Into the Wilds of Quebec in an Electric Car
Congress has allocated billions of dollars to build a network of electric vehicle charging stations along major U.S. highways. Quebec already has one, reaching deep into the province. The system offers a glimpse of how essential access to charging will be to the success of electric cars.
I decided recently to try Quebec’s network on my way to visit a lithium mine in La Corne, a small town about 350 miles northwest of Montreal, for an article about battery raw materials.
Getting to La Corne in my Ford Mustang Mach-E seemed like a stretch. But then I learned of the Electric Circuit, a chain of charging stations built by Hydro-Québec, the province’s public utility.
There are fast chargers at regular intervals along the highway leading to Val d’Or, the city where I stayed. Electric Circuit has 3,700 chargers in Quebec, including 700 high-voltage units that can recharge a car in less than an hour. That’s almost twice as many fast chargers as New York State has, even though Quebec has fewer than half as many people. (Quebec does have more than 10 times the land mass of New York.) Hydro-Québec plans to have 2,500 fast chargers by 2030.
“Our goal was to make sure that all of Quebec was accessible,” Jonathan Côté, spokesman for the utility, told me.
The network, fed almost entirely by hydroelectric plants, looked good on paper, but seven months of electric vehicle ownership had taught me that many public chargers don’t work. I hoped that the Electric Circuit would be different.
The network is not yet everywhere. There is a gap of about 150 miles along Route 117, the highway I would take to Val d’Or. The electrical grid in the area, site of a large game preserve, is too spotty to reliably support a high-performance fast charger.
My Mustang, the all-wheel-drive base model, has a range of about 210 miles, but that’s under ideal conditions with a full charge. Normally I charge to 80 percent to preserve battery life — something most automakers and battery experts recommend — which gives me a usable range of around 170 miles. Not a huge margin for error.
Some people who have taken long trips in electric vehicles have been disappointed to discover that doing so requires more planning and involves a lot more uncertainty. No question: Current batteries are not as convenient as a gas tank.
You can view that as an adventure, or a pain. Most of the time I charge at home, which means I don’t spend time at gas stations and save a lot of money. My utility charges the equivalent of about $1 a gallon. The extra time I spend charging on rare road trips seems like a good trade.
Still, I was nervous. At 840 miles, the round trip would be my longest trip in the electric Mustang. It didn’t make me feel any better when I was warned to keep an eye out for moose crossing the highway. Moose mating season was beginning in that part of Quebec, along with bow hunting season. I imagined getting stranded in woods teeming with sex-crazed moose being pursued by people with bows and arrows.
To prepare, I packed the Mustang with a sleeping bag, a tent, and crackers and cheese if I needed to wait for a rescue party. To pay for charges, I downloaded the Electric Circuit app, and tried to order a smart card that allows charging where there is no cellphone coverage. But the Electric Circuit website wouldn’t allow me to enter a U.S. address. (Mr. Côté, the Hydro-Québec spokesman, said the utility would look into making the card available south of the border.)
About two hours into the trip, I stopped to charge at a rest area north of Montreal that had a shiny bank of blue-and-white Electric Circuit fast chargers. I had to fiddle with the app a little to get the charger to work — almost all charging stations function a little differently, which can be a headache. But soon it was pumping kilowatts into my battery at a satisfying rate.
The secret to electric vehicle road trips is to schedule charging stops to coincide with meals or other worthwhile uses of time. I checked email, dialed into a work conference call and ordered a chicken salad from a restaurant nearby. Before I had finished, the app signaled that the Mustang’s battery had reached an 80 percent charge.
North of the ski resort area of Mont-Tremblant the highway tapered to two lanes and signs of civilization dwindled. The drive was pleasant; I passed dozens of lakes and rivers. Trucks laden with freshly cut logs barreled down from the north.
The next charging stop, several hours later, was at a gas station and convenience store selling hunting knives, auto parts and beef jerky. The Electric Circuit chargers looked a little out of place.
A man heading south in a Tesla pulled up, and we chatted about our vehicles. He was topping up en route to a Tesla supercharger about 90 miles farther south. (Tesla’s network is concentrated in southern Quebec, where most people live.) A family of four arrived in an electric Hyundai.
Quebec has 150,000 electric vehicles on the road, compared with 113,000 in New York State, an indication of how ubiquitous charging can encourage ownership.
Then came a big gap in the charging network on the road to Val d’Or. I made it to the hotel with about 25 miles to spare, but the charger in the parking lot, not operated by Hydro-Québec, was broken. Luckily, there was an Electric Circuit fast charger next to the city hall a few miles away. In the gathering darkness, men were drinking beer at nearby picnic tables.
Chargers are plentiful in Val d’Or and the surrounding area, and there are a surprising number of electric vehicle owners. There is a free charger in the parking lot at city hall in the town of Amos, where I interviewed the mayor, Sébastien D’Astous, who drives a Nissan Leaf.
Sébastien Lemire, who represents the region in Parliament, owns a Chevrolet Bolt. Driving to Ottawa for legislative sessions is a challenge, he said, especially during bitter winters, when batteries can store much less energy. To maximize range, Mr. Lemire said, he turns off the heat and bundles up in thick mittens, a hat and boots.
There was an Electric Circuit charger across from the cafe where I met Mr. Lemire, but when I tried to plug in I got an unpleasant surprise. The charger was working, but I had used up all the roaming data in my cellphone plan. Without an internet connection, the Electric Circuit app wouldn’t work, and I wouldn’t be able to drive home.
I had enough juice to get back to the hotel in Val d’Or, where I was able to quickly upgrade my cellphone plan. I also discovered a battered but functional charger behind the hotel, where I fueled up for the return trip.
Again, I had to traverse the charging station desert, this time through frequent, heavy downpours. According to the Mustang’s display, I would be able to get to the next Electric Circuit station with 25 miles to spare. But that’s a fluid estimate. I watched as the car’s software recalculated while rain battered the windshield and the margin for error dwindled: 24 miles, then 23, 22 and so on.
I turned off the heat, which I didn’t really need, and the margin stabilized and even began to tick up. I made it with 30 miles to spare. Then, another scare. In the time it took me to walk from the chargers to the convenience store, the sky opened up and bolts of lightning flashed. The chargers went dark.
Fortunately, the blackout was short-lived. I made it home safely, having driven more than 1,000 miles and spent 63.79 Canadian dollars, or about $48, on charging, about a third of what gasoline would have cost me. I did not see any moose and am not planning to take up bow hunting, but if I were so inclined I know now that I could reach the stalking grounds emission free.