My Roadworthy Chest Freezer: Greta in Winter

In 2016, for only the second time in my life, I bought a new car, an emission-free Nissan Leaf. I named it “Greta.” I recently ran into a friend who has a Tesla all-electric vehicle (EV) also named “Greta.” I’m now wondering how many EVs there are in the world bearing the Swedish teenager’s name.

I’m comfortable saying it was the extraordinary courage of this young woman who could be my granddaughter that drove my decision to go all-electric. “Okay, boomer,” I said to myself, “It’s your turn to help leave a habitable world for the next generation. Almost eight years later, I’m now on my fourth Nissan Leaf.

As someone who frequently writes about health issues, I’m familiar with the DSM-5, the standard reference work for mental disorders like anxiety. They should consider adding “range anxiety” to their list of emotional symptoms. You may think that “range anxiety” is a fear that your pots and pans won’t work on your induction stovetop, (I’ve suffered from that, too.) but it’s anxiety over whether or not you’ll make it home in your EV, especially in winter. My primary-care doc’s never heard of it, but she has a BMW.

When I bought my first Greta, my only question was driving range between charges, a deciding factor for most potential buyers. The range was nominally 150 miles. My benchmark was the 88-mile roundtrip between my home in Hinesburg and Montpelier. Seemed to be fine.

I set out on my first excursion with a full 152 miles on the gauge. When I got to Montpelier, I expected to find it down 44 miles, but it was, in fact, down twice that – about 66 miles left to go before I’d need a charge. This didn’t make sense, so before heading home, I pulled out the manual and read what I’d neglected to read before buying Greta.

Like all living things, her capacity is temperature-dependent. It was ten above when I left the house so I had turned on the heat. Now, I had no choice but to risk a straight shot home.

Leaving Montpelier, I turned off the heat, and at 65-miles-an-hour on the Interstate, scraped my freezing breath off the inside of the windshield with a Shell credit card while watching the miles disappear on the range indicator faster than on the odometer. I panicked.

When I got off the Interstate in Richmond and turned onto Kenyon Road, I turned off the headlights and radio, only turning the lights on again when I encountered an oncoming car.

I made it home with two miles to go.

I just sat in the dark, overwhelmed with gratitude, and thinking to myself, “Should I buy a powerful flashlight to mount on Greta’s roof, a wool blanket for myself,  or a mile-long extension cord in case the battery dies in a rural area and I need to plug into a nearby farmhouse?”

I’m generally not one to read user manuals. I consider myself intuitive when it comes to tools and technology, though I’m often wrong. I ask you, who wants to read a 500-page manual in five languages that fills up a glove compartment and contains mostly warnings written by lawyers?

When I finally settled in to read Nissan’s version of War and Peace, I learned that Greta’s batteries will be severely damaged by exposure to temperatures below 13 below and that she uses battery juice to keep her battery from freezing in winter while just sitting in the driveway. I’ve lived in Vermont for 75 years and have yet to see a winter when it didn’t get colder than that. I remember a sunny, dry winter day in Lincoln at 38 below.

Did this mean I should try and bring her in the house? I imagined Greta parked near the woodstove with our two cats curled up on the hood purring.

More important, could Greta even survive here, much less provide frigid transportation beyond a few miles from home? I began to worry.

When I was young and poor as wood, I was on my fifth rusty VW Bug. I routinely drove them until they died and then bought another for $350. Bugs were notorious for their heater boxes rusting out and most of the ones I had had no heat. Some Bug owners installed gas heaters in the space where the glove box was, but they were notoriously dangerous and expensive.

I’d get so cold in winter that I imagined removing the passenger seat and installing a tiny Jotul 602 woodstove there with a steel vent going out the sunroof, but I was talked out of it by people who knew more than me, of which there were many when I was that age.

Now on my fourth Leaf, I’ve learned that by monitoring the temperature and my energy usage as I drive, using the eco-pedal to recharge as I drive, charging every night at home during off-peak hours, I can manage quite well. And I haven’t bought junk food or fuel in a gas station for years.

When I first got it, I used to take pleasure in driving up to our local service station in Hinesburg and saying, “fill’er up.” It didn’t take long for my joke to wear thin and  the attendant didn’t even bother to come out when I pulled up.

Only once have I used a public charging station. To charge Greta fully takes up to eight hours on a 220-volt charger and twice that on a 110-volt household outlet. That’s more coffee than I can drink in one sitting. I thought about keeping a folding cot in the trunk, but my trunk is taken up entirely by my mile-long extension cord.

But more important than my personal comfort are the larger environmental implications of continuing to burn fossil fuel. According to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, transportation accounts for 38% of the state’s carbon emissions and in spite of earnest expressions of concerns and many unfulfilled commitments, emissions have increased in recent years and are 16% higher than they were in 1990.

A recent United Nations report has been unsparing on the havoc we’re wreaking on our children and grandchildren’s home as a result of continued emissions of carbon dioxide and toxics.

While pro-business forces from the Ethan Allen Institute and the VT Fuel Dealers Association have opposed the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), TCI is supported by Democratic leaders in both chambers and a number of Vermont environmental groups. According to his website, Governor Scott now supports regional and national efforts to reduce greenhouse gas from transportation and heating sources.

As I get even older than I am now, I know that much of the remaining work I have left to do on earth is to try and leave a better, more just place for my children and grandchildren.

It’s disheartening to hear special interests and climate deniers froth on about their temporal material interests. I wonder what they think when they gather over the holidays with their children and grandchildren. As they play together, do they never imagine their progeny trying to make it in a world of uncontrollable fires, floods and rising sea levels, massive climate migrations, and dying food systems, all so they can drive a fossil fuel car or get their convenience foods in unrecyclable plastic? Our children comprise a quarter of our country and they will inherit our mess.

In Matthew 5:5 from the Sermon on the Mount, one of the Beatitudes tells us the meek shall inherit the earth. Our children, who will inherit the earth, are finding their voice and are no longer meek. We owe it to them to listen.

Sometimes when I’m driving Greta late at night. I stare at the range indicator, anxious about whether I’ll make it home, I hear Greta whisper to me, “Okay, boomer, you did good.” To a braver, kinder, livable new world!

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