Apr 19, 2013

Driving Greener in Scandinavia

By Tommy Hayes

As a Californian, I’ve spent a lot of time in the car. Whether it was those family road trips around the American West or my hour-long highway commute to high school, I racked up some serious mileage and developed a love of driving machines by the time I departed for college. There, as an environmental science major, I discovered how beastly my driving carbon footprint is, and learned how transportation-related emissions account for roughly a third of worldwide climate pollution.

So how do I balance my love of cars with my environmental values and determination to improve the quality of our environment? These two forces, seemingly at odds with one another, came together in an exciting way last summer during my internship in Oslo, Norway. Dubbed “the electric vehicle capital of the world,” I could hardly walk a block there without seeing an electric vehicle (EV). Whereas it still seems to be a novelty to spot a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt (or, of course, a Tesla) in the United States, EVs are just another regular feature of their streetscapes.

Tommy's cars

If simply living in Oslo amidst all these slick, clean cars wasn’t dreamy enough for me, I basically experienced 3 days of fantasy life during the fourth annual Zero Rally. A showcase for zero- and low-emission vehicles, the Zero Rally featured a variety of cars  driving the length of Sweden’s and Norway’s Green Highway – from Sundsvall to Trondheim, a  450km or 280 mile trip – which is fully equipped with electric plug-in, hydrogen, and biofuel infrastructure to refuel along the way. Meant to demonstrate the practicality and performance of today’s growing ranks of clean-running automobiles, I was personally eager to kick the tires of so many different makes and models, but mostly to experience this all-electric road trip from the driver’s seat.

My biggest takeaway from the Zero Rally was not at all what I expected, though. Driving the Nissan Leaf I was assigned was – just like everybody said it would be – quite similar to driving any other car. The smooth, quick acceleration was fun, but overall the driving experience required no adjusting to. What was interesting was the psychological experience of “range anxiety,” or the worry that an electric vehicle will run out of juice and strand you somewhere you cannot recharge. I must admit that I was previously somewhat skeptical of the whole issue. It takes some serious human error to run into this problem if you have a gasoline engine (“I’m sure we can make it!”), and I figured I would be immune to the stress. True, the distance range of most EVs on a full charge has not yet reached the range of most internal combustion engine cars on a full tank, but I thought the hullaballoo about EV range anxiety was, to some extent, an irrational fear. Not so, I would now argue.

Having now been at the wheel while watching the battery miles (kilometers, in Norway) click down, I can testify that the security of knowing there are charging options between points A and B is crucial to the driving enjoyment of an EV. I definitely took comfort in the knowledge that I’d have the ability to plug in along the unfamiliar journey across Sweden and Norway. For trips that may take you a bit farther afoot from your daily routine (hopefully travel for pleasure), you need the electric support network to be in place, both technically and psychologically.

Also, you don’t want just enough charging stations to make the journey feasible – you want more than what would be minimally sufficient, as unexpected circumstances may require it. Let’s just say, hypothetically, you forgot to charge completely the night before, or couldn’t resist driving aggressively on the hills. Perhaps you got lost and drove extra miles backtracking and searching for your destination, and maybe you failed to put the Leaf into “Eco” driving mode to extend its range. OK, imagine you did all of these things (maybe I did, maybe I didn’t…) and quickly you’ll see the benefits of ample charging stations along your way, exactly as the Scandinavian Green Highway offers. I am a newfound and zealous charging infrastructure proponent, and will hope to see the United States roll out more and more charging stations in the coming years.

Tommy Hayes is a second year student in the joint degree program between the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Yale School of Management.