Electric cars

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

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

There’s a catch: More than a quarter of public charging stations in the Bay Area aren’t working, according to a recent survey.

“It’s a mess, and you can’t just drive down the street to find another one,” said Michael Bolcerek, who loves driving his electric Volkswagen ID.4 around San Francisco but too often finds public outlets broken. or blocked by other cars.

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

“What I tell my friends is that it’s a bit of a ride right now, but I’m confident it will get better,” Saunders said.

Concerned about reliability, a retired UC Berkeley bioengineering professor, David Rempel, decided to test charging stations in the Bay Area. Rempel secured support from San Rafael’s nonprofit Cool the Earth, which provided funds and volunteers.

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

Samantha Laurey / Special for The Chronicle

They deployed to the region’s nine counties for three weeks in February and March, visiting 181 public charging stations with a total of 657 connection stations. Testers tried charging their electric cars for at least two minutes and noted any issues.

They found 73% of public kiosks in working order. But almost 23% had unusable screens, payment failures or broken connection cables. On another 5%, the cables were too short to reach the vehicles charging socket.

They did not test charging stations for Tesla, although it is the best-selling electric car model with around 66% market share, as these are only available to Tesla drivers . The company is bucking the trend with some of the fastest and most reliable station banks, according to Rempel.

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

“Everyone is pushing for pretty high reliability – and we don’t see that,” he said.

At gas stations, it’s easy to stop at another pump if one isn’t working – and also to find out if a pump isn’t working before you head out to refuel.

But when it comes to charging stations, “some sites require calling a 1-800 number for (a public charger) to work, which adds an extra 10 to 20 minutes,” Rempel said. “That shouldn’t be the case.”

It’s a critical issue for California, which wants to reduce one of the state’s biggest sources of pollution – vehicles – as it works to curb emissions that cause global warming. Ending gas-powered car sales by 2035 — a state goal — could significantly reduce greenhouse gases by 2040, according to the California Air Resources Board.

In a statement to The Chronicle, EVgo, one of three major charging network operators outside of Tesla, said the charging industry “is still in its infancy.” The company is “committed to identifying the root causes of these issues and correcting them.” The company is improving its detection and notification systems to deal with problems quickly. The others, ChargePoint and Electrify America, did not respond to a request for comment.

Sue Sanders stops at a car charging station in the San Francisco Premium Outlets in Livermore.

Sue Sanders stops at a car charging station in the San Francisco Premium Outlets in Livermore.

Samantha Laurey / Special for The Chronicle

Inadequate chargers are not an emergency today, when most electric car drivers charge at home. But this will become urgent as more people move away from gas consumers, especially apartment dwellers and renters more likely to rely on public charging infrastructure.

Nearly half of the 2.6 million electric vehicles sold nationwide have been in California, according to Veloz, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that tracks electric vehicle data. In San Francisco, electric cars account for 11% of all vehicle registrations, compared to 1.8% in the United States, according to IHS Markit, a London-based subsidiary of analytics firm S&P Global.

California has more than 73,000 public and shared chargers, but it needs nearly 1.2 million public and shared chargers by 2030 to reach 7.5 million electric cars on the road, according to the California Energy Commission. . The state’s proposed budget for 2021-22 includes $500 million for charging infrastructure to close the gap.

The Biden administration will also spend $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 Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis, said most charging stations operate with a government subsidy because of the difficulty of making a profit by selling power to electric vehicles – and it’s imperative that California refines its requirements for stations.

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

The state’s early EV drivers may be more willing to ride out the hassle because of their strong belief in emission-free driving, but others are not.

Carleen Cullen, executive director of Cool the Earth, who helped research the charging station with Rempel, said she became more open about talking about charging issues after being pressured by her daughter.

His daughter, Lena Cullen, a 20-year-old biology student at UC Davis, took on the challenges of finding charging stations. She charges her Chevrolet Bolt at campus stations every two weeks. On long trips, it schedules each charging stop in advance and also schedules backup options.

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

Julie Johnson (her) is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @juliejohnson.