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Test Driving The Electric Highway

The West Coast Electric Highway is a network of fast-charging stations for electric vehicles that runs all the way from Vancouver, Canada, to the California border. Oregon completed its section of the electric highway this month, with the installation of a charging station at a Fred Meyer store in Brookings, near the California border.

When reporter Tom Banse heard that, he rented a Nissan LEAF and drove the length of Oregon to try out the electric highway.

OPB’s All Things Considered host Kate Davidson called him on the road.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Kate Davidson:Tom, where are you now?

Tom Banse:I’m in Reedsport, Oregon, starting to make my way back to Portland from the drive all the way down the highway. And I’m happy to report that I got to Brookings – took five recharging stops to get there, but didn’t need a tow-truck. As I told my editor, I hopefully won’t be on the ‘flat-bed of shame’ with my Nissan LEAF. The West Coast Electric Highway, I can report, works as intended.

KD:How long did you go between charges? And what route did you take?

TB:I started from Portland and cut over to the coast through Newberg, pretty much down 101 -- a very scenic way to get down to the California border. The Nissan LEAF has an advertised range of about 84 miles and I found that to be the case. I didn’t want to cut it too close, though, so we stopped to recharge about every 50 to 60 miles.

KD:So in Oregon, this network was funded with federal dollars, but it’s operated by a company called AeroVironment. Can you describe how it works, when you pull in?

TB:So I had to, before I set out on this trip, subscribe to the network. And they sent me a little electronic key fob. When I pull up to one of these bright green and silver charging pillars, I wave my key fob in front of the machine. It recognizes me (hopefully – it didn’t on the very first one and I called and fixed that). And then I just lift this heavy cable, put it in the Nissan LEAF, and just sit back for about 20 minutes while the car basically “refuels.” It costs $20 a month for all-you-can-eat electricity, and I imagine I’ve already made back what I invested twice over in gas savings just on this trip.

KD:So Tom, there are more than 5,500 registered plug-in electric vehicles in Oregon. Did you see any other EVs while charging up?

TB:Once I left the Portland metro area, I did not see another EV. I had no competition for these charging stations, which were really critical to making this trip. It was interesting, once I got to the Southern Oregon coast, several times, including in Coos Bay and Port Orford, curious people came up and said, with curiosity and wonder, “you’re the first person I’ve ever seen using this public charging station.”

KD:I understand you ran into a hitch at the final charging station. What happened?

TB:That was yesterday, right before I thought I was getting to the finish line, I needed one more recharge in Port Orford. I pulled up to one of the more remote ones in this highway charging network. It recognized that I was there, but wouldn’t send any electrons down the line. And I got a little chill for a moment there, that I was gonna be stuck in a tiny town on the Southern Oregon coast. But a call to customer service in California and they were able to reboot that charging station remotely and it performed as wished for.

KD:AeroVironment is a California company.


KD:Well, good luck with the drive.

TB:Thank you so much.

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Kate Davidson is OPB’s business and economics reporter. Before moving to Oregon, she was a regular contributor to "Marketplace", a reporter at Michigan Radio focused on economic change in the industrial Midwest and a producer at NPR.