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Watt's Happening: EV Hero Ernie Freeman

​ ​There are three really big ways to reduce your personal or family carbon footprint: improve the heat efficiency of your home (add weather stripping, upgrade your windows, switch from gas to an electric heat pump); reduce or even eliminate your ele
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Ernie Freeman of Fort St. John plugs in his electric car.

don​There are three really big ways to reduce your personal or family carbon footprint: improve the heat efficiency of your home (add weather stripping, upgrade your windows, switch from gas to an electric heat pump); reduce or even eliminate your electrical bills by generating your own super-green solar electricity; and make your next vehicle electric.

Let’s focus today on that last one: the EV revolution. In particular, I want to feature a genuine local leader in the electric vehicle field, Fort St. John resident and longtime Peace Energy Co-op member Ernie Freeman. Ernie was not just an “early adopter” of electric vehicles; he was an EV innovator, an experimenter and an envelope pusher, big time.

In the beginning

With an electrical background as a helicopter maintenance engineer, he became fascinated with the idea of using electrical energy for ground transportation, way back in the 1970s.

“I could see the advantage of going electric due to the efficiency as well as environmental positive impacts,” explains Ernie. “But I also had a selfish reason: I was getting older and wanted to get behind the wheel of an EV while I still could. If at the same time I could help advance the EV cause, well that was worth it too.”

That’s when General Motors was beginning to play around with the EV concept, eventually producing the popular EV-1. Ernie was keen to buy one, (they were leasing them in Vancouver at the time) but with no success. Then suddenly GM cancelled the program and scrapped all their EVs (you might have seen the video “Who Killed the Electric Car?”).

I'll just build one

Disappointed but not discouraged, Ernie decided to build his own. He modified a Chevy Vega Station Wagon (“not exactly a light weight choice”), but it worked. Packed with all sorts of lead acid batteries both under the hood and in the back of the wagon, it had a range of about 20 miles and a top speed of 80 km/h. Amazingly, the provincial government office happily assigned it what was probably the first code of E for electric in the registration and insurance process in Northeast B.C.

Of course, he gave lots of demonstration rides around the area. “It had its limits but certainly surprised me with what it could do,” says Ernie, “and what really impressed me was the lack of noise.”

His next EV adventure started with the 2016 purchase of the brand new Nissan Leaf: fully electric, 160 km range (short by modern standards, but impressive back then). The problem was lack of charging infrastructure.

“The same year I contacted the Ministry of Transportation asking if I could be of help to determine how to get Fast Chargers into the highway system.”

Working with a provincial policy analyst and the help of a university student, Ernie started his biggest adventure yet: he drove his Leaf to Victoria from Fort St. John and back, in December!

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Ernie makes it from Fort St. John to Victoria 2016 in spite of the almost total lack of EV chargers along the way and December temperatures plunging to -30 C. “The vehicle exceeded my expectations.” (Supplied)

Collecting the cold hard facts

It was -35 C when he left home. “Fortunately it warmed up to about -26 C on my way back.”

And remember, this is when there was almost no EV charging infrastructure in the province. That’s why he went, to find out first hand what was needed and where.

To find his electric fuel on the long road to Victoria, he had to innovate. “My favourite location was either an RV site or a welder’s shop. I was also equipped to use 240 Volt dryer or stove outlets. Last resort – I could use the trickle charger that came with the car. So even though I had a few bumps in the road there were others that really helped out and I thank all of them many times over.”

His range dropped by about 30% at -30 C, but he expected this and planned for it. “The vehicle exceeded my expectations. During extreme winter driving I never had any performance issues. The drive train worked flawlessly as well as all the electronics. My trip helped to provide hard ‘cold’ facts to the officials that were planning charger infrastructure throughout the Province.”

Now the EV revolution is in full swing, with fast chargers coming in strong, even up north. Ernie’s adventures also proved the reliability of EVs under the most severe driving conditions.

“I am a proud Canadian and especially proud of the Province in which I live that supports these advances. We’re building a better foundation – for all of us.”

Thanks Ernie Freeman, our northern EV climate hero!


Don Pettit lives and writes in Dawson Creek, and is Executive Director of Peace Energy Cooperative.