EUGENE, Ore. — Will Price, a Nissan Leaf owner in Eugene, doesn’t use the network of government-provided electric-vehicle charging stations that were installed for motorists like him.
Price drives 14 miles to and from work, easily within his electric car’s 70-mile range, so he ignores the publicly accessible fast-charging units scattered around Eugene-Springfield.
“I never use them,” Price said. “They are of no consequence to me.”
Most electric-vehicle owners have developed the same at-home charging habit, leaving the expensive, taxpayer-funded EV Project network of fast-charging units in Eugene-Springfield unused much of the time.
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In the city of Eugene’s public parking garages, for example, each charging unit is used an average of once every two weeks. Springfield officials want seven charging units removed from downtown because some are little used and others are broken.
In 2013, the last year that data were collected for the federal government, electric vehicles throughout Oregon were plugged into public chargers installed through The EV Project just 4 percent of the time, compared with 42 percent of the time at home-charging units.
The same pattern is true in the eight other states and District of Columbia where the devices also were installed by the federal government, at a total cost to the taxpayer of about $100 million.
The largest deployment of charging stations in the world, it’s aimed at supporting the introduction of the all-electric Nissan Leaf and electric and gasoline-powered Chevrolet Volt to help end the nation’s reliance on internal-combustion-engine vehicles.
In Oregon, as part of The EV Project, the federal government spent more than $5 million buying, distributing and installing more than 1,100 charging devices at the homes of electric-vehicle owners and in places accessible to the public.
The EV Project’s public chargers were meant to ease consumer concerns about the limited range of vehicles that rely all or in part on battery power.
Motorist “Range anxiety,” or concern about being stranded with a depleted battery, was considered to be a major barrier to popular acceptance of electric cars, said state Sen. Phil Barnhart of Eugene.
That made it important to install as many publicly available charging stations as possible, he said.
“When they installed these (quick chargers), they were trying to encourage people to look at electric vehicles,” Barnhart said. “They wanted people to say, ‘Maybe we should buy one of these things.’ These gadgets have served their purpose very well.”
But the results from The EV Project appear mixed, others say.
The EV Project bought and deployed mostly “Level 2” chargers that can resupply an electric vehicle’s battery in three to six hours, compared with the portable “trickle chargers” provided by carmakers, which can take from 10 to 20 hours.
Most days, electric-car owners prefer to plug in their vehicles at home, both for the convenience and the lower cost of residential electricity compared with what they would pay at the public charging units operated by for-profit networks.
The EV Project rushed to deploy the chargers to coincide with the introduction of electric vehicles and struggled to find publicly accessible places to put them. Large employers and other property owners were reluctant to dedicate parking spaces for charging stations in workplace parking lots, observers said.
EV project representatives found “it to be a challenge to get these in place at private locations,” Jeff Petry, Eugene’s parking manager said in 2011.
That left Eugene, Springfield and other public entities among the property owners willing to accept the devices from the federal government and its contractor, EcoTality, a maker of the charging units. And that led to their installation in public parking garages and lots.
“They were put in the wrong places. That is why they are not being utilized,” said Wahid Nawabi, a senior vice president of AeroVironment, a California-based maker of battery-charging devices and operator of a charging network.
Price and other electric-car owners got the charging equipment put in their homes for free, including needed electrical work, paid for by the federal government and EcoTality.
Price said the free device and related electrical work saved him more than $1,000.
In return, electric-vehicle owners agreed to let their energy use and driving habits be monitored.
The data was sent to and analyzed by Idaho National Laboratory, which is affiliated with the federal Department of Energy.
Even with the federal government providing the charging-station hardware, the business of running and maintaining the units turned out to be a money loser for EcoTality, which had installed the units and established the Blink network of chargers in Oregon and the other states involved in The EV Project.
Government officials expected the San Francisco-based firm would invest $110 million of private funding to install the residential units and establish the public network.
EcoTality expected to become profitable, partly through the sale of electricity to electric-car owners through its Blink network of charging stations, but that failed to happen quickly enough.
In 2013, staggering under debt, EcoTality went bankrupt. The firm’s assets, including the Blink network, were acquired in 2013 by Miami-based Car Charging Group, making it the nation’s largest electric-vehicle charging company.
Yet that firm also is struggling financially, having lost nearly $11 million in the first six months of 2014. The firm’s financial status adds uncertainty to the network’s future.
Debate over value
The federal government initially paid for the purchase and installation of the vast majority of the Level 2 public charging stations in Oregon, but the ownership of the equipment varies. Some units are owned by property owners, including government entities. Other devices are owned by Car Charging Group.
