Posts Categorized: Personal

Making Cents of Electric Vehicles in the Driftless!

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“Electricity is really just organized lightning…”  -George Carlin

Story and photos by Benji Nichols, except as noted

Imagine pulling out onto the street as your foot leans into the accelerator. You move forward – silently – off on a trip to work, school, errands, or across the region. Now imagine not using a drop of gasoline to do it. Too good to be true? It’s not!

Electric vehicles (EVs) are not a new concept, but technological evolution and incredibly efficient operating costs are making EVs more realistic than ever for many households. Here at Inspire(d) HQ, we’ve been enjoying the rewards of our own solar PV array for the past year, and we’re constantly engaged in what technologies are coming on line to help lessen our immediate impacts on fossil fuel use. Sure, there’s an immediate ‘feel-good’ effect, but increasingly the technology is actually making economic sense as well. Ride along as we cruise through our latest road-trip into electric vehicles.

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(Decorah resident George Hagen shows us the Nissan Leaf charging ports.)

Most EVs (only electric – not hybrid) have a rough average of 30 to 80 miles available without a charge, and Hybrid EVs that also operate on gas have ranges widely expanded  beyond that. According to recent US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration surveys, well over half of commutes and daily-use car trips in the US are under 30 miles roundtrip. Even with a sizable amount of commutes averaging 40 miles, there’s huge potential for EVs. Just think: All your quick trips can be done in a vehicle that requires no gasoline, and can charge anywhere a standard plugin is located – we think that idea is pretty cool!
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(Photo courtesy of Honda Motorwerks)

Many of our readers are familiar with Chris Schneider (aka The “Hybrid Guru”) of La Crosse’s Honda Motorwerks. Chris has been fueling the alternative vehicle movement in the Driftless Area for years and is an incredible source of information, and of course vehicles. A recent adventure included a trek across the state of Wisconsin to deliver a fully electric Nissan LEAF EV, which is quite an adventure considering that the LEAF has average range of about 80 miles. To top it off, the vehicle was being delivered to Milwaukee, so it was decided that a natural gas vehicle (NGV) would chase for the return trip – just to up the alternative fuel vehicle fun! With the range in mind, the trip required four stops for charging, three of which were about the standard amount of time for a coffee or lunch break. The trip was a grand success, and proved that EVs, although still having limited ranges, can make longer and longer trips as charging technology increases as well. Honda Motorwerks has been a regional and national leader in the use of alternative energy vehicles for years – and Chris is quick to point out that the Decorah area is full of early adopters. In fact, seven of the first 10 EVs that Motorwerks brought into the region years ago all went to the Decorah area. 

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(Electric Charging Station at HyVee, Iowa City – free for customers!)

Most of the major car manufacturers are now making, at the very least, a hybrid electric/gas vehicle – and many are making strict EVs like the Nissan LEAF or Ford Focus EV that run on electricity only and, as mentioned, can be charged on a standard household plug-in (usually taking a few hours to overnight to reach full capacity). But many vehicles are charged more rapidly by different “level” chargers, which are becoming more common across the country – even in places along Chris Schneider’s Wisconsin road trip like Middleton, Madison, and Waukesha. Level 3 charges can bring charging times down to under half an hour for many models.  Some commercial recharging locations require small fees for electricity (a couple dollars) while companies like Tesla are creating their own networks of charging stations that provide the power for free – as an incentive to buy their EVs.

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(Tesla Model ‘S’ on display on the Iowa City PedMall during EntreFest, May 2015)

There are a lot of pro and some con points that could be made when considering EVs – from range to environmental to battery technology, and of course, that a large part of the electricity supply still comes from fossil fuels. But we think there is a unique place in our society right now where electric vehicles can truly help “bridge” the road to energy independence. Here at Inspire(d) HQ, we installed a small solar system (eight panels – about 2kw) just about a year ago. We’ve seen a really nice decrease in our monthly electricity bills, but more importantly, it has also helped us to be even more aware of our electricity usage – and the really cool fact is that when we walk out to our garage and the sun is shining – we know we’re making electricity! It really is an amazing experience to know you’ve lessened your dependence on fossil fuels by any amount. As we think about how many miles we drive – and especially those local miles running kiddos around and doing errands, we can see where an electric vehicle could make a lot of economic sense.

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(George Hagen showing us the interior controls of the Nissan Leaf)

Decorah residents George and JoAnn Hagen agree. They have been big supporters of alternative vehicles for several years. George cites his background working as an engineer on conservation projects for Chevron in the late 1970s as sparking his personal interests. A 1980 Datsun was the first vehicle he owned that reached 40mpg, and that sparked a string of vehicles over the years that strived for economic impacts, including the Honda Insight – one of the first hybrid vehicles available in the US around 2000.

