The Trouble With Electric Cars

Plug-in vehicles may remain little more than a novelty until cities begin making it easier for motorists to recharge their batteries at home.

Mary Goulart didn’t realize that going green would be such a hassle. The Berkeley resident had converted her Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid, boosting its gas mileage to more than 100 miles per gallon. And she thought she had worked out a deal with the city so that she could recharge her car’s battery while it was parked in front of her home. But then a city inspector spotted the ad hoc charging station near Goulart’s house and ordered her to remove it or face thousands of dollars in fines. By the time it was over, the licensed acupuncturist had wasted nearly $7,000.

The frustrations that Goulart faced in her altruistic quest to reduce her carbon footprint are illustrative of the roadblocks that American consumers will soon encounter when major carmakers begin introducing plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles to the domestic auto market later this year. Her experience also should serve as a warning to cities like Berkeley — which has received national recognition for its efforts to fight climate change — that they need to devise ways to make it easier for motorists to buy electric vehicles. “If they don’t, it’s really going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of early adaptors,” said Matt Mattila of, a nonprofit organization dedicated to smoothing the transition to electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The biggest challenge is for the many residents of urban areas who have no garage or driveway. Apartment tenants, condo dwellers, and homeowners like Goulart who park on the street or in shared garages with no access to electricity may find themselves unable to purchase vehicles that must be plugged in. As a result, hundreds of thousands of consumers in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco may be blocked from buying electric vehicles, even though they represent a key segment of likely buyers.

In fact, experts say that no city in the Bay Area, a region known for its environmental activism, has yet devised a permitting process that allows apartment building owners to offer charging stations for their tenants. “That’s the unfortunate truth about what’s going on right now,” said Peter Skinner, senior director of transportation and land use for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business consortium working with local governments to prepare for the advent of electric vehicles. “The planning process is just starting.”

Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that if electric vehicles are going to penetrate the auto market in a way that will ultimately lessen the devastating impacts of climate change, cities must become more proactive. After all, according to the acclaimed Climate Action Plan that the Berkeley City Council adopted last year, at least 47 percent of greenhouse gases emitted within city limits come from transportation. Yet the city will not be able to adequately address its single largest source of carbon dioxide unless it starts making it easier for motorists to charge up their electric cars at home.

Mary Goulart’s electric car odyssey began in 2008, when she decided to convert her Prius to a plug-in hybrid. Goulart purchased a conversion kit from 3Prong Power in Berkeley, which also installed it for a total cost of about $7,000. The kit includes a large battery that goes in the Prius’ trunk so that the car can operate on electricity while driving around town. It meant that Goulart, who is a licensed acupuncturist with offices in Berkeley and Oakland, could make short trips without ever having to use her Prius’ gasoline engine.

As Goulart was converting her Prius, she began working with the office of Mayor Tom Bates to figure out how she could plug in her car at night. Her problem was that she has no garage or driveway. But after several conversations, she believed she had a deal worked out with the mayor’s office that would allow her to plug in her car in front of her home on Euclid Avenue. “I thought I had come up with a perfect solution,” she said.

The solution involved hiring an electrical contractor to run a wire from her home, underneath the sidewalk, and to the curb, where he built a small outlet box. Goulart said she was given the green light by the mayor’s office after she told them that the box would be on her property, as would a small, concrete parking pad she had built for her Prius.

But when a city inspector, who was examining some construction at a neighbor’s home, saw Goulart’s setup, he told her it was illegal, issued her a citation, and threatened her with large fines. Part of the problem was a mistake that Goulart had made. The small parking pad and outlet were not on her property; they were on city property — a large median strip between the sidewalk and the curb.

When staffers in the mayor’s office told her that there was nothing they could do, Goulart turned to her councilwoman, Susan Wengraf, who spent months helping her navigate the city’s bureaucracy. Wengraf eventually learned that the real issue was not the parking pad, but legal liability for the electrical outlet. “What it really came down to,” the councilwoman explained in an interview, “is who would be liable if some kid came and stuck his finger in the outlet.”

