Sunday, January 30, 2011
I probably looked suspicious as I cased the dark, empty building on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, the day barely awake. Locating my target near the front door, I opened the trunk of my car and removed an extension cord with a gas-pump-style handle on one end and a three-pronged plug on the other. I stretched the 25-foot line from the hood to the socket I'd discovered and made the connection. A blue light on the dashboard flickered on as the power trickled into the car's veins. Meanwhile, I disappeared into the shadows until it was time. Time to move on - to the next destination, the next outlet, the next charging fix.
Road-tripping by electric car is an adventure into the unknown, calling for ingenuity, resourcefulness and pluck, the opposite of the gas-fueled car vacation, with its pumps at every exit. In my battery-powered car, I moved like a migratory animal from charging station to charging station, in constant search of sustenance.
Electric vehicles, or EVs, and the infrastructure needed to mobilize them, are still in their infancy. Baby is just learning to walk, or, in this case, drive. But I was eager to experience the emissions-free conveyance that could revolutionize the classic road adventure. So a couple of weeks ago, I settled into a Nissan Leaf (so roomy, so quiet, so smooth) and drove around Southern California - more than 420 miles in total, from Los Angeles to Laguna Beach, to Santa Monica and to Santa Barbara. I set out with two goals, both a bit dreamy: never to run out of battery life, and to bump into the Prius-driving Leonardo DiCaprio, so that I could impress him with the future.
Unlike hybrids, EVs run solely on batteries and require frequent charges - the Nissan Leaf needs one after about 100 miles. Once the battery is drained, the car is a lifeless lump of metal and good intentions.
To recharge, drivers have a choice of options, from pokey slow to pit-crew fast: Level I (120 volts, compatible with household outlets, 18 to 20 hours' charge time), Level II (240 volts, currently available at a smattering of public venues, about eight hours) and the much-anticipated DC Fast Charge (480 volts, coming soon, less than 30 minutes).
"When you start driving the car, you just start looking for a charging station," said Tim Gallagher, Nissan's West Coast communications manager. "It's like your cellphone: You just start looking around, and when you find a place, you just plug it in."
To prevent a dystopian scene of EVs abandoned in the heartbreak lanes, the Department of Energy has handed out $129 million in grants for erecting Level II and Fast Charge stations around the country. By year's end, the agency expects to have 20,000 stations in more than 20 cities, often in settings with pleasant diversions - malls, museums, grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, Cracker Barrel - to lessen the pain of waiting.
This, my neo-green friends, is the future landscape. But at present, the network of stations resembles a Lite-Brite board with a shortage of pegs.
Before setting out on my journey, I spent weeks scouring the Web for public charging stations. I found dozens in places I'd visit even without a hungry EV: Long Beach Aquarium, the Beverly Hills Hilton, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Yet I soon learned that these chargers had been built around a decade ago, for the first generation of electric cars. Trying to use them with newer models, you'd have as much luck as plugging into a doughnut hole.
I finally had a breakthrough with California-based Coulomb Technology, which built its first station two years ago in San Jose and posts a live map of its working facilities nationwide. Nissan dealerships are also outfitted with Level II stations, and in a pinch I could use a regular outlet at my hotel, ideally charging while I slept, ate breakfast, went for a long walk on the beach, read a book and counted to one million.