Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Robert Llewellyn: An electric journey is better with pumped water and pumped tyres

For a start, it’s a daft thing to do, but I’d been toying with the idea for years.
“I’d love to drive the electric car to up to Snowdonia,” I’d say to the Mrs as I scrubbed the kitchen floor around her feet, “You can charge overnight at loads of solar powered B&Bs.”
She flick ash from her Cuban cigar onto a clean part of the floor and say: “Enjoy yourself, I’m going on a luxury yoga retreat in Kerala.”
Such are the foundations for a happy long-term relationship, but back to renewable energy and zero carbon vehicles.
So, to explain to those not intimately familiar with the landscape of the British Isles, on the western side about half way up is an area called Wales.In the north is a fairly mountainous area called Snowdonia.
All around this area of Wales are lakes and reservoirs, loads of them. If there is one thing Wales is not short of, it’s water.
Family trip
I set out from my home in Gloucestershire with my son as camera operator, it could have been a father/son bonding experience but we’re way past that. He’s a very cool young man and I’m a proud but slightly annoying dad.
The first leg of the journey was the longest we’d have to do, 72 miles. We made it, we wouldn’t have been able to go much further, but we made it.
But wait, the Nissan LEAF is advertised as having a range of 100 miles. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible to drive 100 miles on a full battery, along a flat road with no headwind.
Add a couple of big hills, okay, hundreds of hills and that total range soon drops away. In just the same way as a modern diesel or petrol car advertised as doing 65 miles to the gallon doesn’t quite get that in the real world. Throw a couple of big hills into the mix and that soon drops rather dramatically, we just aren’t aware of it.
We stayed at the Westview Guesthouse outside Hay on Wye and charged overnight. The charge point had been installed by Zero Carbon World and is free to use, as in, if you stay at the guesthouse you don’t pay for the electricity.
After a wonderful locally-sourced breakfast and a quick check of tyre pressures, I was reminded of something very important, whatever powers your car.
If your tyres are a bit flat, the engine uses more fuel to move along the road.
Kind of basic knowledge but with the help of Westview owner Paul, I made sure they were at the correct pressure. The difference in range was very noticeable, that first bit of the journey was the only one we came close to empty on.
Water-powered journey
We set out for the Elan Valley reservoir that supplies the City of Birmingham with its water.
Why one earth did we want to go there, you may ponder.
Well the reservoir also has a small hydroelectric power plant that supplies electricity to a visitor centre, café and electric car charging point. After one of the very helpful technicians removed a trailer that was parked in the space we plugged in, did a bit of filming and had a cup of tea.
After this we had a long slog through torrential rain, up and down big hills to get to our next stop and the real reason I’d planned the trip.
The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) outside Machynlleth is an amazing institution, apart from the fact that we could charge the car there, it’s a truly fascinating place to visit.
Set up 40 years ago to research the validity of the many alternatives to drilling and burning, what started as a disused slate quarry with a couple of sheds and a wind turbine has developed into what looks more like a large University campus, which in many ways is what it is.
We had a tour around the facilities, stood in a beautiful rammed earth lecture theatre, heard about the huge Government report they’re publishing soon, which is the most comprehensive, realistic guide as to how to seriously lower out carbon output.
If you ever get the chance to visit CAT, it’s worth the trip.
We had some lunch, did an interview with an amazing man called Paul Allen and set off on the last leg of our journey to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
High in the rugged hills, Bryn Elltyd is an amazing B&B with a staggering backdrop of mountains and huge waterfalls. The owners are very keen to explain their commitment to low carbon technology, the water is solar heated, the power comes from solar PV and hydro, they have wonderful turf roofed chalets and saunas in the garden that overlook a huge lake.
The lake was another reason for the trip, it’s part of an enormous pumped storage system in Snowdonia. A massive power plant pumps water up a mountain at night during low demand. This is when nuclear power stations (there’s one close by) and wind turbines are making power no-one except electric car owners are using. In case you didn’t know, you can’t turn a nuclear power station down. It’s either on or off, if it’s off and no one did it on purpose, well, lets’ not go there.
During peak demand during the day, the water is released back down through the turbines and hey presto, gigawatts on demand. It’s just a huge battery and we need loads more of them.
We charged overnight at Bryn Elltyd using another Zero Carbon World charge point and set off on the return trip.
Lesson learnt
We stopped again at the Centre for Alternative Technology for lunch, then back to the Westview Guesthouse for the final charge. While we were plugged in Paul lent us one of his Renault Twizys and we blatted around the lanes, up onto the wonderful Brecon Beacons and a meal in a lovely old pub in Hay on Wye.
We arrived back home late that night with 28 miles of range left.
So the journey out had stretched the batteries to the limit, the same journey back didn’t even get close. Note to self, check tyre pressures more often.
Total distance travelled: 386 miles. Time: two days. Inconvenience due to charging: to be honest, absolutely none.
While it’s perfectly true you could do the entire journey on one tank of fossil in an old fashioned car, you’d probably have to do some eating, sleeping and bathroom visits along the way.
Due to the fact that we arrived back at Hay on Wye with close to empty batteries, I now know how long it takes to charge from flat to full on a 16 amp outlet. Normally I’m sleeping during this process, but on that day I was Twizying and eating. It takes 4 hours 15 minutes to charge.
I did plan the route beforehand to make sure it was possible and I would readily admit that long journeys like this are not really what cars like the Nissan LEAF are designed for. But as a charging network emerges, and specifically as the power available at charge points is increasing, we only ever used 16 or 32 amp outlets, then charge times are greatly reduced.