Have EV, will travel: Beating ‘range anxiety’ on road trip to Quebec

  • Story author Ashley Muspratt waits in line at a drive-thru-only Starbucks at a fast charging stop in St-Apollinaire, Quebec. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Ashley Muspratt plays cards with children Bastien and Finn during the last charge on their way home at the Hannaford Supermarket parking lot in Bradford, Vermont. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Recorder
Published: 12/5/2022 3:30:43 PM

The last time my husband and I road-tripped to Québec, our boys were toddlers, COVID-19 was unheard of and there was no such thing as the Inflation Reduction Act. And we owned a gas-powered car.

This August we decided to do it again. Our extended family often gathers up north for cool air, hiking and St. Lawrence River views, and with Canadian COVID-19 restrictions eased we were excited, if apprehensive, about stuffing our 7- and 5-year-olds into the car for the 475-mile haul from Northampton.

Three years later our ride is an all-electric Chevrolet Bolt with an Environmental Protection Agency-rated battery range of 247 miles — on a good day, a flat day, a day without luggage, without air conditioning or heat or highway speeds.

Disclosure: I am a climate change professional, an advocate and consultant in regional and national efforts to wean our economy off fossil fuels and electrify our way of life. I talk to businesses, homeowners and policymakers about everything from air-source heat pumps and insulation to tariff-on-bill financing programs that equitably and economically decarbonize homes and utilities.

An electric vehicle is our family’s only car. I, of all people, should champion the long-distance EV road trip.

But even I had doubts. There was the “range anxiety,” but also compounding factors. Would the kids tolerate charging station detours? Did our charging apps work in Canada? Québec has chargers, right? At our small-town destination? How do you say “Level 3 fast charger” in French?

We had owned the Bolt for a year, long enough to confirm that, for most people, 99% of the time, EV living is easy. My family simply does not throw down 200-mile expeditions on a daily —or monthly — basis. We drive within a battery-friendly radius spanning Brattleboro, Hartford, Worcester and the New York state line.

We do so with kayaks and bikes on the roof. I learned — in a range nail-biter — that the trick for a Boston round trip is a single 20-minute charge at the Pike’s westbound Framingham rest stop or, Plan B, at the Auburn Mall. GM subsidized a 240-volt outlet on the side of our house for Level 2 charging that “fills the tank” in several hours. (My organization works with municipal utilities to provide free Level 2 chargers to their residential customers; many towns, including Northampton, sponsor free Level 2 stations in public spots — i.e., free fuel.)

But what about the 1% scenarios, like the annual road trip? We considered renting a conventional gas car. Doing so, my husband contended, was still an EV win: Nothing wrong with renting a long-range (or heavy duty) vehicle for the one-off circumstance if you otherwise drive clean day-to-day. (Not extravagant either: EV owners typically save money with lower maintenance and “fuel” costs.)

But pulling off eight days and 1,000-plus miles of travel away from home? Now that would be a win. We looked at gas and rental car prices, then each other.

Success, I anticipated, would depend on a key strategy: combining charging with other essential stops. Work schedules — and child fidgeting — demanded we split the drive over two days, so with a Friday afternoon departure approaching, my husband filtered for fast chargers on the ChargePoint app (which displays competitor locations, too), identified three stations along Interstate 91 in mid-Vermont near food and confirmed the existence of chargers at a Drummondville hotel.

Right from the start, the drag of a loaded trunk, AC and my husband’s mere 75 mph into the Green Mountain State became apparent. As the dashboard range estimator increasingly lost ground to the odometer, we realized St. Johnsbury was out of the question and stretching beyond Bradford, just 130 miles from Northampton, would be reckless.

Fortunately, the EVGo charging station at Bradford’s Hannaford Supermarket was both available and an 850-foot walk to the Hungry Bear Pub & Grill, which we found hopping. The Bolt hit full charge before we even finished dinner, and, returning to the car, we wondered if towns like Northampton and Greenfield could similarly attract long-haul drivers off Interstate 91 for a shop or meal on Main Street while filling up. Call it “destination charging.”

The remaining 450 miles passed just as seamlessly. Late at night, we rolled into Drummondville, whooping with high-fives when we saw an empty spot by the lone Level 2 charger in our hotel’s parking lot. (We had identified numerous backup Level 3s in the area.)

In our experience, hotel chargers tend to be available — due to low demand or the fact they are usually not searchable in apps — and in this specific instance, charging was included with the room and continental breakfast. I am not aware of hotel chains that comp guests a full tank of gas.

We awoke to a happily charged car and drove north, plugging in just once more at a gas station. By the time we had filed through the restroom and the kids had finalized junk food selections, we had more than enough juice to reach our St. Lawrence destination.

Québec’s impressive charger density — Level 3 fast charger density — clearly greased our EV experience. We had to download the Electric Circuit app and pre-pay a balance for auto-pay convenience, but that unlocked the network’s 2,000 stations and more than 720 fast chargers (almost the same number of Level 3s as Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined across all commercial networks), which seemed to be in all the right places: convenience stores, strip malls and a public lot near where we stayed.

The public utility behind Electric Circuit, Hydro-Québec, which recently purchased hydropower stations along the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, is aiming for 2,500 fast chargers province-wide by 2030.

That kind of Level 3 distribution, I believe, would make EV road-tripping as practical as local driving. Still, as it stood, at vacation’s end, we felt so confident in fast charging options that we spontaneously decided to try and rip through the return to Northampton in a single day. We made three 60-minute stops on the way back — a long coffee break, lunch, card games in the grass outside Bradford’s Hannaford — encountering only two hiccups: a drive-thru-only Starbucks (I walked it, queuing between an SUV and sedan) and, to stretch a short charging session, sub-80 mph driving for my final leg at the wheel.

In truth, the multiple extended stops made for a long one-day 475-miler. But I still came away confident that, especially with the electrification incentives baked into the Inflation Reduction Act, EVs will soon meet essentially all family driving needs.

Fast chargers may be a bigger investment than Level 2s, but as we saw in Québec, they are difference-making; as we learned at the Hungry Bear Pub & Grill, they offer economic opportunity for local establishments. I can safely recommend, if you’re thinking of an EV road trip, give your charging app a glance for Level 3 chargers, then go.

Ashley Muspratt is president of the Center for EcoTechnology in Northampton.


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