IMGP6837George still proudly garages their 2000 Honda Insight and is quick to point out that it was also one of the first four to make it to this part of the country via Honda Motorwerks in La Crosse. A Toyota Prius followed in 2005, and in October of 2014 the Hagens acquired their Nissan Leaf – the first 100% electric hybrid they’ve owned. Despite varying experiences on range of trip with the Leaf (both George and JoAnn comment that NE Iowa’s Hills take a toll on the EV’s range!) its clear that the vehicle is fun to drive and certainly does well on local trips, with plenty of power and take-off for around town as well as short highway trips. The Hagens also have a large Solar PV array on their garage and home, so again, the ability to produce one’s fuel for driving comes full circle with the Nissan Leaf.

IMGP6631Meanwhile in Decorah, more than a couple families have invested in the Chevy VOLT – a hybrid gas/electric vehicle that allows for a smaller electric-only range which is then assisted by a gas powered generating “engine” that enables further distance. Ben and Padrin Grimstad were kind of enough to give us a few minutes to check out their VOLT, which they – and their high-school aged daughter – enjoy driving. The electrical charging system allows for a nice around-town range, but isn’t necessary to use the vehicle, which still obtains excellent mileage without regular plug-in charging, as most hybrids do.
IMGP6638Ben says the car is fun to drive, with plenty of pick-up and acceleration, and fun on-board tools and design to let the driver see what is going on with the vehicle. As a local business owner, he also enjoyed being able to purchase the car from an in-town dealer, and that the family’s additional investments in solar power are paying off in multiple ways, like partially powering their VOLT.

Personally, one of my biggest surprises in researching EVs has been both the performance, and surprisingly good ride of these vehicles. They really do have a different ride and solid feel because of the additional weight of batteries and generally shorter wheel base. Combining their low-to-no-gas mileage ranges with the fact that many Driftless Region residents and businesses have installed solar arrays, EVs are becoming a more practical choice every day.

As more EVs hit the market, expect to see local businesses offering EV Charging stations and specific parking spots as well – we’ll be on the lookout to see who leads the way! We love the EV concept here at Inspire(d) HQ. Granted, like any vehicle, the investment is not small, but the benefits are certainly beginning to stack up. Who knows – we may be delivering magazines in a Solar powered EV soon! Vrrrrooom vrroooom!

7 Ways to Shine Through the Dark…

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It’s that time of year – and as much as the merits and drawbacks of Daylight Savings Time have been discussed, it’s still here. Which means it’s about to be dark at 5 pm. We spend a lot of time at Inspire(d) HQ looking for the shiny positive things – people, places, events, stories – but we’re not rainbows and unicorns ALL the time. Aryn loves fall – the holidays, the leaves, the change of seasons. Benji, having spent six years in Northern California, could probably live just fine with temps above 40 and perpetual perfect bike-riding weather. But alas, we live in the Upper Midwest, and winter exists to make us appreciate all the other seasons. So in the midst of the dark, we offer you a few tips on how to keep your sanity, feel good, and shine through through this time of year.

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1) Find your tribe – and organize them!

When you’re young and in school, it’s easy to know who your friends are (or aren’t!). But through other points in life, it’s not always easy to find or keep friends. Let’s face it: being a grown up isn’t always easy, and when you throw kids in the mix… whew, it can be exhausting. But you know when you meet those people and you think, “Dang, I want to hang out with them!”? Or when you think, “Gee, that might be fun…”?

You should do it. No, really. More often than not, all it takes to get people together is simply someone asking. And if that’s not your thing, there are a ton of other activities you can sign up for to be part of a group of people you might have something in common with. Spin class? Archery league? Bowling night? Yoga? (Yes, even you Misssster!), Art Class? Try your hand at clay? Sing with a community group! Join a community orchestra? Or offer up time to your favorite political organization (tis’ the season!). There are so many easy ways to get involved, and this time of year is perfect to take one on!

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2) Perfect your nest.

Listen, you don’t need to be Martha Stewart to love where you live. Chances are, you’re going to be spending even more time in your humble aboad in the next couple of months, so why not make it the way you want it to be? De-cluttering can be one of the most satisfying activities ever – get rid of all that old crap that is weighing you down and taking up space that could be used for something fun! Literally rearranging the furniture can be like therapy for some people (Aryn… ahem…), and even if that’s not your thing, consider making an easy, affordable change – like painting a door or a wall a color you love that complements your space. It’s an easy afternoon activity, and it might spark more!

