Electric car drivers eschew public charging stations

Nov 18, 2011

OLYMPIA, Wash. - You've probably seen plum parking spots set aside for electric cars, maybe even shaken your fist at an empty space. More than a thousand Northwest drivers have hit the road this year with the first mass market electric cars.

Many of them are letting researchers electronically track their charging and driving behavior. That data shows more than 80% of electric "fill ups" are happening not at those public charging points, but at home.

Dick Hauser is living on the cutting edge. The retired economist in Olympia was among the first in the Northwest to drive home with a 100% electric Nissan Leaf.

The plug-in car is the only car he and his wife own. The Hausers mostly just make short trips since they're retired.

"It's three miles to the food co-op. It's five miles out to my mother's house," Hauser says.

"I have not used yet because of that."

Hauser plugs his Leaf in every night at the charger in his garage. He got the device for free in exchange for letting government and industry researchers track his trips and fill ups. More than 900 other early adopters in Washington and Oregon have taken the same deal.

Collectively, those Northwest electric vehicle drivers have logged well over 1.5 million miles in their Nissan Leafs -- or leaves, whichever you prefer.

The Idaho National Lab processes and publishes quarterly data. Principal investigator Jim Francfort says the initial readouts show in the Northwest more than 80 percent of battery recharges happened at home.

"It's still fairly early as far as breaking down the charging information," Francfort says. "There's not a lot of infrastructure out there yet for people to use."

But the pace of deployment has definitely ramped up. Installation of charging points has been heavily subsidized with public funds and tax credits. There are now more than 100 public charging stations in Oregon, several hundred in Washington, and a handful in Idaho.

So far, Francfort says utilization by drivers is quite low.

"In Washington state, only one percent of the time were the vehicles connected to the public charging infrastructure," he says. "While over in Oregon, they were connected about 7 percent of the time to the public infrastructure, although only one percent of that time were they actually charging."

Given the low usage, should the government keep subsidizing more public charging points? The Pacific Northwest manager for Ecotality, a company that makes chargers, says it's too early to draw that conclusion.

Rich Feldman doesn't plan any midcourse corrections in the deployment of public charging infrastructure.

"We're very busy installing infrastructure and working with private parties and public entities to host commercial charging stations." he says. "We're committed to building out the rest of the infrastructure."

The manager of a charging strip at Portland State University points out new higher-voltage, "quick" chargers are just now coming on line and they could make a difference in driver behavior. George Beard says the ability to get a fast "top off" could give electric vehicle drivers the confidence to venture farther.

"To me metaphorically, it's like a beginning swimmer who tends to dog paddle around in the shallow end of the pool," he says. "But when you know that there are those floats that go across the pool, oft times we're willing to swim into the deep end knowing that you can grab on to that."

The analogy works for electric car owner Dick Hauser. He says he hasn't dared to drive from Olympia to Seattle yet, a distance of about 65 miles. Adding the fast chargers as planned in the big city would give him the reassurance that he can get juice to get back home.

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