Mayoral aide Calvin Fong, with whom Goulart had several conversations, denied that the office had ever given her the go ahead to build the charging station and parking pad. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Because it was on city property, Goulart had no choice but to it rip out even though it cost her $5,500 to install. Additionally, the cost to remove it and restore the city’s median strip came to more than $1,000. “It was just ridiculous,” Goulart said during a recent interview in the kitchen of her Berkeley hills home. “I was so pissed.”

There are sure to be many other stories like Goulart’s unless cities begin preparing adequately for the electric car revival, which is set to begin in December when Nissan introduces its all-electric Leaf. The sporty five-seater is expected to retail for around $30,000, making it the first affordable electric car suitable for the middle class. The car also is eligible for federal rebates, which could push the price closer to $20,000.

Unlike first-generation electric cars, the Leaf also will carry a battery large enough to give it a maximum range of 100 miles. Still, it’s initially expected to be purchased by short-distance commuters until quick-charging stations start replacing gas stations around the nation so that motorists can use the Leaf for longer trips. As things currently stand, however, most of those initial buyers will probably have to be homeowners, who, unlike Goulart, have garages or driveways.

The Nissan Leaf will be followed by GM’s Chevy Volt in 2011 and the Toyota Prius plug-in in 2011 or 2012. As revolutionary and environmentally desirable as the Leaf is, these other cars may make a larger impact in the short-term because they’re plug-in hybrids and not fully electric vehicles. In other words, both cars can operate on their electric batteries for forty miles or so before the gasoline-powered engine clicks on. That way, East Bay motorists can drive as far as Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, or Big Sur without having to worry about recharging their car’s battery. Conventional Prius owners, like Goulart, also can transform their cars into plug-ins by purchasing conversion kits from a handful of small companies such as 3Prong Power.

Consumers may also initially prefer the Volt or Prius because both cars can be fully recharged with a typical 110/120-volt outlet common to most homes. As a result, motorists can plug in their cars when they come home at night, and the battery will be replenished when they wake up the next morning.

The Leaf also will work with a 110/120-volt outlet, but because the battery is larger and more powerful it will take fourteen to fifteen hours to fully recharge — which may be too long for some commuters. Consequently, Nissan is suggesting that people who purchase a Leaf install a 220/240-volt outlet that will recharge the car’s bigger battery in just eight or nine hours.

Nissan spokesman Tim Gallagher said his company has partnered with the Southern California company AeroVironment to help consumers negotiate the electrical upgrade process. According to AeroVironment vice president Kristen Helsel, the company will help consumers select a licensed electrician and will pull the proper city permits. AeroVironment’s 220/240-volt outlet also is weatherproof, so it can go on the side of your house. “We want to make it a pleasant experience — easy for people to do it,” she said.

Helsel noted that consumers will be eligible for a $2,000 federal rebate for each installation upgrade at least until the end of this year, although the Obama administration and Congress are expected to extend the rebate through 2011. However, neither Nissan nor AeroVironment has announced how much the upgrades are expected to cost.

The problem is that the price will ultimately depend on the electrical wiring of each house, explained Dan Pitcock, owner of the Oakland-based Robert’s Electric Company, a green-friendly electrical contractor that has installed upgrades for Bay Area homeowners who purchased the expensive Tesla electric roadster. Pitcock recommends that consumers who plan to buy the Leaf or other vehicles that would work better with a 220/240-volt outlet should consult with a licensed contractor beforehand to review their home’s wiring and determine how much work will be involved. Pitcock noted that some older homes with outdated wiring also may require a service upgrade from Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which could cost several thousand dollars.

But the issues facing homeowners with garages or driveways are minor in comparison to the many obstacles that confront apartment and condo dwellers. One of the basic problems for most apartment buildings, for example, is that they don’t provide dedicated parking spots and the spots typically have no access to electrical outlets.

