Electric Road Trip

Video blog, week 4: The Midwest

The fourth week of the Electric Road Trip just ended after starting out in Detroit, the home of the auto industry. In this video blog, reporters Jeffrey Tomich and Peter Behr recount their visits with striking General Motors workers and a top developer of Ford's electric vehicle strategy. They cut west through Chicago and Iowa and up into the Twin Cities and its environs, where electrification has grassroots appeal.

In Red Wing, Minn., where our roving scribes filmed this blog, electric car enthusiasts welcomed E&E News with warm smiles and open arms. Next week, reporter David Ferris hits the dusty trail through North Dakota. Stay tuned for the adventures.

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.

The quest to make a Minn. river town EV-ready

RED WING, Minn. — A book given to Bill Gehn as a Christmas gift in 2015 sparked a passion for electric vehicles. Indirectly, it also started this Mississippi River city's journey to install the first municipal fast charger in Minnesota.

That book, former E&E News editor John Fialka's "Car Wars," led Gehn to buy a 2014 Ford Focus electric on Autotrader.com for $10,500 that his daughter drove to and from school and work. The car got 76 miles in the summer but less than half of that in the dead of a Minnesota winter.

The range was limited but the car served its purpose, Gehn explained over breakfast at Bev's Cafe in downtown Red Wing, a town of 17,000 about an hour southwest of Minneapolis.

Gehn is a mechanical engineer at Xcel Energy Inc.'s Prairie Island nuclear plant, and it was the EV's easier upkeep that first appealed to him. But the experience of owning and driving the car, and understanding its environmental benefits, prompted him to buy a second one — a Chevrolet Bolt — even if it meant giving up his sports car.

"I'm a gearhead. I had a Corvette Stingray," he said. "But I fell in love with [the Bolt]."

The EV experience also made Gehn acutely aware of the need for charging infrastructure, especially in southwestern Minnesota. Although he could find chargers going north on Interstate 35 toward Duluth, the same wasn't true along Highway 61 near Red Wing.

So Gehn walked into a meeting of Red Wing's Sustainability Commission and made a pitch.

The commission went along and, with the City Council's blessing, sought and got a $2,000 grant from the Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Teams, a public-private partnership, to help fund the project, said Evan Brown, the chairman of the commission at the time who now serves on the council and also drives a Bolt.

With a price tag of $55,000, a 50-kilowatt fast charger was out of reach for the city of 17,000. But Gehn found a 25-kW charger for about $11,000 (though the total cost of installation ran about $23,000).

The upfront cost wasn't the only obstacle. The city had to figure out who would pay for the power. The city was reluctant to pass through the cost to residents. So, the Chamber of Commerce recruited a group of 14 businesses that agreed to pay the electricity bill. In return, the businesses, including Bev's Cafe, get to advertise with their logos on the charger, which is in a city parking lot downtown.

The city and chamber also sought a way to track who was using the charger — whether it was local residents or tourists. To do that, they borrowed an idea from a local bike-sharing program launched by area high school students.

EV drivers who want to plug in must text their ZIP code to a given phone number. Within a minute, they get a return text with a code to open a lockbox with an access card inside.

Brown said usage data collected since the charger went live in November shows it's mostly used by visitors.

"You can tell where people are coming from, and 85% of those ZIP codes are outside of our area," he said.

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.

A hot ride on an electric boat

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The work of Minnesota battery-electric vehicle missionaries doesn't end on the road.

On a chilly afternoon yesterday, an association called MN Electric Vehicle Owners offered members a short electric motor boat ride on a finger of the Mississippi River that curls past St. Paul. Reporter Jeffrey Tomich and I took a break from the Electric Road Trip to try it out.

We took seats and headed out in a bullet-shaped 20-foot aluminum "gentleman's runabout" built by Marcel LaFond, whose Symphony Boat Co. is moored in Duluth. Inside the hull is a German-built electric motor rated at 50 kilowatts. A 40-horsepower outboard motor would replace it in a conventional craft, LaFond said. The price tag is around $100,000.

