Wednesday, April 9, 2014

EV Scenic Byways: Coulee Corridor

Have you ever heard of the Missoula Floods? Up until a month ago, I hadn't either.

It was during a conversation with my school's two sixth grade science teachers last month that I first heard of the floods and got excited to explore eastern Washington's Coulee Corridor. Stretching from Omak to Othello is a region of channeled scablands and coulees (steep-sided ravines and gorges) formed from massive Ice Age floods some 15,000 years ago. An ice dam at Lake Missoula broke dozens of times, resulting in a series of catastrophic floods that carved out a large region of eastern Washington.

Dry Falls: When water flowed, it was five times the width of Niagara Falls!

Getting excited for a road trip is easy. Going on a road trip that is a first-ever documented journey in an all-electric Nissan LEAF is the tough part. For example, the only EV plug on a 175-mile stretch from Ellensburg to Spokane, Washington is in Moses Lake, at 68 miles from Ellensburg. We would not be driving as far east as Spokane this time, but there still was a need for charging solutions to cover the hundreds of miles that we'd be touring on this EVenture along the Coulee Corridor.

From western Washington, I decided to take a northern route, driving across Stevens Pass to the town of Pateros, 55 miles north of Wenatchee. A partnership between Plug-In North Central Washington and the Pateros Lakeshore Inn resulted in a high amperage Level 2 charging unit in this town, at the base of the Cascade Mountain range, within the past year. "Level 2" charging will provide most new Nissan LEAFs a complete charge in about 3-4 hours.

There was much fun to be had while charging in Pateros--what a beautiful area!

After departing Pateros, the only charging opportunities that we'd have access to for the next two days would be 50-amp service at RV campgrounds. Our first night's stay in the Coulee Corridor was near the Grand Coulee Dam, at an RV campground called the Grand Coulee RV Park.

EV Fear Factor

At about the halfway point from Pateros to Grand Coulee, I pulled our LEAF over to take in the vastness. Our previous charge was way back along the Cascade Range (background of the above picture). Seeing the mountains disappearing in the rearview mirror was a bit disheartening!

Beyond the impressiveness and fear factor of the views, this section of the Columbia Plateau has other "discoveries" that took our minds off of the charging situation. Massive boulders, known as glacial erratics, randomly scatter the landscape on the plateau; another indicator of the flooding that took place in the region thousands of years ago.

I knew that we could make the 55-mile drive from Pateros to Grand Coulee. However, no amount of planning and reassurance will prevent EV drivers from feeling occasional wisps of terror when driving in an EV Badlands area, where there is nowhere to plug into for dozens of miles all around. To make a comparison: It was like we left Pateros in a Toyota Prius with a gallon and a half of gas in the tank.

RV Park Charging

The owner of the Grand Coulee RV Park was very receptive to discussing pricing options for future EVs. While EV drivers typically prefer to pay for a Level 2 charge by the kWh (1,000 watts in an hour's time), metered RV campground receptacles are uncommon in the Pacific Northwest due to inexpensive electricity rates. Conversely, in California, many RV campgrounds have meters at every 50-amp receptacle.

Grand Coulee RV Park accepted a very reasonable alternative: A flat $5.00 EV charging fee for up to four hours of use at one of the bountiful 50-amp RV hookups. If travelers want to stay the night, the RV park will include the EV charging for free--just pay the nightly $20.00 fee for tent camping.

Electric Remote Controlled Helicopters

The owner of the Grand Coulee RV Park was excited to talk shop...about all kinds of EVs! It turned out that he is an electric RC helicopter enthusiast. We spent some time talking about battery technology and body frame materials. Like EVs, the RC helicopters are powered with lithium batteries. And like new EVs (read: BMW's i3), the RC helicopters had a carbon fiber frame.

With battery capacity/density continuing to increase and costs decreasing, we'll undoubtedly continue to see battery technology displace and/or replace the established energy sources in all aspects of our lives...our hobbies...our transportation.

Grand Coulee Dam: Enough Power Generated to Charge a Nissan LEAF more than 875 Million Times in a Year!!!

Truly a structure that must be seen to be appreciated, the immensity of Grand Coulee Dam cannot be easily described. Let me try to do it some justice, courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • The Grand Coulee Dam is the largest power station in the U.S. and 7th largest in the world.
  • The third power plant (added in 1974), alone, produces twice the electricity as Hoover Dam.
  • The dam has enough concrete (12 million cubic yards) to build a road from Seattle to Miami.

