Electric Road Trip

CO2 and the Bolt across Motor City

DETROIT — I rented a 2017 Chevy Bolt from a guy named Simon, who I found through a car loaner website similar to Airbnb. I sent him a selfie of my mug on Saturday. Then Simon, with my $185.49 credit card payment, directed me to an electric plug at the Detroit airport.

I grabbed the Bolt and sped away. I sampled the electric car's responsive torque, stepping on the gas — wait, the juice — as I pulled onto an interstate highway. I settled into an easy pace that produced 3.8 miles of driving for every kilowatt-hour of battery draw.

It's not a cheap option — a conventional rental compact was available for less than half that price. Still, there's a lot to learn about how much filling up the car with electricity might save over gasoline.

A trip in an electric car also opens a book on a remarkably different set of numbers concerning mobility and climate. As we traverse the Upper Midwest and begin our journey west, our reporting will use new data to explore the trip's intersection with transportation emissions.

The Bolt's big dashboard screen told me at the end of the day it had taken 28.3 kilowatts of energy to travel 109.6 miles on Saturday. It was hard to keep from looking at the screen as the miles-per-kilowatt inched up and down with the car's speed.

Charging up makes me attuned to the energy mix going into the car — and how that intersects with greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. According to data showing the average grid output across Michigan and 15 states on Sunday, 37% of the electricity was derived from coal and 22% from natural gas across the regional grid run by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator.

Nuclear reactors were contributing roughly 24% of energy and wind farms 17% of energy in the region. That means I'm driving around on 41% carbon-free fuel sources.

For its part, the utility DTE Electric has committed to a carbon-free portfolio of electricity by 2050. If anyone's counting, that's three decades away.

Our reporting continues as we move on to Chicago; Davenport, Iowa; and Minneapolis. Along the way, you'll read about a top Ford Motor Co. executive who is helping to shape the company's electrification effort, an entrepreneur who makes charging systems for electric buses and trucks, and electric utility executives whose industry is going through its greatest disruption since Thomas Edison.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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