Once away from the marina, LaFond gunned it and the Six-1 Conductor stood up on its stern and took off, pushing out plenty of wake but not a sound. It couldn't be further from an ear-splitting cigarette powerboat, but it is a hot ride, and perfect for sneaking up on loons, one of his customers told him.

At a comfortable 5 mph, the batteries will go for 45 minutes, LaFond said. At a top speed of 27 mph, the range is about 13 miles.

LaFond, 59, is the kind of do-it-myself techie-craftsman whom you'd expect to find among early EV adopters. Growing up with boats on Minnesota's lakes, he proceeded to college, where his senior industrial studies project was converting a Volkswagen Bug into a Bradley GT with an electric engine he built.

He designed yachts and private aircraft before starting his own company to build the electric boats. The runabout is a boat designer's showcase, with an aluminum hull and varnished bamboo topsides.

We owe the ride to MN EV Owners founder Jukka Kukkonen, an automotive engineer and area manager for Ford in Europe before starting PlugInConnect, a Minnesota consulting firm working on transportation electrification. The boat outing is one more way of challenging preconceptions of what electric engines can do, he told us.

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.

How it will feel to drive a Ford EV

Earlier this week in Detroit, our reporters Peter Behr and Jeffrey Tomich caught up with Darren Palmer. Palmer is a head of global product development at Ford Motor Co., specifically electric vehicles for the Ford and Lincoln marques.

Ford is making an $11 billion bet that it can sell electric vehicles not just with clean credentials, but with sex appeal. A consummate salesman, Palmer dropped some hints about how Ford's future EVs will differ from the cars we know today.

He said that when you stomp the accelerator pedal in a future Ford, you'll feel it in your — well, let's just say it's a part of the anatomy you wouldn't expect.

Visit Energywire for the answer and the full story.

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.

Chicago, a tough town for chargers

CHICAGO — We've been through dozens of cities large and small since the Electric Road Trip began almost a month ago. But none poses the challenge of placing electric-vehicle charging stations like Chicago's urban core.

Generally, more than 80% of EV charging happens at home. That's easy for car owners if they also own a garage where they can install a charger. But for condo and apartment dwellers in the asphalt jungle, there aren't a lot of options.

"If you don't have a garage, if you don't have a specific parking spot, it's a challenge," said Russell DeSalvo, manager of grid modernization at Commonwealth Edison, the Chicago utility that distributes electricity to 4 million customers.

One of two EV-related ComEd research projects underway takes aim at this dilemma. The project with the Chicago Department of Transportation is using a $50,000 grant to install up to a half-dozen EV chargers in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the city's South Side.

"The key piece of that is trying to enable charging for multiunit dwellings," DeSalvo said.

The EV project is part of a much broader body of research ongoing at ComEd's Grid of the Future Lab, a 1,300-square-foot research and development center located within the utility's training center in the nearby Bridgeport neighborhood.

Many of the projects are being readied for deployment in Bronzeville, where ComEd is building a microgrid approved by Illinois regulators last year.

The project, which received more than $5 million in U.S. Department of Energy grant funding and will serve more than 1,000 homes and businesses, will be complete next year and will connect to a second, neighboring microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

A goal of the project is to better understand how two microgrids can work together with solar energy and battery storage, DeSalvo said.

Yet another early-stage EV research project being undertaken with Virginia Tech and funded with a $400,000 grant is aimed at ensuring cybersecurity at extreme fast chargers, which can repower batteries at a rate of up to 350 kilowatts. The goal is to have fast chargers safely interact with the electric grid. "Every third-party connection we have is a risk to our system, so we're looking at how to make them more cybersecure," he said.

That project, too, will be sited in the future EV hub of Bronzeville.

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.

The drawbacks of charging up past 80%: time and money

DETROIT — It's been a full week crisscrossing the Midwest in a variety of electric vehicles: a Kia Niro, Chevrolet Bolt and BMW i3.

