on the r/ChevyBolt forum sent me his level 1 charging cord after I explained that mine hadn’t come with one (I found it absurd that a dealer would sell an EV without a basic charger). I offered to pay for shipping but he declined, replying: “Welcome to the EV community.” Kirk Martakis of Cantwell, Alaska served as both an exemplar (he demonstrated that an EV worked just fine at -30 Fahrenheit/ -34 Celsius) and supporter when he gifted me a vital level two charging cable for use at RV sites.
What are these various levels of chargers—1, 2, and 3?
Level 1 chargers use a standard 120v wall outlet to deliver up to 2 kwh of electricity per hour. Many EV owners do not regularly use a Level 1 charger since they charge so slowly, but they work perfectly well given sufficient time.
Level 2 chargers deliver up to 7 kwh of electricity per hour. These are installed on a 220- or 240-volt outlet and are standard for home EV charging.
Level 3 chargers, also known as DC Fast Chargers (DCFC) charge at up to 350 KW per hour. These are the crucial chargers that permit EV owners refill as fast as possible and undertake longer road trips. In order to make the most of the journey, Rob and I packed two Brompton folding bicycles so we could explore local landscapes while the car charged. After a plane journey over some of the same landscape I’d drive just days later, Rob and I departed Cincinnati, Ohio in mid-May, 2022. While the snow was still thick on the ground in Alaska, it was full on Spring and over seventy degrees along the Ohio River.
Day 1: Cincinnati to Madison
EV Lessons: Careful when you charge with someone else’s cord. Don’t assume a charger is public (check status on PlugShare). Beware of EV chargers in tight spaces! Software matters as much as hardware.
The first day, as our close-encounter EV car crash underscored, proved quite eventful.
The day started with an unexpected surprise: for some reason, the Bolt hadn’t fully charged with my mom’s Kia’s charging cable the night before. So, we began our journey with a battery at 75% and sixty miles less range than expected. The first couple hours to Indianapolis were a breeze and it was a pleasure getting to know a new transportation technology and the dynamics of a zippy vehicle (the car has 266 ft-lbs of torque—more than a VW Golf GTI—and launches to sixty in 6.5 seconds).
Roadblock number two came as we navigated to a convenient DC Fast Charging station on the south side of Indianapolis. The charger at a VW dealership used to be public, but now was private. The dealership wouldn’t permit us to use it. We had barely 30 miles of range left, and there was about 20 miles to the next fast charger. So we limped across town (the car literally goes into an energy-saver mode) and arrived with less than 10 miles left. An inauspicious start to our epic road trip to demonstrate that EVs are the future!
It was right when we finally coasted into this public DC Fast Charger that we had front row seats to the slow-motion EV car crash in the parking garage.
The hits just kept coming after that. As we ate lunch, my car alerted me that it was mysteriously no longer charging. “What the hell?” I exclaimed. I walked 10 minutes back to the car, plugged it in again and returned to the restaurant. I was beginning to have doubts about this new technology. As I was enduring some seriously mediocre nachos, the EVGo charger app on my phone began offering bizarre notifications. It told me both that charging was in progress and that charging “has completed.” After walking back to the car, again, we discovered it had stopped charging at 60% with no explanation. It was time, I thought, to get out of this charging-cursed space.
We headed to an ElectrifyAmerica DC fast charger near Purdue University and had far better luck. This fast charger network was easy to use and quickly transferred electrons while we grabbed a few items from Walmart. As many EV road trippers will attest, one ends up spending a lot of time at Walmarts across the United States because of the ElectrifyAmerica DC fast chargers, ensured bathrooms, and a big box store brimming with provisions. Ironically, the ElectrifyAmerica network emerged from a settlement with Volkswagen after its “Dieselgate” scandal.
We ended the day at the home of good friends in Madison, Wisconsin. It had been a long and eventful day, and we were relieved to wind down telling stories with old friends.
Day 2: Madison to Fargo
EV Lessons: All chargers suffer hardware issues. You never know when a charger will be down. It’s better to do a quick stop at an assured level 3, than chance it on an off-the-beaten track level 2 destination charger.
