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Electric-vehicle owners fall into charger fixation

Jerry Dunton, left, and Dick Kaiser are friends who both own Tesla Model S cars. They are shown at a new supercharger station that Tesla is opening in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

McClatchy Tribune

Jerry Dunton, left, and Dick Kaiser are friends who both own Tesla Model S cars. They are shown at a new supercharger station that Tesla is opening in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

If the electricity is being offered for free, as it is in many electric-car charging locations, Michael Delune will park his Tesla Model S there. Even if he isn't running particularly low on juice.

"If it's free, I'll take it," the Irvine, Calif., lawyer said. "I admit that I have done that on occasion."

Free is free, even if you did spend $70,000-plus on an electric car.

As Tesla, Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt owners can attest, buying an electric car tends to rewire your brain. You no longer think in terms of miles per gallon, but charge per hour. With a gas-powered vehicle, it's safe to assume there's always a gas station within reach. Not so with an e-vehicle.

So the electric-car driver installs smartphone applications to locate the nearest charging stations. They start coveting that plug-in spot at work or the grocery store. And even though they might have a free pass for the carpool lane, e-car owners might not blow past the speed limit because that dramatically lowers their range.

Charging spots are scattered among parking structures, public transportation stations and businesses. Malls each have a few spots. Disneyland recently joined the EV charging party, with 20 spots on the first floor of the gigantic Mickey & Friends parking structure.

ChargePoint, one of the larger charger networks, has grown from 5,254 ports at the beginning of 2012 to more than 15,000 now. A person starts charging a car on that network every 10 seconds.

Competition at those public spots can be fierce. Unlike the proprietary supercharging stations Tesla is building, most public plug-in spots accommodate the majority of e-vehicle types.

So you get fully electric cars, like the Leaf, vying for spots along with plug-in gas hybrids such as the Volt. The Volt owners likely bought a hybrid to relieve range anxiety then discovered they could reduce their gas costs by living off electric and hopping from open charger to open charger.

And charging at public plug-ins is often relatively slow: Tens of miles of charge per hour versus hundreds at the Tesla station. So drivers often leave a car plugged in longer.

San Juan Capistrano, Calif., resident Jerry Dunton recalls trying to park at a Westin hotel in his new silver Model S on a business trip. The hotel had two plug-in spots; one was occupied by a service vehicle and the other by a gas-powered car. (iPhone apps can't help there.) Security couldn't move the car quickly enough, so Dunton drove to a nearby Marriott that had an open spot and had lunch while his car charged.

To cut down on plug squatting, parking structures and businesses which have installed chargers started shifting from free to asking for a nominal amount for the first few hours and then several bucks for longer stays.

In the past year, ChargePoint has seen the number of free ports on its network shrink from 80 percent to roughly two-thirds, and it's still dropping.

"If you talk to me in six months, it's probably going to be 40 (percent)," said Pasquale Romano, CEO of ChargePoint.

Electric-vehicle owners fall into charger fixation 02/07/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 5:17pm]
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