Aye to the Future
What's in a day? We take a Chevrolet Volt (100) through a century of energy development, from heavily tapped oil fields to the hope of a renewable tomorrow.
Celebrating the centennial of Chevrolet could have involved driving new Corvettes or Camaros, but we plugged in to a different idea. For more than a century, California has been at the center of car culture and energy production, so we put the two together in a day's journey while also honoring the spirit of the company's namesake, Louis Chevrolet. The Volt is the most significant car in decades to bear the Chevrolet name, and the man himself could surely appreciate what we were about to experience.
To start things off, we saluted Chevrolet -- a man who was reluctant about giving up his racing career to sit behind a desk -- in a way he might have endorsed. In 1905, Chevrolet's very first year of racing, he set the mile-track record of 52.8 seconds on the great Morris Park racecourse in the Bronx. Hippodromes no longer welcome automobiles, not even the world's first range-extended electric, but we were able to take a ceremonial lap at Bakersfield Speedway. On this Tuesday morning, beer cups remained on the Speedway's grandstand after the previous Saturday night's stock-car program. We bounced around the bumpy track in the Volt without whooshing the cups over; nevertheless, we entertained the fantasy of having Dale Earnhardt's iconic number 3 leaning across our silver doors.
Almost within reach beyond the Speedway's boundaries are the enormous Kern Front and Kern River oil fields. The Kern Front was discovered in 1912, the same year that the Chevrolet Motor Company introduced its first car, the Classic Six. By 1929, Chevrolet had outsold Ford for two straight years. That was also the year that the Kern Front reached peak production of 4.5 million barrels. To this day, Kern County remains one of America's most bountiful sources of oil, but the lightweight crude is long gone; extracting the heavy goo that remains requires complicated and costly enhanced-recovery methods.
After he left the company that bears his name, Louis Chevrolet designed the Indianapolis 500-winning Monroe Frontenac (driven by brother Gaston), a car whose extensive use of aluminum and advanced cylinder-head design anticipated the future. With advanced aerodynamics (the most slippery of any Chevrolet) and, of course, its gasoline/electric powertrain, the Volt anticipates a different future, one with ever-scarcer oil reserves. Saying good-bye to Kern County, we hurried along in order to keep an appointment at a pioneering alternative-energy power-generation site. We left the San Joaquin Valley through Tehachapi Pass, the lowest crossing of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, where constant winds blow before expending themselves at the western edge of the Mojave Desert.
The oil shocks of previous years were fresh in mind in 1981, when the push for alternative-energy sources led to the development of the Tehachapi Wind Resource Area. Although many remain skeptical of wind power, the 3400 wind turbines here, most erected between 1981 and 1986, are capable of producing 710 megawatts of power. Planned growth will expand the TWRA to cover more than fifty square miles, three times larger than any other existing U.S. wind park.
In the town of Tehachapi, we met up with author and wind-energy policy expert Paul Gipe on the appropriately named Green Street. After introductions were made, the chipper sixty-year-old accepted our invitation to get behind the wheel of the Volt. An Indiana native, Gipe once studied at General Motors Institute and worked for the corporation's Delco Remy Division. Setting off along the road to Willow Springs, he drove us into Oak Creek Pass and parked the Volt facing an array of wind turbines built by the Danish manufacturer Vestas. These noisy older turbines sent out an ethereal howling, as though animals were suffering beyond the ridge. Gipe explained that the distance between the rows of turbines is equal to six rotor widths, in order for the wind to recover its speed before being harvested again. He also noted that the tips of some older units' blades have "weep holes," which rid them of the balance-robbing buildup of condensation on cool mornings.
We asked Gipe if he dreams of the day when individuals generate their own power to provide for their own transport. "We have no choice!" he said, the passion behind his words causing him to twist and rock in the driver's seat. "We will have to do that. There's no alternative. That will be done. It will probably be done later in the United States than in other countries, because we can't seem to get our act together." He described his vision for building plug-in cars and wind turbines as "the way to reindustrialize the heartland of America, that great corridor through the Midwest and into Ontario and Quebec, where much of the auto industry was located before we outsourced it to Mexico and China."
Well before Tehachapi, the 3781-pound Volt had started operating in extended-range mode with its 1.4-liter engine running. We had traveled only the first thirty-five miles on electric drive before depleting the 16-kWh battery. Once the stored juice was gone, we averaged 35 mpg over the next 356 miles. After bidding Gipe farewell in Tehachapi, we added premium fuel, which is required to boost the four-cylinder's fuel economy and prevent the gas from going stale during prolonged spans of electric-only driving. Sneaking around Los Angeles in electric mode while doing errands or commuting to work is fun, but today the Volt also proved its acceptability for highway travel.
Our final destination, Kramer Junction, an hour ahead on Route 58, reflected the future in a way that would tickle all 288 of the Volt's liquid-cooled, lithium-ion cells. Here is one of NextEra Energy Resources' solar-thermal generating facilities. Another company's solar installations are currently under construction at different locations in the desert. California utilities are tasked with generating twenty percent of their energy from renewable sources, beginning the process of lessening dependence on fossil fuels. In the same way, the Volt begins the journey toward an electric future while still retaining the flexibility to use traditional power sources.
On a flat patch near Kramer Junction's truck stops, dozens and dozens of rows of mirror-covered parabolas stood silent and naked, capturing the sun's energy. Oddly, they're almost inversions of the canopies at the solar-powered charging stations that two dozen Chevrolet dealerships around the country are installing, including one already in place at a Modesto, California, franchise. Some Volt owners have even installed solar carports at home. The solar power emanating from tens of thousands of mirrors at Kramer Junction heats synthetic oil in a pipe that follows along a plane above each trough. The oil goes to a plant on the premises and superheats water, and the resulting steam is forced through a turbine to generate electricity. The beauty of such a generating method is that it helps meet peak demand on the hottest days without heavy reliance on carbon-based fuels.
It definitely looks futuristic. We took in the panels' mysterious majesty, with each row of mirrors reflecting the row ahead. On a brilliant, 105-degree afternoon like the day we visited, NextEra's seven solar facilities can produce 310 megawatts, enough power to serve more than 230,000 homes and more than enough to make the Volt's heart go pitter-pat. Having taken it all in, we pointed the Volt homeward, turning up the air-conditioning and feeling better about tomorrow.