Bolt to Alaska! Energetic Lessons from a 4,300-mile Electric Road Trip, Part II

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This is the second of two posts recounting the author’s experiences travelling by electric car from Cincinnati, Ohio to Fairbanks, Alaska. In the 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. This second post outlines the scenic journey along the Icefields Parkway and Alaska Highway—one of the most remote highways in North America.

Day 5: Calgary to Prince George, BC

Lesson: DC Fast chargers need to be as easy to use as a gas pump. Requiring users to have a mobile app and mobile data to charge is a recipe for disaster, especially in rural areas with limited cellular service. Ideally chargers should have a simple “tap” credit card payment system.

Thanks to a convenient level 2 charger at our hotel, Rob and I departed Calgary with a full charge and a projected range of 240 miles (less than the EPA estimated range but far better than what we were getting across the prairies). After the travails of the prairies, we were elated to be finally reaching the Rocky Mountains and the stunning scenery of Banff and Jasper National Parks. We enjoyed a quick soak in Banff Hot Springs and a complimentary level-2 charge from Parks Canada before continuing the journey up the Icefields Parkway.

Bolt in Banff National Park. Photo by the author.

So much of EV road tripping entails going a bit out of your way to find a fast charger, but in the process you experience charming little towns and cultural destinations off the beaten path. Fields, BC inside Yoho National Park was one such place. It was a stunning location, replete with intriguing history and we enjoyed cycling around the National Park for two hours while the car charged.

Once back on the road the Icefields Parkway delighted, as it always does, with bear encounters, stunning views of glacial lakes, and the sublime presence of the Athabasca Glacier.

In Jasper we again struggled with chargers—but this time the failure was by design. Many EV chargers require the user to have a smartphone charging app and an internet connection (usually mobile data) to activate the charger. With my U.S. cell phone, I did not have mobile data in Jasper. I had to visit multiple nearby businesses to locate Wi-Fi, and run back and forth from the Wi-Fi to the charger in a desperate attempt to get the car to charge. I was finally able to activate the charger by calling the charging company and having them activate the charger remotely. At least we could enjoy an excellent burger and brew at Jasper Brewing after the charging finally began.

Little did we know, our charging woes for the day weren’t over yet. I elected to take a longer route via Prince George because there were more fast chargers along the route. Yet when we arrived at one of these free rural chargers, it wouldn’t work. We had to settle for a level 2 charger that dispensed electrons at a quarter of the speed. We dozed in the car while it slowly charged and consequently didn’t arrive in Prince George until 3:30am. Not fun.

Day 6: Prince George to Fort Nelson

Lesson: Always check your settings on the Plugshare or your EV charger app. It’s helpful to have a second opinion and a smart phone!

After an exceptionally late night, I begrudgingly awoke at 8:30am to check the charging status of the Bolt on a nearby Prince George level 2 municipal charger. Although we had been plugged in since arriving, it wouldn’t be done until 3:30pm to get a full charge. We had a 200-mile leg ahead until the next charger, so we had to get as much range as possible. I drove around town trying to find a faster charger, but to no avail.

Then Rob looked on his Plugshare app and asked, “Why don’t you just go to the level 3 charger?” Somehow in messing around with the search parameters for chargers, the fastest chargers weren’t showing up on my device! After finding the right charger, in under 45 minutes we had a nearly full battery, with an estimated 240 miles of range. Hallelujah!

“Powered by Water” BC Hydro fast charger in Prince George, BC. Photo by the author.

After significantly reduced range due to weather and trouble with chargers, I was getting very nervous about several upcoming 200-plus mile segments. Counteractively, the Bolt met or exceeded its EPA efficiency rating of 3.9 miles per Kwh while driving through the mountains. This is because of regenerative breaking, where the Bolt actually gains energy as it travels downhill. Thanks to these dynamics, the drive from Calgary to Fairbanks proved far easier than the first half of the trip!

As our car charged at the very basic East Pine highway wayside off BC 97, we cycled down the road and encountered some of the massive electrical infrastructure related to the controversial Site C hydroelectric dam project. By the end of the day, we were finally driving down the storied Alaska highway, the only possible path to drive home. We stayed in Fort St. John at a hotel with a level 2 charger.

Day 7: Fort St. John to Toad River

EV Lesson: Range Anxiety is a real thing for all drivers along the Alaska Highway. Ironically, there is likely greater access to EV charging than gas stations!