We are also big fans of batch cooking whenever we can – and by that we mean making things in the crock pot, grill, or oven that can be used for several meals, or that freeze well for later use. Chili is something –anyone – can make, grilled chicken breast can be used or frozen for everything from tacos to pasta to… Aryn’s amazing easy crock-pot chicken tikka masala recipe! Seriously… try it…  and if none of those work, give baking a batch of these awesome cranberry chocolate chip cookies a try. Eat a couple and then GIVE THEM AWAY to your neighbors! Wheeeeeeee… bring on the light!

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3) Get active – indoors or out!

We are rich in active fun throughout our region – from little kids to seniors, there are awesome options that will help you feel healthy (and part of a tribe). Last winter, Sara Friedl-Putnam helped us put together an amazing piece called “Treat Yo’ Self” that included a ton of info and links on how to treat yourself well through winter. Check it out – it’s an amazing collection of local folks who can help you feel great.
If your adventure threshold is high, try hiking, snow shoeing, or the Driftless cross country ski trails in the winter. Here’s a series of articles that Lauren Kraus helped us put together a few years ago – there are some real gems in there!

If snow and bicycles sound fun – fat biking may be your next adventure! Don’t get us wrong, it’s an insane workout and challenge, but it is serious winter fun! Decorah Human Powered Trails, as well as Upper Hixon Park in La Crosse, and Vernon (County) Trails in Viroqua all offer great opportunities for fat biking (large-tired mountain bikes made for snow!). Decorah Bicycles, Cresco Bicycles, and Blue Dog Cycles (Viroqua), can all hook you up with the latest and greatest in rentals and info.

But the cold is just too much, and the kids are going – insane – right? Never fear. We’ve been there, or more accurately, we’re currently there. Two of our favorite family outings include the La Crosse Children’s Museum, and The Cresco Wellness Center & Thompson Pool (indoor winter swimming!). Also don’t forget your local public library – which leads us to…

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4) Read.

Reading is a life skill. No, really – it’s a skill that just about anyone can do in any location, and just because we’re “Grown Ups” doesn’t mean we have to be all boring and serious. Heck, reading Calvin & Hobbes can be just as good in the cold winter months as an epic tome of Tolstoy. Benji could read autobiographies and chef books all winter. But when was the last time you perused your local public loibrary? We love the Decorah Public Library – it’s a great place to spend time – kiddo or not. Daily newspapers, cozy reading nooks, great books and magazines, and a sweet selection of DVDs – they even offer the FREE “Bridges” Iowa e-library – an online selection of e-books at no charge.

We also happen to be big fans of book stores. There really is nothing like cracking open a nice new book and diving in to that “fresh print smell”! Dragonfly Books is our local favorite for new books, or Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua is a one-of-a-kind place for used treasures.

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5) Volunteer.

It’s an easy thing to say – but it doesn’t always seem like an easy thing to do. But volunteerism is awesome and not as hard as you think, and it makes you feel good while helping others.
Do you have a family member in a Senior Living Center? No matter if you don’t, almost every senior care facility has outlets for volunteers, or will be happy to point you to a new friend who could use a visit on any given day. Benji had three different grandparents spend time at Aase Haugen Senior Living in Decorah, and with each grandparent, we got to know whole other groups of seniors who had stories to share and who loved to talk about their lives – many of which we’ve featured in our “probituaries”. (See the Probit collection here!)

Ever want to be a super hero? You still could be! Training for volunteer fire fighters and first responders is always ongoing. Talk to your local fire department to see what the current needs are and how you can train to be involved. Benji’s dad was a ‘career’ volunteer firefighter (over 30 years!) and it was a great community to grow up around. You could do it too – and it could literally be a life saving adventure!

Community non-profits and civic organizations are also great places to plug into for volunteer opportunities. Organizations like Rotary, Lions, JayCees, Elks, etc, are always looking for members and provide great community services. Check out your local chapters or simply ask someone how to become a member – it’s often fun and easy!

And don’t forget your local school, church, or city commissions. Plugging in to your community is easier than you might imagine, and making the place you live better by service is a great feeling.

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6) Find joy in something small – give yourself a gift.