Like the cars, charging experiences have varied. There were free slow charges — at hotels, in downtown Toledo, Ohio, and at Indiana Dunes National Park. And more expensive ones, like at the new fast chargers in downtown Detroit.

In Detroit, I wanted to top off the Kia battery. I touched my phone to a panel on the face of the rectangular silver box, and the juice began to flow. It seemed like a breeze. Then came the sticker shock.

The Kia battery took an hour and 23 minutes to reach 100%. I added just 49 miles of range at a cost of $27.13, not including the separate $2 parking meter fee that goes to the city.

The chargers are owned by Blue Energy, a division of Corrigan Oil Co., a 61-year-old company that's involved in a wide variety of fuel- and transportation-related businesses. Among them, it owns gas stations and convenience stores.

I called Cody King, the project manager and business development specialist for Blue Energy, who said the company is branching out into EV charging as a diversification play — a recognition that the auto market is going electric. Blue Energy already has some Level 2 chargers. The Detroit project was its foray into fast charging.

While Corrigan Oil has decades of experience with oil and fuel markets and how to profitably run gas stations, the economics of EV charging, specifically fast charging, are a guessing game for now, King said.

"We want to see for six months to a year how this takes to market," he said.

To run the chargers profitably, the company must recover the investment in the chargers as well as the cost of energy it purchases and resells to EV drivers.

For now, the initial pricing structure is a $1 session fee plus 40 cents a minute. That could change as the company learns the market and whether it makes more sense to charge per unit of energy, in this case by kilowatt-hour, a closer equivalent to how gasoline is sold.

Blue Energy's pricing was one reason for my costly charge. The other was how slowly the car battery would charge when it was already 80% full.

I didn't need the charge. But because I was there to learn about the project and as part of the Electric Road Trip, I wanted to try out these week-old fast chargers.

I'd read that car batteries, like the batteries in iPhones, take juice more slowly when you exceed 80%. A ChargePoint quick guide to fast charging says as much. But reading about this phenomenon and experiencing it myself are two different things.

As King said about the company's jump into the vehicle charging business, "It's a huge learning curve."

As one who's new to driving and charging EVs, I couldn't agree more.

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.

Rivian brings Midwest hope, tracking emissions, joy-riding nuns

We've rolled a lot of asphalt beneath our wheels this week on the Electric Road Trip. Starting in Tennessee, we dashed north to Detroit and the troubled heart of the auto industry. And did we use a lot of cars! In Indianapolis, a French Bolloré left us unimpressed. Then we tested two EVs — the BMW i3 and the Kia Niro — on a sprint to Columbus.

In Detroit, visiting union workers, we made sure to show up in a Chevy Bolt. Electric vehicles contributed to strife on the picket lines while also raising hopes that the new world of mobility would deliver a better day. Which brings us to this week's big story out of central Illinois, where Rivian has set up shop.

Be sure to check our redesigned blog and join the conversation on Facebook. And alert your friends that they can get the newsletter, too.

— David Ferris

Rivian, the latest darling of the U.S. auto industry, is retooling an idled Mitsubishi plant in central Illinois to make electric trucks and SUVs. Optimism abounds in the town of Normal, where the plant's revival could reinvigorate manufacturing.

See the full-length story in Energywire.


NAZARETH, Ky. — One of our most-read posts of the week introduced the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who have moved to all-electric cars as a part of their mission to help clean the air. Sister Molly Thompson confides that she secretly finds the accelerator pedal quite a thrill.

Emissions check — This week we unveiled a new feature of the Electric Road Trip: a comparison of our carbon emissions as we roll from state to state. How much climate pollution comes from a tailpipe versus a battery? How much does an EV pollute in Texas compared to Georgia? The answers are here.

DETROIT — We plugged in at Motown's first public fast chargers, part of a project led by DTE Energy Co., the city's major utility, and General Motors. If we've learned anything, it's the value of fast charging on a tight schedule.

