A day behind the wheel of an electric vehicle

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The Sentinel-Review spent a day behind the wheel of an electric vehicle to see what it's really to drive and charge one. The day began at the Woodstock Hydro public charging station. The car left with a full battery, and set off for a journey around the county. Megan Stacey reports.

Sitting behind the wheel of a smart electric car felt a bit like climbing into a tree house.

It's cramped, but cute. For many environmentalists, the electric vehicle -- both the minuscule smart variety and the regular-sized versions -- is a dream come true. The ride is smooth, and there are no stops for gas. Those smelly, grey exhaust fumes are a thing of the past.

There's just one catch. Until charging stations become as ubiquitous as their gas counterparts, it can be tough for an electric vehicle (EV) owner to get around.

Without a place to "fuel up," journeys in an EV are limited to short jaunts - from home to work, or the office to the supermarket.

The province announced last month that $20 million earmarked for EV charging stations in Ontario will be up for grabs.

And Oxford wants in.

With a goal to use 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050, the region is looking at just how to get there. Jay Heaman, co-chair of Smart Energy Oxford and an EV owner, is hoping the region can capitalize on the provincial grant. He extolled the virtues of his little smart electric car during this day behind the wheel of an electric vehicle.

"When you have a combustion vehicle, it's only converting about 25 per cent of the energy to motion. They're so inefficient. Whereas an electric takes about 80 to 85 per cent of the energy, and it puts it right to the wheels," Heaman said.

"There's not too many cars that will touch an electric off the line," he said, hitting the gas on Norwich Avenue as the electric vehicle whizzed past pickup trucks and SUVs.

Between the car's teeny stature and its speed, it felt a little like something out of the future.

"Not too bad for a little dinky car, huh?" Heaman said.

Owners of these green, mean machines are a passionate bunch.

They believe the electric vehicle is at the forefront of a possible overhaul in the way humans go from point A to point B - a shakeup that could put a stop to current gas-guzzling ways.

Woodstock's Tesla supercharger station -- the first tour stop -- illustrates some of the industry's innovation.

One of the eight chargers outside the Quality Hotel on Juliana Street can give a Tesla -- luxury electric vehicles -- about 300 kilometres worth of battery power in half an hour.

Heaman said an average EV like his would pick up about 5 kilometres during 30 minutes of charging.

And the superchargers won't work on any EV, just a Tesla. The charging port for a Tesla is a specialized two-pronged hose, whereas Chevy Volts or smart electrics use a three-pronged one.

It's like trying to charge an Android cellphone with an Apple charger.

"We're stymied," Heaman said. "But in fairness to Tesla, they're the only car company selling an electric car that's really investing in charge stations."

Luckily, the supercharger station was just the first stop.

Battery life: 98 per cent.

But just a few hundred metres up the road, Woodstock's Best Western hotel boasts two chargers: one for standard EVs and two for Teslas.

"They're supposed to be for guests, but if it's dying, it's dying," said Lecia Gordon at the front desk. "I'd like to think that if I had one of those vehicles and it was dying, someone would give me a charge."

Heaman's EV charged for about five minutes during the conversation inside with Gordon.

Battery life hovered around 98 per cent.

The hotel's chargers are considered Level 2 (superchargers are Level 3, and a 120-volt outlet Level 1). Heaman said an hour's charge from a Level 2 charger would likely cost the business about 50 cents.

The hotel doesn't track EV drivers, Gordon said, so there's no way to prove how many are using the charger. Likely, one station is enough.

But it exposes a problem - the unpredictability of driving and charging an EV.

"If you show up and it's not working or someone's plugged in, you're out of luck," Heaman said.

The next stop was Gunn's Hill Artisan Cheese.

Owner and operator Shep Ysselstein said he rarely, if ever, sees customers come in an electric vehicle.

"I would notice because I'm interested in things like this. Once in a blue moon, I've seen a Tesla," he said.

Ysselstein even came outside to check out Heaman's smart electric and sit behind the wheel. He said he'd like to buy a Tesla when the company comes out with a more reasonably priced vehicle.

With a few blocks of cheese now in the car, the EV tour continued.

Battery life: about 90 per cent.

There were a few brief stops in Norwich and Otterville before the EV pulled into Tillsonburg.

Battery life was down around 40 per cent, and the hunt was on to find a charge.

"Any vibrant commercial core should have this," said Tillsonburg Mayor Stephen Molnar of charging stations.

"It 's about becoming a region ... are we connected as a county?" Molnar mentioned the downtown mall as a good candidate for a charging station, thanks to huge parking lots, a central location, and easy access to restaurants and shops to spend an hour while charging.

And it's clear there is interest in Tillsonburg.

Molnar said he knows of at least a few Chevy Volt owners, and even one resident with a Tesla.

But there are no public chargers yet.

To charge his car, Heaman turned to the last-ditch option. Any regular 120-volt outlet can be rigged up to the car's EV adaptor and used as a charging point. That system is best used for long stops, when a driver is at home or at the office.

"It's 20 hours (to fully charge) from zero," Heaman explained.

"In this car, at this time of year, you might get six or seven kilometres per kilowatt hour, so for every hour you're plugged in (to a 120 V outlet), you're only going to get maximum six or seven kilometres."

But the outlet outside the town's customer service centre didn't work. Heaman circled the nearby Canadian Tire and Metro to look for an external outlet.

No luck, although a Chevy Volt was spotted outside the grocery store.

As electric cars evolve, so too does the language. There's a specific term -- range anxiety -- to describe the worry that builds as an EV driver tries to make it to the next destination or charging station.

The EV journey in Heaman's vehicle makes one thing clear: a tourist in Oxford or an EV driver that left home without a full battery could easily find themselves stranded in parts of the county.

Heaman's EV was getting low by the time it reached Ingersoll's charging stations.

Battery life: 18 per cent.

The town has two options -- a charger at the Comfort Inn on Samnah Crescent and another outside the ERTH office on Whiting Street.

The public-private distinction is also a challenge in building EV infrastructure.

If businesses with a charging station allowed public access, the implications for drivers could be huge. The same goes for payper-use options on private property. Heaman said he'd be happy to pay for the comfort of knowing a charge would always be available.

After a day on the roads, and nearly 100 kilometres travelled, Heaman's car arrived back in Woodstock with about 10 kilometres left in the battery's life.

Though Oxford is positioning itself at the forefront of the EV movement, charging stations are still far from convenient.

More accessible stations would also help entice more drivers to think about transitioning to an EV, Heaman said.

He's hopeful that other municipalities in the region will try to attract some of that government funding.

"The idea is to try and create commitment."

megan.stacey@sunmedia.ca

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