Runnin’ On the Sun: My First Big Road Trip in the Electric Car

Chris Calwell

As a Senior Fellow at Ecova, I routinely travel every few months to teach classes on Zero Net Energy (ZNE) homes. The next class is the first week of February in Santa Rosa, CA, and is followed a few days later by a related conference in Yosemite, where I’ll be presenting on strategies for maximizing plug load energy efficiency in homes in dry climates. Given that I am based in Colorado, the logistics of flying into the Bay Area, driving to both locations and back, and then flying home were enough of a hassle that I decided to drive instead. My wife and I bought an electric car last summer and this will be an attempt to complete a roundtrip of more than 2,000 miles over the space of two weeks without burning any gasoline.


1.8 gallons. “Just enough gas in the tank to start a 2,600 mile road trip,” I thought to myself as I rolled out of my Durango, CO driveway last Friday on the way to northern California. Although I plan to refuel eight or nine times on my way there, I’ll be grabbing 1.8 gallons or less each time, and not paying for it, and not breaking any laws (of the land or physics) in the process. My car, a Tesla Model S with a 60 kWh battery slung underneath, goes about 200 miles on a charge. That amount of electricity has the same energy content as 1.8 gallons of gas, so I’m aiming to go about 100 miles per gallon-equivalent on the journey.

And, Tesla recently draped Superchargers across the New Mexico, Arizona and California deserts and up the Central Valley – the equivalent of a very high voltage string of pearls. As a result, for the first time, I’ll be able to do all of my recharging fast and free. This network was recently completed coast-to-coast, and the first drivers have already made that 3,600 mile journey in a little over five days. So my trek is not for the record books―it’s to see if I can take a long business trip that’s reasonably convenient and comfortable without flying or burning gasoline.

Yes, I know that coal and natural gas will be burned to make some of that electricity, but the first batch I start off with is made directly from sunshine, as will be a couple other batches I collect in California. Someday soon, I hope nearly all of them will be. Solar canopies and electric vehicle charging stations make perfect companions, functionally, aesthetically, and financially. The panels could shade the car from the sun and sell extra electricity to the utility on hot afternoons, buy it back on the cheap at night, and store it in extra on-site batteries.

The forecast calls for snow and rain until I reach the California border.  Always good to have a challenge, eh?

More to follow from the open road…

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