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — You arrive at your hotel to find the chargers don't work. But one is available at a nearby hotel where you're not a guest. What do you do? Reporters Jeff Tomich and Peter Behr confronted this ethical dilemma, one that will become more common as EVs catch on.


Texas is one of dozens of states where the electric car market struggles because of fragmented fuel-economy and emissions rules. E&E News

America's next big recycling problem: what to do with batteries used by electric cars. E&E News

The first stand-alone gasoline station to convert fully to charging electric cars opened in Maryland. E&E News

Nissan has introduced a new all-electric, self-parking city car that will be on display at this month's Tokyo Motor Show. Automotive News

Congo is using data-driven tools to show that cobalt, a critical mineral in many electric car batteries, isn't sourced using child labor and corrupt practices. Reuters


The coming week will be some of the trip's toughest sledding. A gallop across Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota will lead us to North Dakota, a state with almost no charging stations.

We will traverse the Great Plains in the little 200-mile chunks that the battery of our Kia permits us. Honestly, we're not sure if we'll even make it to Montana. Watch it happen on Facebook and our blog, which has gotten a great new look.

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.

EV tech sparks fears, hopes for GM workers

LAKE ORION, Mich. — A small squad of United Auto Workers members kept up the picket lines against General Motors as the company and union leaders bargained to end a nationwide strike that began Sept. 16.

We pulled up to the headquarters of UAW Local 5960 in a Chevy Bolt — not the Korean-built Kia Niro EV we also had during our time in Detroit. As we got to talking with the union leaders, it became clear that there's a third party at the bargaining table that won't easily come to terms — relentless technology in the form of a new generation of electric and self-driving cars that GM says it plans to produce.

At the offices a short distance from GM's vast Lake Orion plant, Local 5960 President Louis Rocha kept returning to the prospects and peril of technology. The Orion Assembly plant now builds the Chevrolet Bolt EV; the Sonic, a gasoline-fueled hatchback; and a Cruise test vehicle employing autonomous technology.

"Here we have the transition of going from a combustion engine right to an electric vehicle and possibly into an autonomous vehicle," Rocha said.

Yet technology is still a threatening presence for the nearly 900 hourly workers on the Orion's assembly line. The "beep-beep-beep" of automation could be tolling a death knell for jobs lost to robots and global competition.

See the full-length story in Energywire.

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.

An ethical dilemma for the EV age

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — The cost to charge the car overnight at the hotel here: nothing. But to plug in with a clear conscience? That comes at a price.

Our plan for the night was solid. We'd made a reservation at a Courtyard by Marriott, which is listed on PlugShare as having four charging ports, including two Tesla plugs, all of which were available when we pulled in with only 30 miles of range remaining.

Unfortunately, the two non-Tesla plugs that were compatible with our Kia Niro EV weren't working. My colleague and I consulted the PlugShare app. There were no fast chargers within 35 miles, and no other Level 2 chargers anywhere near the hotel, except a half-mile away at a Best Western.

I drove down the street to investigate and found the Best Western charger unoccupied and working. It would be easy to plug in, lock the car and saunter back to the Marriott. But then I envisioned some weary fellow EV driver pulling in late at night in need of a charge, only to find the lone charger occupied — by someone who wasn't even staying at the hotel.

My co-worker and travel companion for the Midwestern leg of the trip, Peter Behr, discussed the options. One was to plug and run. I mean, there was no sign that explicitly said the charger was for hotel guests. But c'mon. It's implied that a charger located at a hotel is meant for guests.

Another option: We could wait until morning and find another charger somewhere down the road. But there are no fast chargers along our route, and hours of charging at a Level 2 charger would mean missing a morning interview in Chicago.

Ultimately, we decided on a third option — to pay for a room at the Best Western. I moved to occupy our room at the Best Western while our Kia took the charging space. It wasn't the cheapest solution. But it was the right thing to do.

To paraphrase the classic Mastercard commercial: The cost of a room at the Best Western? $94 plus tax. Sleeping without guilt while our Kia sipped electrons? Priceless.

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.

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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