Ecotourism by electric car

by ECO Staff

We in Ontario are blessed with urban centres that have natural areas inside city limits.  For example Toronto has it infamous ravine network (and soon its very own National Park in the Rouge Valley), and Ottawa has Gatineau Park just on the other side of the river.  Nonetheless there are times when we want to have adventures in nature further afield but unfortunately this can come with a certain degree of environmental guilt if we have to drive for several hours and burn dozens of litres of carbon-emitting gasoline to get us there and back.

This past weekend I was able to alleviate some of the guilt associated with my time in nature by renting a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) from  Discount Car Rental (the Volt can run on an electric motor for about 60-70 kms, at which point a gasoline engine kicks in to power the car for another 400+ kms).  My wife had planned a canoe trip on the Black River which originates in the Oak Ridges Moraine and empties into Lake Simcoe about 80 kms north of Toronto.  As the logistical planner I mapped out electricity charging stations on route (using a smartphone app called PlugShare) and found one at the Windfall Ecology Centre and another at Richmond Hill City Hall.  I also contacted Toronto Hydro’s electric vehicle team and found that there are still only a few publicly available charging stations in the vicinity of downtown Toronto, including one at the TIFF Light Box, another at the Sheraton on Queen, and finally one at the Evergreen Brickworks off Bayview Avenue.

 I picked up the electric car early Saturday morning from Discount’s Queen and Jarvis location and was immediately thankful for the gasoline back-up power.  For some reason the battery wasn’t charged overnight and so I had a paltry total of 9 kms of gas-free driving, just enough to get me to my apartment on St. Clair West to pick up our canoeing gear.  The rest of the trip to the river was done on gasoline power.What I found really cool about the Volt was the dashboard instrument panel which provides the driver with an indication as to how efficiently they are operating the vehicle.  Hit the gas too hard, and the green ball elevates and turns yellow.  Hit the brakes too hard, and the ball moves downward to signal that energy for regenerative braking is being wasted.  This made driving the Volt seem a bit like a game designed to keep the green ball as close to the middle as possible with the goal being to maximize energy efficiency (yet another example of the gamification of life, but this time in an application that has positive environmental benefits!).


The Volt got me to the Black River where I met my wife and her friend who had arrived with the canoe on the top of their car.  We moved his car to the end-point of our trip, and drove back to the start with the Volt to begin our journey.  Our 3 hour paddle along the river to its end at Lake Simcoe was wonderful.  In spite of some grey skies and slight rain, the weather held up and we stayed dry.


We followed a beautiful Great Blue Heron along the route, and saw a busy bumblebee in action pollinating some beautiful, but non-native, yellow irises. We also saw many Kingfishers, finches and even an Oriole.











In the tradition of the Voyageurs we had to portage across High Street in Sutton where a small dam blocks the flow of the river. This got us some supportive cat calls from the townsfolk!









After our paddle we went to an organic farmer friend who lives in Sutton to recharge for the night with good food and company.  This also provided an opportunity to fully recharge the Volt overnight using a standard 120V plug-in.   Before heading back to the city in the morning we toured our friend’s farm, the Cutting Veg, to check out his crops of onion, salad greens, tomatoes, radishes and much more. We own a share of these vegetables through a community-shared agriculture project, and so we wanted to see how things were coming along!

In the end we used around 8 litres of gasoline to go north, and about 10 kW of electricity to get us home.  So, while not fully carbon-neutral, it’s as close as it gets today and is a sign of what is possible in the not-so-distant future if we are able to build-out an infrastructure of fast electric charging stations to replace the gasoline fuelling infrastructure that we are so dependent on today.  Of course, ensuring that our electricity supply is low in greenhouse gas emissions is an important step.