Charging an EV from pole to pole

Driving to the South Pole in an electric car will be a landmark in eco-friendly expedition history, but it also comes with technical challenges.

By the time they reach ninety degrees south, Chris and Julie Ramsey will have driven over 27,000km (17,000 miles) through 14 countries across three continents. In exploration terms, such journeys would normally barely register with purists who still rate Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ 1979-82 Transglobe longitudinal circumnavigation as the benchmark. But when the history of 21st-century adventure is written, the Ramseys’ Pole to Pole Electric Vehicle Expedition (P2PEV) could merit a chapter of its own. Not so much because the husband-and-wife team will become the first to drive from the Magnetic North Pole to the Geographical South Pole, but because they will be undertaking the journey in an all-electric vehicle (EV).

When they set off in their modified Nissan Ariya e-4ORCE from their departure point in northern Canada in March 2023, their mission, as Chris Ramsey explains, will be “to show that EVs can tackle the harshest of environments, from the bitter cold of the poles to the hot and humid jungles of South America”. He is also hoping that the P2PEV will “illustrate that they can meet the demands of drivers around the world and encourage the switch to zero-emissions transport”.

This is easier said than done, especially as one of the biggest logistical problems the expedition faces plays straight into one of the main consumer objections for switching to the battery-powered technology in the first place. “Up in the Canadian tundra, we’re going to be in a vast expanse of nothing, which means there is no charging infrastructure.” Ramsey explains that “we’ll be taking our charging with us in the form of a trailer-mounted 5-kilowatt static wind turbine that we will tow behind us. It’s just like those you see on the hillside (only smaller), so that we can harness wind energy.”

As Ramsey points out, any expedition needs support logistics. In the case of the P2PEV expedition, this is supplied by Arctic Trucks, who will be supplementing the wind turbine with solar energy generated from portable panels. “We’ve designed an interface that allows this combination of wind and solar energy to communicate and work directly with the car.”

Taking a power-generating turbine along as part of the expedition equipment complement means that “whenever we stop, we can get charging within a matter of minutes”. Scheduling pitstops is built into the daily diary, says Ramsey, who states that these intervals are important from a driver-fatigue point of view. “There’s only a certain amount of driving you can do per day through endless terrain before it becomes mentally tough. You need breaks to keep a positive mindset going.” Plus, as Ramsey makes clear, “you’ve got to eat, only I have this saying that the car eats first. Whenever we stop for filming, resting or nutrition, the first thing that happens is that the turbine is erected, and the panels are connected.” This will be supplemented by “a certain amount” of energy recovered from the regenerative braking system, “but what we’re expecting to get back from that is minimal because 80 per cent of the driving, especially in the polar regions, is over flat terrain”.

No one has ever driven from pole to pole: could husband and wife Chris and Julie Ramsey be the first to do it

Image credit: Pole to pole EV

By his own admission Ramsey doesn’t fit the stereotype of the eco warrior. A self-confessed ‘petrolhead’, he grew up with posters of Lamborghinis and Ferraris on his bedroom wall, and he still has a soft spot for vintage cars that make no pretence to any claim for being environmentally friendly. With a former career in Aberdeen’s petrochemical industry behind him, he says his original perception of electric cars was that they were “basically a load of rubbish”. He confirms that he had all the clichéd prejudices against the battery-powered technology: they had no range, no acceleration and there was nowhere to charge them.

His ‘road to Damascus’ moment came “about a decade ago”, when as a manufacturing executive in the oil and gas business he’d been given the task of researching renewable energy. While interrogating his search engine, an advertisement for an EV appeared and, despite thinking “these things will never catch on”, something made him investigate further, reasoning that if he liked cars as much as he did, there was some sort of obligation on him to “at least give them a go and see what it’s all about”. Before long he was driving a Nissan Leaf, “and I was blown away by the instant torque”.

Leaving a revving BMW M4 standing at a set of traffic lights, Ramsey recalls thinking that the power was “insane” while the technology was “cool”. From there he did an “1,800-mile long-weekend road trip around the UK, finding out more about how the tech worked, testing the charging infrastructure, which at that time was an absolute nightmare. There were about 60 chargers in the entire country.” There were times Ramsey found himself dangling extension cables out of hotel windows, or “parked in the entrance of supermarkets with doors closing on the car. It was crazy. But I loved it because the car was instant excitement at your feet.”

This excitement was the first step that would lead Ramsey away from the fossil-fuel industry to champion the benefits of EVs and bag the Guinness World Record for the furthest distance travelled on an electric bicycle over 12 hours. Using a Volt Pulse hybrid e-bike, Ramsey covered 180.75 miles (290.88km) at a speed of 16.5mph (26.55km/h), smashing the previous record by 70 miles (112.6km). In 2017, he entered his own Nissan Leaf in the Mongol Rally, becoming the first driver of an EV to compete in the 10,000-mile competition.

