Electric Vehicle

California wants more electric cars. But many public chargers don’t work

If electric cars are to replace California, they need to be easy to charge.

There’s a hitch: According to a recent survey, more than a quarter of public charging stations in the Bay Area don’t work.

“It’s a mess, and you can’t drive down the street to find another,” said Michael Bolserek, who likes to drive his electric Volkswagen ID 4 around San Francisco, yet often finds public plugs. Other cars that are broken or blocked.

San Anselmo’s Sue Saunders also loves emissions-free driving in her Chevrolet Bolt, but she admits the trouble is real. On a road trip last year, she and her daughter drove for miles to the only charging station. One kiosk was not working, and the other was blocked by a parked car with a sleeping man inside. They went to get the frozen curd and waited for him to wake up.

“I tell friends it’s a bit of a thrill right now, but I’m sure it will improve,” Saunders said.

Concerned about reliability, David Rempel, a retired professor of bioengineering from UC Berkeley, decided to test charging stations around the Bay Area. Rampel received support from the San Rafael nonprofit Cool the Earth, which provided funding and volunteers.

A line of Tesla stations at San Francisco Premium Outlets in Livermore.

Samantha Lawrie / Exclusive to The Chronicle

They visited 181 public charging stations with a total of 657 plug-in kiosks in the region’s nine counties over three weeks in February and March. Testers tried charging their electric cars for at least two minutes and noted any problems.

They found 73 percent public kiosks in working condition. But about 23% had inactive screens, payment failures or broken connector cables. On the other 5%, the cables were too short to reach the charging inlets of the vehicles.

They didn’t test charging stations for Tesla, although it’s the best-selling electric car model with about 66% market share, as they’re only available to Tesla drivers. According to Rempel, the company bucks the trend with some of the fastest and most reliable banks of stations.

Rempel, the electric car driver himself, said he was surprised by the extent of the problems.

“Everyone is pushing for a very high credibility – and we are not seeing that,” he said.

At gas stations, it’s easy to pull up to another pump if one isn’t working—and even know if a pump isn’t working before you head out to refuel.

But when it comes to charging stations, “to get some sites to work (public chargers) you have to call the 1-800 number, and 10-20 minutes add up,” Rempel said. “It should not happen.”

That’s a key issue for California, which seeks to reduce one of the state’s biggest sources of pollution — vehicles — as it races to reduce emissions that cause global warming. According to the California Air Resources Board, ending sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2035 — a state goal — could dramatically reduce greenhouse gases by 2040.

In a statement to The Chronicle, EVGO, one of the top three charging network operators outside Tesla, said the charging industry is “still in its infancy.” The company is dedicated to “identifying and fixing the root causes of these issues.” The company is improving its detection and notification system to deal with problems quickly. Others, ChargePoint and Electrify America, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sue Sanders walks into a car charging station at the San Francisco Premium Outlet in Livermore.

Sue Sanders walks into a car charging station at the San Francisco Premium Outlet in Livermore.

Samantha Lawrie / Exclusive to The Chronicle

Inadequate charger is not an emergency today, with most electric car drivers charging at home. But it will become imperative as more and more people move away from consuming gas, especially as apartment dwellers and renters are more likely to rely on public charging infrastructure.

Nearly half of all 2.6 million electric vehicles sold nationwide are in California, according to Veloz, a Sacramento-based nonprofit Tracking Electric Vehicle Data. In San Francisco, electric cars comprise 1.8% of all vehicle registrations, compared to 1.8% across the United States, according to IHS Markit, a London-based subsidiary of S&P Global analytics firm.

According to the California Energy Commission, California has more than 73,000 public and shared chargers, but it needs about 1.2 million public and shared chargers by 2030 to reach 7.5 million electric cars on the road. The state’s proposed 2021-2022 budget includes $500 million to charge infrastructure to help fill the gap.

The Biden administration is spending $5 billion over the next five years to help states build charging networks along highways.

Daniel Sperling, a member of the California Air Resources Board and founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, said that most charging stations operate with government subsidies because of the difficulty of making electricity that sells profit to electric vehicles – and it is imperative that California Accelerates your needs for stations.

“I want to hear an answer in terms of accountability and in terms of performance,” Sperling said at a public hearing recently before the Hawaii Resources Board about charging infrastructure.

The state’s early electric vehicle drivers may be more willing to address the troubles because of their firm belief in emissions-free driving, but others may not.

Carlin Cullen, executive director of Cool the Earth, who contributed to the charging station study with Rempel, said she was more open to talking about charging problems after urging her daughter.

His daughter, Lena Cullen, a 20-year-old biology major at UC Davis, has faced the challenges of finding a charging station. She charges the Chevrolet Bolt at the campus stations every two weeks. On longer trips, she plots each charging stop ahead of time and plans backup options as well.

“I don’t have a single friend with an electric car. They know, ‘Lena always has to charge,'” she said. “But they also know that I don’t spend as much money on gas as they do.”

Julie Johnson (he/she) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @juliejohnson,


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