Apartment owners may also consider the costs of running electrical wiring to parking spots to be cost-prohibitive. And even if they decide it’s worthwhile to market their buildings to environmentally conscious tenants, there’s the thorny problem of ensuring that the electrical outlet at each parking spot corresponds to the meter for that apartment. And then even if apartment owners come to grips with these issues, Bay Area cities have yet to develop a permitting process to let any of it happen.

But while even green cities such as Berkeley have been slow to respond to the coming electric-vehicle wave, one Bay Area green-tech company is offering what appears to be a viable solution for consumers. Coulomb Technologies of Campbell is selling portable high-tech charging stations that can work in apartment garages or city-owned parking facilities. In fact, two East Bay cities, Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill, already have made several such stations available to the public in their downtown areas.

The stations operate on smart, networked technology that eliminates the need for assigned parking spaces in apartment garages and lots. That’s because anyone can use the stations as long as they have a Coulomb smart card, which is similar to the FasTrak pass used on Bay Area bridges, explained company co-founder Praveen Mandal.

Each smart card turns on the charging station and every card is unique to each motorist. That way, no one can steal electricity. And if some thief were to swipe your card, it automatically sends your cell phone a text message letting you know exactly where your card is being used. Then, at end of each month, Coulomb sends you a bill. “From our perspective, if you don’t have a charging station, you’re not going to have an incentive to buy an electric car,” Mandal said.

Because electricity is a heavily regulated commodity, Coulomb, which is named after an 18th-century French physicist, doesn’t actually sell the electricity. Likewise, apartment owners who purchase the stations also are prohibited from actually selling the electricity to their tenants. Instead, they can do what Coulomb does — charge for using the equipment, making sure to set a price that also covers their own electrical bills.

The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to award full approval to Coulomb’s technology soon. Currently, the company’s charging stations are operating in a sort of gray area of the law. The company markets both 110/120-volt and 220/240-volt charging stations. However, the higher-voltage device presents many of the same wiring issues faced by homeowners. Older apartment buildings may need significant electrical upgrades to accommodate the 220/240-volt stations.

Plug-in advocates, meanwhile, want cities to not only devise permitting processes for apartment and condo charging stations, but also to require that new buildings accommodate the needed wiring — once the real estate market rebounds. “It’s really a pretty cheap thing to do,” said Mattila of “When you have it in your plans, it’s just laying wire.”

Coulomb also recently introduced what’s known as a Level Three station — which can recharge an electric car’s battery to 80 percent of capacity in about 15 minutes. Because the stations operate on the equivalent of about 480 volts, they’re not suitable for homes without significant electrical upgrades. Currently, they’re designed for private or city-owned parking lots, or ultimately, in large, standalone facilities that resemble gas stations. Coulomb’s single charging stations in Walnut Creek are at 1350 Locust Street, 1625 North Locust Street, 1390 North Broadway, and 2700 Mitchell Drive. In Pleasant Hill, they’re at 100 Gregory Lane and 310 Civic Drive.

Nissan also recently won a $100 million federal grant with eTec, an Arizona-based company, to develop larger standalone facilities around the nation. However, the test markets do not include the Bay Area.

So where does that leave people like Mary Goulart who have to park on the street? At this point it makes no sense for them to buy plug-in cars until they can juice up at large charging stations, or until cities find a way to let them do it on the street in front of their homes.

And the solution may not be that difficult. For one, cities could require that curbside outlet boxes include lockable covers. In addition, they could require homeowners to indemnify cities if someone were to break into the box and be injured or start a fire. “We have a lot of smart people in Berkeley, we should be able to figure it out,” Councilwoman Wengraf said.

As for Goulart, she hasn’t given up on being green. After tearing out the parking pad and outlet box, she decided to run an orange electrical cord from her home, over her front fence, and through a city-owned tree next to the curb, so she can plug in her converted Prius each night. So far, city inspectors have turned a blind eye to it, and she hopes they will continue to do so. “I just have a bug up my butt about my carbon footprint,” she said.


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