Steamboat Rock

Our second day of the EV road trip was filled with some of the greatest and grandest sites to be seen along the Coulee Corridor.

The first stop was at Steamboat Rock State Park. One of the benefits of going on a road trip during the off-season is that, by definition, there is hardly anybody else there. I took full advantage of this by plugging into one of the many unoccupied RV 50-amp service hook-ups at Steamboat Rock State Park (and later in the day at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park). With the car charging, we had an excuse to take our time and enjoy the sites. And enjoy we did!

My daughter. Oh, and the largest waterfall in history: Dry Falls.

The drive in between Steamboat Rock State Park and Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park was actually one of the highlights of the day for me...the driver. This goes back to it being the off-season for tourism and there being nobody to share the road with. For 50 miles, from Steamboat Rock State Park to Ephrata, I knew that I could use as much of the battery charge as I pleased (remember, there was plenty of charging opportunities at the state parks). So, ECO mode was turned off and Steve's "Fun Mode" switched on.

Driving along Banks Lake, with 700-ft. basalt cliffs on either side, my senses tuned into a singularity. I only focused on the rush of wind as the car zipped along. There was no engine noise or exhaust rumble coming from our LEAF, which in turn, made the wind noise the one focus. It was glorious!

Bad daddy moment at Lenore Lake Caves--that's our son at the far left of the picture, wondering freely.

Along the shores of Lenore Lake are a series of seven caves accessible via a 1.5 mile roundtrip hike. For our six-year-old daughter, the rock climbing and scrambling was no problem. For our two-year-old son, the terrain was impassible in many areas. So what is a prudent dad to do? I put him on my shoulders, of course!

A little backstory: I am 6'11" tall.

Hiking and scrambling along with a 35-lb. child on my shoulders effectively made my center of gravity somewhere between my collar bone and chin. It was a miracle of all miracles that I did not fall to my death, along with my son, on the Lenore Lake Caves hike.

Lenore Lake Caves

Here is another view of the Lenore Lake Caves. These caves formed during the Missoula Floods when the igneous rock layers gouged away with the tremendous power of water.

Oops! I almost ran out of juice. Here, trickle charging in Quincy, WA.

At the end of our second day, I had planned on us camping and over-night charging in Quincy. When we pulled into town in the early evening hours, I still had plenty of charge remaining in our LEAF. I wanted to charge at a local golf course, Colockum Ridge Golf Course.

Before leaving on the trip, I had attempted to contact public relations folks at the Port of Quincy, who own/manage Colockum Ridge Golf Course. My inquiries with the Port of Quincy were never returned. I was not worried, though, because I figured that I could establish phone contact with the golf course manager, or even somebody in the pro shop, while on the trip.

Unfortunately, for two days, I had no cell service. In this age of The World is Flat, I was unable to get cell service or a data connection in hundreds of miles of driving. We were very much traveling in civilization, though...driving through many towns along the way. However in an era of being connected at any time and anywhere, I felt completely isolated from the civilized world.

Colockum Ridge Golf Course

After driving an additional five miles from downtown Quincy, we arrived at Colockum Ridge Golf Course. I immediately saw that the camping situation would not work because there were no restrooms accessible after hours. We returned to Quincy, as I remembered seeing a sign for RV camping earlier. Within moments of pulling into the "campground," I realized that we would need to find an alternative.

Those ten miles of extra driving out to the golf course, and back, had hammered my range, though. So we pulled in at a local grocery store and trickle charged for an hour.

Ultimately, we ended back at Colockum Ridge Golf Course. It would be a great spot to charge an EV while playing golf, but overnight tent camping was not ideal.

The Feathers

The Feathers are basalt columns located between Vantage and The Gorge Amphitheater. This is seemingly a popular location for amateur rock climbers, as there are numerous safety hooks bolted into the rocks throughout.

Rock climbers in training.

Our EV road trip's last destination was at the Wild Horse Wind Farm. The wind farm is Puget Sound Energy's second largest in Washington, and capable of generating 273 megawatts of electricity every year. The site also has one of the Northwest's largest solar power arrays, with more than 2,700 solar panels that are capable of producing 500 kW of electricity.

Wild Horse Renewable Energy Center

The purpose of this trip was to see some of the spectacular sights along the Coulee Corridor with my daughter and son. It was after leaving the Wild Horse Renewable Energy Center that I thought how fitting for the Coulee Corridor to be bookended with two clean power generating sources, with the Grand Coulee Dam at the north end and the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Farm at the southeast corner. And what better way to experience Coulee Corridor than to be in an all-electric Nissan LEAF!

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