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Not as easy as it looks: Report highlights obstacles for charging electric vehicles

Not as easy as it looks: Report highlights obstacles for charging electric vehicles
Electric vehicle owner Brianne Van Gorder speaks about her frustrations using charging stations. Less than a month ago, Van Gorder and her husband bought their first zero-emissions vehicle, a Volkswagen eGolf. (Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Brianne Van Gorder of Rancho Bernardo loves her new Volkswagen eGolf. But as a first-time owner of an electric vehicle, she's not so crazy about finding a way to charge it when she is away from home.

Sometimes, she has trouble finding a public charging station. And once she has found a charging station, Van Gorder learned she must first download an app from the companies operating the charging station to get the electricity flowing into her bright blue four-door.

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"It's so frustrating," the civil engineer said. "I literally got this car about three weeks ago and I've discovered you have to have an app for each one of them. It's not like there's a universal app."

Van Gorder's complaints echo many of the same concerns raised in a report called "Ready to Charge," released this week by Environment California and two partners.

"We're still at a point where it can be a pretty big adventure to charge your car when you're not at home," said Dan Jacobson, the group's director, who longs for the day when charging an electric vehicle, or EV, is just as easy and quick as filling up a gasoline-powered car or truck.

But the 38-page report says the day-to-day experience for EV drivers has a long way to go to reach that place and points to a host of issues that threaten to slow the state's hoped-for transition from internal combustion engine cars and trucks to zero-emissions vehicles.

Increasing the number of charging stations is one solution but the report also highlighted more granular issues, such as incompatible chargers, opaque pricing and multiple payment methods.

"The problem we're finding is that charging is still inconvenient and needs to be addressed quickly if we're going to hit the goals that we've set for ourselves in California," Jacobson said.

Last year, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order calling for 5 million EVs on California's roads by 2030, a target dramatically higher than his original order of 1.5 million by 2025. At the start of this month, the state counted 556,344 EVs in California.

Jacobson said the EV sector's biggest problem is not the long-discussed issue of "range anxiety" -- fear of the car conking out before a driver finds a charging station -- "but when I get there, can I get a charge and will it work?"

Based in Sacramento, Jacobson flew to San Diego earlier this week, rented an EV and made a series of random stops at charging stations.

At his first stop, Jacobson pulled into the charging station at the 6th & A Parking Garage downtown. On the first floor, the garage has installed 16 parking spaces, each with dedicated Tesla Superchargers. But there's a problem: Jacobson is driving a BMW i3 and Tesla chargers plug into Teslas only.

"We need chargers that can fit into any car," Jacobson said, adding that universal chargers are standard in Europe.

California recently passed a law requiring "interoperability" on public charging stations but the Environment California report said implementation of the act is still in the planning stages and the law depends on companies entering agreements with each other.

Jacobson found a fast-charging station that worked on his BMW at the parking garage under the Waterfront Park at the County Administration Center but unless drivers are there on county business, they have to wait until after 5 p.m. to use the chargers.

Once the BMW was plugged in, a digital reading showed Jacobson was being charged eight cents a minute plus 20 cents a kilowatt-hour. "I have no idea what 20 cents a kilowatt-hour means," Jacobson said. "If you were filling up your car (at a gas station), you would say, OK, it's $3.40 a gallon. That's totally clear."

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Dan Jacobson, executive director of Environment California, uses his charging app despite very poor cell phone reception as he tries to charge his BMW i3 EV in an underground parking garage at the County Administration Building on Tuesday in San Diego.
Dan Jacobson, executive director of Environment California, uses his charging app despite very poor cell phone reception as he tries to charge his BMW i3 EV in an underground parking garage at the County Administration Building on Tuesday in San Diego. (Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune)

The report said EV networks such as Blink, ChargePoint and EVgo offer different payment methods, including mobile apps and credit cards. Some stations charge a flat fee, some charge based on the amount of electricity use and others charge by the length of time the car was charging.

Jacobson wanted to charge his car to 85 percent and leave. But when the car hit that level, Jacobson could not take out the plug. He called the charging network to help him but since the cement lot could not give him cellphone reception, he had to walk about 25 feet away to complete the call. He then relied on a Union-Tribune reporter and photographer who accompanied him to confirm when the indicator light signaled it was safe to remove the plug.

"The guy who I rented this car from told me, 'That's why I never charge anywhere but home,'" Jacobson said.

California policymakers have made a big investment in EV adoption. A review by the Union-Tribune in February showed state agencies have committed $2.46 billion in public funds -- some already spent and the rest planned over a number of years -- for programs ranging from rebates for Californians who buy or lease EVs to money set aside for infrastructure projects like building charging stations.

There is no accurate count on the number of private homes in California equipped with charging stations. Fitting into a standard outlet, the majority of chargers in homes are Level 1 stations that typically deliver two to five miles of range per hour of charging.

According to the Environment California report, the state has around 14,860 Level 2 public charging plugs, which deliver about 10 to 60 miles of range per hour of charging and 2,500 public fast-charging stations can offer 60 to 100 miles of EV range in just 20 minutes of charging. The figures do not include chargers in private workplaces.

San Diego Gas & Electric estimates there are 1,700 public charging stations in its service territory that includes all of San Diego County and a portion of south Orange County.

The California Energy Commission in 2018 produced a study that estimated the state needs as many as 133,000 public and workplace EV chargers and up to 25,000 fast chargers in public places to meet California's goals but the Environment California report said those numbers may be low.

It pointed to U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the infrastructure needed to support 5 million EVs translates to as many as 180,000 Level 2 and 35,000 fast-charging plugs.

"The state understands the need for rapid, widespread investment in charging infrastructure," the report said. "However, the complexity of the current charging system represents an additional hurdle that could limit mass adoption of EVs."

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Concluding his tour, Jacobson experienced no hiccups at a strip mall in Kearny Mesa where four parking spaces are reserved for the EVgo charging stations facing Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. All the plugs fit his car and one of the stations accepted credit cards as well as the EVgo app.

"This is an example of the the kind of place we're looking for," Jacobson said.

Van Gorder, who was charging her VW in the parking space next to Jacobson, said navigating the ins and outs of public charging represents "a huge learning curve" for a newbie. The previous weekend, she and her husband drove to Carlsbad when the car needed a charge but the charging station would not take a credit card.

"We've had the car for a few weeks and we still love it," Van Gorder said. But issues such as running out of juice always lurk in the back of her mind. "You never think about this when you're low on gas. You say, oh, there will be a gas station on the next corner."

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