‘We want to to show that EVs can tackle the harshest of environments, from the bitter cold of the poles to the hot and humid jungles of South America.’

With the P2PEV likely to take ten months to complete, Ramsey isn’t expecting to set any land speed records. The distance could be covered more quickly, but there are circumstances associated with polar travel that define specific windows of time in which the expedition can move forward. The start needs to be in March because sections of the route, including the famous Ice Trucker Road in mainland Canada, close by mid-April due to melting ice brought about by rising temperatures. “But when we get to the southern tip of Argentina, we can’t go into Antarctica until the start of December.”

Which leaves “plenty of time in the middle. There’s no point in rushing south just to sit in Argentina for three months.” Taking their time will allow the Ramseys to focus on one of the key outreach objectives of the expedition. “Along the way we’ll be calling in to renewable energy sites and community energy projects to get involved with education and do some discovery for ourselves around what’s going on in the world.”

Getting the car to the end in a functional state is just one of the challenges facing the Ramseys. The other is that there’s simply a lot of driving involved, “which can be tedious to say the least”. Explaining that expeditions bear little relation to the public’s understanding of adventure, Ramsey says that people following them on their electronic devices “tend to think that every moment on the road is a social media event and that the experience you’re having is as wonderful as it looks”. There’s a lot of monotony involved, he says. “In America there will be times when we’re going to be pointing the car straight ahead and nothing will change for 20 or 30 miles. It does become challenging mentally because when you’ve been on the road for two or three months, it takes a lot to keep going.”

Ramsey’s is a classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper narrative in which the man who loves the fossil-powered internal combustion engine, who worked in the oil and gas sector, became a champion for the electric vehicle cause in a snowball effect. But “you become aware of your environmental footprint and the benefits of electric cars in terms of emissions”. Ramsey tried to integrate his environmental philosophies into the business he was working for, “but they weren’t interested” in what they considered to be his heretical views. Realising that he couldn’t force change from within, he stepped out thinking, “it’s not ethical. My job didn’t match my vision. That’s when I decided to enter the Mongol Rally.”

Although he resists the temptation to say ‘I told you so’, Ramsey does find it ironic that trends towards embracing renewable power on the corporate level lag his own efforts as an individual by a decade. “If you look at where I was ten years ago and you look at where they are today, we’re now on the same page.” Neither is he critical of the sector’s current position: “Everyone is slating the oil and gas industry because of its past. But you have to transition. We have to accept that, because the BPs and the Shells and the Chevrons aren’t going anywhere.”

But, says Ramsey, the petrochemical industry will play “a vital role in the energy solution, whether people like it or not. It’s all part of an evolution, and there are big companies out there who are committed to doing it, others that have publicly stated that they are not, while there are some that are talking about it but aren’t moving quickly enough. Coming from inside this industry, I recognise that to implement this means changing how supply chains work: and that is not a quick thing. So while people want the world to switch to EVs, that can’t be done tomorrow.”

The expedition

Pole to Pole EV route and Antarctica logistics

You can’t drive any road vehicle all the way from ninety degrees north (the Geographic North Pole) to its southern counterpart. This is because the Arctic is essentially an ocean surrounded by continents (while Antarctica is a continent surrounded by oceans). Even if you plan to travel from the more accessible Magnetic North Pole, you will inevitably find that its location has changed due to magnetic changes and flux lobe elongation. To ensure the expedition starting point is on dry land rather than in the sea, the Ramseys have selected “the furthest previously recorded historical location” of the Magnetic North Pole “that we can get to”.

Once the expedition has departed Canada it heads south through the Americas to the world’s southernmost city of Ushuaia in Argentina. The Ramseys will then drive 400 miles (650km) back to Punta Arenas in Chile, as their “only option” for airfreighting the EV to Antarctica is via the intercontinental air bridge provided by Punta Arenas-based Antarctica Logistics and Expeditions in the form of a recommissioned Ilyushin IL-76 TD Soviet military aeroplane. While the team is doing “everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint, there’s basically no way of getting to Antarctica without this plane”.

The 1,859-mile (2,991km) flight will transport equipment and personnel across the Drake Passage that separates South America from Antarctica towards Mount Vinson. The cargo plane will land at the Union Glacier blue-ice runway located in the Heritage Range, Ellsworth Mountains. From there, the South Pole is just over 600 nautical miles (1,138 km) away.

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