In the morning, we had a 100 mile stretch until we reached a level 3 charger (55 kw) in Tomah, WI, but midway through the drive saw the computer said our battery was just about 5 miles short. I elected to find a level 2 destination charger (7 kw) at a nearby hotel and planned to use it for a quick top up to get us to the level 3 charger. We paid $10 to use the hotel charger, only to find out that it was broken. We had to take out the level 1 charger and plug in to a regular 110-volt outlet for over an hour to just get 4-5 miles! At least the young Indian-American man working the front desk, Preet, was super friendly and helpful, telling us about some cool lakes we walked to nearby. We kept utilizing ElectrifyAmerica chargers which we generally found to be easy, fast, and reliable. We finished our journey that day with two free DC fast chargers – at a Simonson’s Gas station in Minnesota and at the City Hall building in Fargo, ND. I was grateful that municipalities and states provided free charging to encourage electrification—even in conservative states like North Dakota.
Day 3: Fargo to Regina
EV Lessons: Road closures can affect the best laid plans. Climate change means more variability and uncertainty with charging plans and infrastructures. Major highways are the safest routes, because of the frequency of gas station chargers.
For the first time on the trip, we departed with a full charge. As we drove through North Dakota, we appreciated the high-speed chargers at rural Simsonson’s gas stations across the state. Along our route we looked over fields of wind turbine blades waiting to be assembled into giant machines that would turn the wind of the prairies into electricity – some of which would feed EV charging stations.
Rather than taking the most direct route to Alberta, we selected a slightly longer route through Manitoba and Saskatchewan because of the comprehensive system of chargers along the Trans-Canada Highway.
But before we connected with the Trans-Canada Highway, we encountered widespread flooding, which became so severe that it closed the highway and forced us on a longer detour. Thanks to rural gas stations with EV chargers, we weren’t stranded by the unexpected detour. Chargers along the Trans-Canada highway were consistently available and much-needed. We charged at Coop and Petro-Canada gas stations along the highway, and ended the day in Regina, where our hotel had an easily accessible level two charger.
Day 4: Regina to Calgary
EV Lessons: Weather matters more for EVs than internal combustion engine vehicles. Rain and wind can severely reduce one’s range.
Halfway through our journey we experienced the worst weather of the trip. It belted rain with temperatures in the low 40s Fahrenheit/ 5-6 Celsius. With the increased friction of the rain and colder temperatures, our range dropped nearly 50%. There was one leg where we wouldn’t have even made it 150 miles, so we elected to stop at a closer level 3 charger rather than risk running out of juice (see day 2 lessons). We were getting the worst efficiency of the entire trip, down to 2.5 miles per kilowatt hour—or nearly half the efficiency compared to Day 1 when it was sunny and 84 degrees Fahrenheit/ 28 Celsius.
Rob made an insightful observation that while petrol cars also get lower miles-per-gallon when its windy, rainy, or snowy, EV owners feel it more acutely because they experience lower efficiency in the extra time needed to recharge. While both petrol and electric car owners will pay more for reduced efficiency, the gas owner experiences almost no difference in time.
Not only was it taking more time to go the distance, but the time we had to spend wasn’t particularly pleasant. In the pouring rain we began to experience charging issues. At the Coop charger in Moose Jaw, it stopped charging after on 20 minutes. It took another five attempts of inserting the charging cable and tinkering with the user interface—with rain belting down sideways and the wind whipping my door shut—to get the car to charge properly.
Evidence suggests that experiences like these are unfortunately the norm for the existing EV charging infrastructure. Anywhere from 30-50% of chargers are underperforming at any given moment.
After another less than ideal experience at the Coop in Swift Current, SK, where the charger stopped after 20 minutes, we switched to the Petro-Canada chargers. Our experience ultimately demonstrated that the Petro-Canada network was the most reliable of the high speed charging networks on the Canadian Prairies.
Next up in Part 2: Beyond Calgary the trip became very mountainous, with far fewer chargers. How did the EV handle the mountainous roads? How was it possible to charge on the famously remote and infrastructure-scarce Alaska Highway? Stay tuned for part two to find out.