Springfield officials last year asked the Car Charging Group to move seven of the 10 Blink chargers from downtown because some of them are barely used and others are broken.
If the company complies, the devices may wind up at Willamalane Park and Recreation District facilities or at hospitals, said Courtney Griesel, of the city’s economic and community development division.
Officials hope the chargers are better used in new locations, she said.
But the city has had difficulty getting cooperation from Car Charging Group, Griesel said.
“I imagine they have taken on quite a backlog of equipment and work,” she said. “We want to work with them, but their responsiveness leaves something to be desired.”
In Eugene, 14 public charging stations are downtown, including in four city parking garages. The city of Eugene owns the units, plus two others at the Hilyard Community Center.
In Springfield, however, the chargers are owned by the Car Charging Group. Springfield officials declined to own the units, mainly because of concerns about their long-term maintenance, Griesel said.
Despite the Blink network problems, electric-vehicle advocates still insist public charging stations are valuable.
Barnhart, the state representative, said the devices help the environment because electric vehicles don’t pollute like gasoline-powered cars. That’s important to fight climate change, he said.
It’s better for Oregon’s economy if residents buy electricity to power vehicles from a local utility than purchasing gasoline from out-of-state companies and oil producers, Barnhart said.
“This is all part of the process to move us to a more efficient and cleaner economy,” said Barnhart, who drives an all-electric Tesla.
The EV Project was separate from the West Coast Electric Highway Project, which used federal money to install 43 direct-current superfast chargers along Interstate 5 and other highways.
These devices, which generally are used more frequently than the Level 2 chargers installed by the EV Project, can recharge a car’s battery in about 40 minutes.
More than 30 public charging stations, including Level 2 chargers and direct-current fast chargers installed by the West Coast Electric Highway Project, exist in Lane County. Many of them are on public property, but some are in shopping centers, including the Fred Meyer Store in north Eugene.
Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said 68 charging stations were installed during the past few years at 33 Fred Meyer stores in Oregon and Washington, many of them through The EV Project.
Data from 58 of those units showed 3,300 customers have used those devices a total of more than 48,000 times, she said.
“We have plans to install 18 more chargers at nine more stores,” she said. “We started this program two to three years ago and have found it to be a great service to offer our customers.”
Cafe Yumm! in 2011 installed two Level 2 chargers and four slower charging units at its restaurant on East Broadway in Eugene. These chargers, separate from The EV Project, are connected to solar panels.
The $332,000 project was largely paid for by the public, through state and federal tax credits and a Eugene Water & Electric Board rebate.
Cafe Yumm! co-founder and President Mark Beauchamp said he installed the equipment because it fits his company’s environmental philosophy.
The chargers are not used often, but Beauchamp said he doesn’t consider them a mistake.
“The purpose was to show the public that these (chargers) exist,” he said. “This is real and it’s happening in your community, not some faraway place.”
Cafe Yumm! last July opened an outlet in Wilsonville with a fast-charger out front.
“If your only concern in business is driven by the bottom line, then you say ‘no,’ to these things,” Beauchamp said. “But we are a mission-driven company.”
Price, the Eugene Leaf owner, said he’s glad the public chargers exist, even though he doesn’t use them.
Long-distance electric-vehicle commuters or visitors to Eugene-Springfield need places to recharge, said Price, an energy-resource analyst at EWEB.
“In the bigger picture, more charging stations increase the radius of travel, whether it’s business or pleasure,” Price said.
Petry, Eugene’s parking manager, said the chargers fit the city’s goal to reduce carbon emissions and fossil-fuel use over the next five years.
“They may not be well used now,” but there could be more demand for them in the future “and we will already have the (charging stations and electrical infrastructure) in place,” he said.
Barnhart said more publicly accessible chargers will be needed. However, more of the devices should be placed in parking lots of employers or hotels, where cars are parked for long periods of time, he said.
“The EV (electric vehicle) is the car of the future,” Barnhart said.
Some electric-vehicle owners in Eugene use the public chargers.
A few times a week, Leo Alapont parks his Nissan Leaf in one of the two parking spots with a charger in the downtown Overpark garage.
Alapont could charge his car at home, but he prefers to plug the vehicle to a charger while he works as a financial planner at US Bank.
“What I like about it is that your car is being charged while you are working or going shopping, instead of having to go to a gas station,” Alapont said.
He activates the charging unit by swiping his Blink network membership card through the machine. Most of the time it costs him $2 or $3 to charge the vehicle’s battery.
Alapont said it’s been easy to find an empty parking spot in front of a charger.
“I only have to compete with a Tesla for one of those two spots,” he said.