We don’t intend on this to be your excuse to go out and buy a new 80″ flat-screen TV to watch football on all winter. But when was the last time you actually treated yourself to something small and meaningful? A really beautiful and useful handmade pottery mug? A winter series of art / cooking / carving / crafting classes? A beautiful candle to burn bright through the winter nights? Go crazy and get yourself a fun new single-cup pour-over coffee maker to make each cup a little party! (Here’s supposedly how to make the perfect cup!) Heck, a fun spin through your local thrift store for something funny can be a great distraction and costs almost nothing. Even the smallest of gifts for yourself can sometimes bring light and joy to dark days.

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7) Recognize Gratitude.

Gratitude. Being thankful. Reflecting on the opportunities and bounty that you have in your life. Nobody’s life is perfect. Really, not one person. But in a recent post, our friend Peter Awad, who runs the “Slow Hustle” podcast, reflected upon a friend who had just lost a child – while as a society we are so quick to whine and gripe about the smallest of inconveniences in our incredible daily lives. Each day is an opportunity, light or dark, to make the most of our lives. And maybe you have been through the terrible experience of suddenly losing a child, close friend, or family member – and for that we hope you’ll share your experience with others to help them reflect on the prosperity of their own lives. Each day is the next day of our lives. Shine on.

We’ve recently taken to the activity of writing down three things we’re grateful for on a (semi) daily basis. Have you ever asked a three-year-old what they’re grateful for? The act of doing so will quickly become something you are thankful for. And that’s the point – simple reflections on the positive things you have in your life – big or small – may make the daily difference to help pull through these dark fall and winter days. After all, each day is a gift – they’re all we have, so we might as well enjoy each one!

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015 marks the Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year before the light starts to return. Mark it on your calendar, light a candle, and enjoy the changing of the seasons. Our new “Winter” issue of Inspire(d) will be out the first week of December – just in time to help celebrate the coming light!

I Might Be a Mountain Biker

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By Aryn Henning Nichols

I’m standing at the edge of a steep single-track slope – c’mon, let’s be honest: it’s a cliff – with a mountain bike between my legs. I’ve freaked myself out and am stuck looking down.

ArynJosie“Eeeee! I can’t do it!” I shout ahead to my totally rad and more experienced riding leader (the ever-awesome, Josie – pictured at right with me).

“It’s okay to walk,” she says.

No it’s not. I can do it.

Trust your body, trust your bike. Trust your body, trust your bike. Trust your body, trust your bike. This mantra floods my head as I climb aboard to ride to certain death.

“Woohoo!” I shout ahead. “I did it!” I hear a “wooo!” back and we keep riding.

The next day, I don’t hesitate at the cliff. And it’s amazing.

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Mountain biking is something I’ve always wanted to be good at. I mean…it’s a pretty badass sport. Those craggy rocks and towering bluffs are some killer personal trainers, and running an endless “trust your body, trust your bike” mantra is, literally, meditation.

The amazing Benji Nichols (my husband) has known this for decades, so I don’t know why it’s taken me almost a decade into our relationship to give it a fighting chance (okay: running a magazine, having a baby, watching all the Netflix…those are probably the reasons).

But no more! Over the past month-ish, I’ve been renting mountain bikes from Decorah Bicycles to see if I can somehow be a badass-mountain-biking-bitch.

ArynPinesHere are 5 things I’ve learned (spoiler: lessons may also be applied to life):

  1. You’re going to crash. Once you get the first crash done, the next one doesn’t seem so scary.
  2. Uphill climbs are so hard! But they get better if you keep working at it.
  3. Using your body AND mind to navigate roots, rocks, twists, and dips is an amazing experience.
  4. You might run over a dead mouse every now and then. It’s okay. Get over it and move on.
  5. If you can’t get through a section of trail right away, go back and try again. And again. Victory is exhilarating! (Don’t be alarmed if you accidentally shout, “F#*k yeah!” Swearing is acceptable encouraged.)
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After a week or two of riding by myself and with Josie, I went out with Benji (yikes, I was nervous!). I had ridden with him probably five times before probably five years ago, and I really wanted him to think I was kicking ass. Of course, I crashed. But that was after I kicked ass.

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We climbed up and rolled down the challenging single-track of Decorah and I was proud of myself. There were many “woohoos” and lots of sweat. At the top of Van Peenen Prairie, I looked at Benji, smiled – excited – and said, “I think I might be a mountain biker!”

He looked at me and snorted. I expected one of his usual snarky remarks, but instead he threw a hand up for a high five and said, “I’ve got news for you: You are a mountain biker.”

F#*k yeah!

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Wanna ride with me? Let’s rent bikes together (it’s a great way to figure out what you like to ride, or if you like to ride)! Or join Josie and Travis at Decorah Bicycles for their weekly Sunday FWD Rides. Get more details and sign up here! Ride on, you unicorns!