Leaving Fort St. John we tackled the single longest stretch of the entire journey at 237 miles. Rob drove most of the way, driving efficiently (i.e. 55 mph) and enjoying the stunning scenery. The weather aided us, with mostly clear skies except for a bit of spitting rain. We arrived with range to spare.

A standard sign along the Alaska Highway. Photo by the author.

In Fort Nelson, we sought the assistance of Todd at Dalex Auto. The auto shop owner had helped EV owners in the past and graciously allowed us to plug into his 240-volt outlet. While he didn’t own an EV himself, Todd was bullish that EV tourism would bring more sustainable development to Fort Nelson and he was eager for the town to install a DC fast charger.

While the car charged, Rob and I cycled around and explored the local history museum.

The elevation and colder weather after Fort Nelson proved a bit challenging, so instead of pushing onto Rocky Mountains Lodge, we stayed at the lodge and RV park in Toad River.

Herein lay the secret to successfully driving an EV along the Alaska Highway: each remote RV Park featured its own electrical microgrid with 30- or 50-amp service. This meant that with the right connectors (either a TT-30 or NEMA 14-50) we could create our own level 2 charger. For 30 amp service, users must use a Y adapter to bring electrical service from two outlets and provide 240 volt power. (Hat tip to Tim Treuer for this game-changing EV hack).

The implications of RV sites as level 2 EV chargers was huge. While all types of vehicles on the Alaska Highway face range anxiety and must be careful to refuel, it meant that there were actually more charging places for EVs than combustion vehicles. Who knew creating the infrastructure for Aunt Betty’s Winnebago would also turn the Alaska Highway into an EV charging corridor?

The “Y” connector deployed. Photo by the author.

At the Toad River Lodge the owner charged us $42.50 to plug in the EV for the night, and we deployed a “Y” connector to enable the Bolt to charge at 240 volts. It was our first test of this electrical trick and it worked perfectly!

Day 8: Toad River to Whitehorse

EV Lessons: It’s good to stop and smell the flowers (or soak in the hot springs and hang out with the Wood Bison)  

The stunning views of Muncho Lake in the morning reinforced the belief that we had made the right decision not to drive this stretch the night before. This is one of my favorite stretches of the highway (along with Destruction Bay). After soaking in Laird Hot Springs, we drove slowly and marveled at the local Wood Bison herd.

Rob enjoying the views at Mucho Lake. Photo by the author.

We easily made the 200-miles to Watson Lake and were excited to begin charging at the Yukon’s new complimentary DC fast charging network. The Yukon Government constructed four crucial DC fast chargers along the Alaska Highway as part of a larger EV infrastructure buildout throughout the territory to electrify it’s highways.

The Bolt charges at a new and complimentary Yukon DC Fast Charger in Watson Lake. Photo by the author.

While the car charged, we explored the famed Signpost Forest, as well as the excellent Alaska Highway museum. We arrived in Whitehorse later that evening and juiced up at another complimentary Yukon Government fast charger. It was nice to be in a civilized place with fast chargers!

Day 9: Whitehorse to Beaver Creek

EV Lesson: It took decades and billions of dollars to build out the petroleum infrastructures and fueling stations which make modern mobility possible. The US and Canadian governments are committed to electrifying transportation on an even faster timeline, but the energy transition will take time.

Our morning began with a delightful visit to Alpine Bakery for coffee and bread (Fairbanks friends—this is the Lulus Bagels of Whitehorse). I had planned to top up the car while visiting the Yukon Transportation Museum (a fitting arrangement, no?), but unfortunately it was closed.

We pushed onto Haines Junction, which hosts the westernmost DC fast charger along the Alaska Highway (there will be a new one opening at the end of the Alaska Highway in Delta Junction in 2023). Rob and I enjoyed a stunning bike ride towards Haines while the Yukon Government provided the electrons to energize the car’s batteries.

Rob cycling the Haines Cutoff road. Photo by the author.]

Near Destruction Bay, not far from the Soldier’s Summit, I stopped to investigate the remnants of the first two hydrocarbon pipeline systems in the far north—CANOL and ALCANGO (or the Alaska-Canada Gas Oil Pipeline). These military pipelines were built during World War II and the Cold War, respectfully, to supply American and Canadian armed forces with large volumes of petroleum products. Now all that remains are a few pieces of rusted 3-inch and 8-inch diameter pipe. Yet the petro-legacy of these early pipelines is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which we would parallel on the final day driving between Delta Junction and Fairbanks.

