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Wildfires forcing electric cars to find new ways to strike: NPR

Clarence Dold used his 2013 Nissan Leaf to run his house during a four-day blackout in Santa Rosa, California, as a result of the Kincade Fire.


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Clarence Dold used his Nissan Leaf in 2013 to run his house during a four-day blackout in Santa Rosa, California, as a result of the Kincade Fire.


Lawrence Levee's evacuation call came at 4 pm The Getty fire was only a few miles away. He and all his neighbors in Mandeville Canyon had to be evacuated.

He grabbed what he could and threw it in his light blue electric Chevy Bolt. His car battery was only charged halfway, but it left him with plenty of power to make a quick getaway and then some.

But after driving the next day, running errands in an area he did not know well, he was in a pickle. He couldn't find a charging station. And he had 25 miles left for his tank.

"Where are the cheap charging stations?" Levy asked a Facebook group for Bolt owners, where members have talked about how to charge in an emergency.

Levee is one of hundreds of thousands of electric car drivers in California, many of whom are caught in a statewide battle for electric power. As flames pass through the countryside and urban areas, the tools cut about one million customers off the grid. The power cuts sometimes last for days at a time, forcing some electric car owners to find alternative ways to recharge.

It is an ironic problem in a state that is home to more electric cars than anyone else. California has just under half of the electric cars sold in the United States, according to EV Volumes, a group that tracks electric car sales.

In Levee's case, he did not expect to be away from his house for so long. Normally he would pull into his garage and connect to a solar powered battery. But that was impossible. Instead, he tried to look up a nearby general charger that he remembered driving past a couple of times. But when he got there it was broken.

Frightened "range" inserted. If he did not join soon he could end up at the beach.

But his trusty Bolt Facebook group came to the rescue. This is where electric car fans act, offer advice and do a single gas-car driver basing. Lately, they've been talking about blackouts. They pointed him to an app and he found a free charger in a mall a few miles away.

Levee has only owned his bolt for eight months, and already says he "will never go back to a regular car." Despite the brief inconvenience and fire developments in his future, he notes that California has better electric vehicle infrastructure than any other state, with 18,000 public charging stations, according to the California Energy Commission.

And some electric car owners are using these charging stations in new ways.

Clarence Dold lives in Sonoma County, which had been ravaged by the Kincade fire. Hidden owns a Nissan Leaf in 2013 and was left without power for four days.

But Dold found an ingenious use for his car: as a generator to run his house.

All that was required was a pair of jumper cables he plugged into Leaf's battery and an inverter about the size of a dictionary. The inverter box switches direct current (DC), the type that drives electric cars to AC (AC), the electric current that drives home.

Then he ran a series of heavy extension cords in the head room of his ranch house. Throughout the blackout, Dold said, "watched TV and had a cold fridge and a couple of lights and things seemed normal."

It all cost about $ 200 – a fraction of the cost of a generator, which can take thousands of dollars.

Every hour, Dold said, he would come back into the car to check the battery meter. He wanted to make sure the house didn't lose the car too much. If it did, he would disconnect the cables and drive 5 miles to charge at a public charging station.

"The power outage is not over a wide area; this is not like a hurricane hitting Florida," he explained.

During the blackout, the rest of the neighborhood was a cacophony of gas and electricity generator noise. At the same time, his Nissan Leaf was almost silent.

For Hidden and other enterprising electric car owners like him, it's the secret sauce for surviving what's becoming the new normal in California.

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