There are lots of good things about rural living – space, cleaner air, less noise and jostle, loads of scope for growingfood if you’re so inclined (as I am). Community life round here is rich and diverse, in a bucolic kind of way.
On the downside if you’re a carbon footprint watcher, the statistics say we’re heavy and it’s not hard to see why. Our particular village is relatively well served with a bus route to the county town eight miles away, from which coach and rail links are good. But if I want to visit my friend 11 miles on the other side of Taunton, the bus connections there and back would take practically all day. He is now immobile and we can no longer meet in town. My wife has family near Bournemouth and the rail connections are tortuous. In these situations, for non-local evening meetings, or if there’s a heavy shop to do, we hop into the car. For convenience, autonomy and flexibility there’s nothing to beat it. I’m a beneficiary of the fossil fuel age. Also being a climate freak, I feel guiltily aware that our car use is at the heart of our below average but still substantial carbon foot print.
Electric cars have struck me for years as a way of squaring the circle, but issues of cost, range and scarcity of re-charging points have kept me on the sidelines. Then, at this year’s Green Scythe Fair, an annual extravaganza for (vaguely speaking) alternative living Somersetians, I got chatting to the rep from a local car dealership about the attributes of the EV on display. He informed me that we could have one for a few days’ trial. The seed was really planted now and what grew was the thought that there was really no reason now not to give it a go.
We had a trip to Hertfordshire coming up, complete with several reasons for going by car. This would be the perfect opportunity to give ourselves an experience of EV travel. My wife was a bit dubious about our being utterly dependent on re-charging en route, but my argument was that we all know local pottering within home range is straightforward; this longer journey would be a real test of how convenient and reliable the infrastructure is. We were both right as it turned out.
The rep took us through the car’s systems diligently and clearly, also answering a string of questions I had jotted down ahead of our trip to the dealership. With a range of approximately 120 miles and rapid charge facilities few and far between, the readings on power consumption and miles of charge remaining are vital. He lent us his swipe card, telling us that this would enable us to activate the rapid charging unit at the motorway services. This was rather important, because neither my wife nor I possess smart phones (through which an app can be downloaded for the transaction). I had taken the precaution earlier in the week of phoning the service station where I intended to stop, for confirmation that the data on Zap Map was correct and was informed that the charge was free.
I knew well that the half way point on our journey was mid-way between Leigh Delamare and Membury services on the M4. As we approached the former, predicted mileage remaining suggested that continuing to Membury would run us very close to flat, so we opted for the earlier stop, as planned. Then we learned from the stressed driver ahead of us at the charger that the swipe did not work, and the downloaded app was required, with a payment. Our anxiety levels were starting to mount, but the supplier’s number was on display. After making it clear on the phone that we would not be happy searching for another location, I discovered that the option existed for payment by bank card over the phone, after which the charger was activated remotely.
Relief at having obtained the re-charge was quickly replaced by a fresh concern, a dose of the apparently infamous “range anxiety” of the EV car driver. I hadn’t thought to allow for the fact that the car’s average range overstates the actual range on motorways, even when driving at a very disciplined 70mph. My wife and I were both working to contain our anxiety and not freak each other out. We exchanged occasional matter-of-fact observations on how quickly the charge remaining was falling. There’s a sort of manic-depressive twist to this by the way, because the car’s computer constantly adjusts its prediction in the light of variables such as accelerator use and, above all, hills. Climbing a long hill, even on very low throttle and therefore slowly, dramatically lowers the forecast miles in hand, while coasting downhill has the opposite effect. Gut-wrenching anxiety bordering on despair would be replaced by relief and exhilaration, until we learned a Kipling-esque indifference to both these imposters. But equilibrium was on the depressive side of the scale, as I became increasingly mean with the accelerator, to the extent that we crawled uphill stretches at around 50mph.
We reached our destination with 9 miles of charge left. The return journey was similarly tight (though we got a free charge on the M3 – not all free charge points had yet been phased out). I recalled the reduced speed limits imposed during the fuel shortages following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. We went on to muse about the days when most people did not travel far and those who did had to think about the capacity of their horses, stabling and an inn for the night. Our perspectives were shifting ever so slightly away from the reliable convenience, speed and sense of entitlement of the fossil fuel age. The range anxiety was, by definition, no fun but I did enjoy the surprising ease with which I adjusted to a more careful and slower way of travelling.
Then I began wondering how many people would be on for such adjustments. I thought about the way that the mainstream marketing of decarbonisation seems to be all about cleaner, smarter ways of doing all the things we enjoy (ie have learned to enjoy during the petroleum age) with little or no suggestion of sacrifice or loss. My mind drifted back to the couple we met at the services who had a Tesla, a sporty EV with much greater range, but costly and utterly impractical for our needs. I had an imaginary conversation with a “Mondeo man” with few thoughts about climate change and who declared EV’s a hopeless, cumbersome and expensive folly. Then I remembered the rep telling me that the rapid charging installation in service stations costs around £40,000 and wondered how the financing of a beefier infrastructure to accommodate more EV’s could happen. I thought about the ruling political ideology in the UK and our new Prime Minister’s right hand man having declared the 2008 Climate Change Act a “unilateral and monstrous act of self-harm”.
Hope for a decarbonised future includes an accelerating shift towards electrification of power supplies including those for transport and towards renewables providing that power. There is talk of most road transport being electric by 2030. Our personal venture into EV travel was an expression of that hope, alongside both guilt and an appetite to continue modern living. Shadowing all that is the view, associated in my mind with Paul Kingsnorth, that it’s in the nature of human civilisations that they end up destroying themselves. My musings, prompted by our first adventure into EV travel, tilted towards the view that the fossil fuel age will put an end to us, rather than vice versa. But I will not quite let myself believe that in my heart. It feels better to be part of a revolution that may or may not succeed.
My hope is that cli fi novels and movies will play a big role in preparing humanity for what is coming down the road… Dan Bloom, cli-fi.net, 2015