CANOL was not unlike the DC fast chargers that now dotted the Alaska Highway. The pipeline system had a series of petroleum product supply lines—CANOL 2, 3, and 4—which supplied Whitehorse, Watson Lake, and Fairbanks (respectively) with large volumes of diesel and aviation gas. This ensured the military trucks driving up the Highway and aircraft being ferried up the Northwest Staging Route had ample fuel supplies to complete their journeys (flying to the Soviet Union via Fairbanks).

Remnants of the CANOL 4 pipeline from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, operated by the US military during and after World War II. Photo by the author.]

That evening, we stayed at the Discover Yukon campground, not far from the Alaska border. Our timing proved fortuitous; they had just opened for the season and turned on their generator. We were the first EV to ever charge there.

Day 10: Beaver Creek to Fairbanks

EV Lessons: Alaska significantly lags behind other states and provinces in installed EV infrastructure.

Our last day began with a lazy morning, starting with a hot shower at Discover Yukon, and lots of stops along the road. Rob was amazed at how few cars were on the road (we stood in the middle of the road for 10 minutes and saw nary a soul) and how the permafrost had radically contorted the highway. We crossed the border into Alaska and arrived in Tok around noon.

Alaska proved to be the biggest DC fast charger desert of the entire trip. Unlike Yukon and British Columbia, Alaska had not invested in charging infrastructure. With a dearth of charging options, we had little choice but to pay $70 to recharge for the day at the Tok RV Village. This was the single most expensive charge of the trip. Ultimately the “fuel” for this 4,300-mile journey cost less than $400. While the car charged in Tok, Rob and I enjoyed a hot meal at Fast Eddys and a bike ride down Tok’s excellent bike paths.

The sun remained high in the late spring sky as we undertook the home stretch from Tok to Fairbanks, enjoying a stop at the Buffalo Center Drive In for milkshakes and fries. Beautiful views of the Alaska Range along the Tanana River offered a fitting welcome back to Interior Alaska.

Home at last. A symbolic final charge at the Golden Valley Electric Association’s DC Fast Chargers. Photo by the author.]

The journey ended at 10:30pm with a ceremonial electron top up at Golden Valley Electric Association’s charger, the northernmost fast chargers in North America. Now the real adventure began—living with an EV in one of the North America’s coldest cities!

Final Thoughts

As I reflect back on the cross-continental adventure, a few key points stand out. The drive proved significantly less expensive than driving an internal combustion engine vehicle (under $400 for fuel costs for the entire trip). This cost savings also represented a huge energy savings compared with a combustion vehicle (the Bolt gets 120 miles per gallon equivalent). The Bolt was a fun (zippy) and comfortable (heat seats) road trip machine.

There were several days when charging problems added hours to our drive (day 5 stands out as particularly grueling). There is no doubt one could have made the journey faster and easier with a regular internal combustion engine vehicle. This is still very much early days for northern EV infrastructure. My experiences constituted the “bleeding edge” as probably one of the first five non-Teslas to make this journey. Despite the occasional consternation, most days we traveled roughly 500 miles per day, which is about what I’ve found comfortable with a traditional petrol car.

Stopping to charge in off-the-beaten path locations like Fields, BC added a vibrancy and richness to the journey. Cycling while the car charged up also gave us exercise, a much-needed break, and a different perspective on the landscape.  

For most Alaskans or northern rural residents, I think a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) offers to best mix of efficiency, convenience, and value today. These vehicles have a battery which permits all electric driving around town (20-50 miles of range), with a petrol engine for longer range trips. As my trip demonstrated, the infrastructure is not yet there to make long-distance electric vehicle travel as easy and convenient as most North Americans expect.

That being said, electric vehicles and their related infrastructure are evolving quickly. This year automakers and Alaska’s cleantech accelerator, Launch Alaska, experimented with mobile chargers in a Fairbanks-Arctic Ocean road rally. New mass-market EVs like the Kia EV6 have a range of up to 328 miles and can charge from 10 to 80 percent in as little as 18 minutes. Dozens of nations and automakers, including Ford, General Motors, and Mercedes-Benz, have announced plans to phase-out fossil vehicles. Tens of billions of dollars are being spent across the US and Canada building out ever-faster charging networks. A mass-market EV future may not quite be here yet, but it’s coming quickly, even in the far north.

Feature image: The Chevy Bolt traveling the Alaska Highway near Destruction Bay, Yukon. Photo by the author.
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Philip Wight

Philip Wight is an Assistant Professor of History and Arctic & Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He studies histories of energy and the environment, with a focus on infrastructure, mobility, and climate change. When not in the archives, Phil can be found fatbiking, packrafting, and skiing throughout Alaska.


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