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My kingdom for a charging station: one electric-vehicle driver’s frustrating search

My kingdom for a charging station: one electric-vehicle driver’s frustrating search
A Tesla charges at one of the electric-vehicle charging stations in the Orchards shopping center in Walnut Creek, Calif. (Kristopher Skinner / TNS)

It seemed like a simple plan.

Halfway through a week of test-driving the new all-electric Jaguar I-Pace, and intending to drive the following day to Palm Springs, I decided to find a charging station to bring the car’s battery up to full capacity.

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I had about half a “tank” of juice, with the dashboard putting my range at 150 miles — a little more than half the I-Pace’s promised 234 miles of total range.

Jaguar hadn’t included the adapter I’d need to charge at home with my standard 120-volt plugs, so I’d have to go out for my electricity.

Thus began an odyssey that fundamentally changed my opinion about EV ownership in Los Angeles.

Had I studied up, or not been such a newcomer, I wouldn’t have been surprised by the difficulty I had finding an open charging port.

California has 18,000 charging stations available to the public, according to the California Energy Commission; 15% are fast chargers. That leads the nation; the EV-centric publication InsideEVs says the state has almost a third of all the charging stations in the U.S. (As of earlier this year, Texas was No. 2, with only 2,500.)

Los Angeles boasts 1,818 charging stations, according to the website ChargeHub. Only 7% are fast chargers, and many of those are available to Tesla owners only.

Help is on the way: In May, the state Public Utilities Commission approved utility plans to spend $738 million on charging infrastructure. An additional $800 million will be spent on expanding charging stations in California as part of a $2-billion settlement with Volkswagen after the diesel emissions scandal. And in January, Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order to add 250,000 publicly available charging stations by 2025. The same order sets a goal of 5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030, which would roughly maintain the current ratio of cars to chargers.

Though zero-emission vehicles today make up only 5% of all cars on the road in California — higher in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose — that comes to more than 350,000 vehicles. While battery-electric vehicles — known as BEVs — mostly rely on charging systems at home or work, some are dependent on those 18,000 public stations.

No wonder they’re crowded.

I consulted one of the many websites listing ChargePoint and EVGo charging stations near me and confirmed their locations with the I-Pace’s onboard computer. So many! I picked a couple in the Atwater-Glendale area and set out.

My first stop turned out to be an apartment building. A code was required to access the parking garage where, presumably, one might find the charging station.

Not to worry. There was another station just around the corner. But that proved to be a Volkswagen dealership. Though they did have several charging bays, all of them were occupied by VWs. These were blocked by rows of other cars awaiting service.

That was fine. Another address up the street, it seemed, was a Nissan dealer. Two friendly salesmen waved me in, joking that they would charge me extra for bringing a Jaguar onto their lot, and let me plug into their charging station.

Alas, it was a Level 1 station. I was accruing charge at the rate of about 4 miles of range per hour. I thanked the nice Nissan guys and headed off in search of a station that offered faster charging.

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There were multiple opportunities at the parking garage attached to the Americana shopping mall. Bonanza! But upon inspection I found none open — even though, irritatingly, several of the cars parked in the charging spaces were not, in fact, charging.

But wait! One was open! That was because, I soon discovered, it was broken.

Back into the street I went, now about an hour into my search for voltage.

Soon I found another charging station, this one on the top floor of an office building parking lot. The floor featured three Tesla-designated chargers and three other chargers. All of them were open! All of them were functional! All of them were Level 2 chargers. When I plugged in, my dashboard told me it would take 7 hours and 20 minutes to come up to full charge.

I unplugged and headed south through now-heavy evening commuter traffic. It was getting late. I was getting hungry. I drove to a public park not very far from my house. The I-Pace computer told me there were three charging stations there and said none were being used.

Indeed, when I arrived, I found a near-empty parking lot and no cars at the charging stations. I plugged in, entered the information necessary to pay for the electricity I was using, and started out on foot for a nearby restaurant.

My idea was to have a very leisurely dinner, dawdle over dessert and amble back — giving the charger enough time to put 40 miles or so into the car. That would leave me plenty of range to get to Palm Springs.

I had already confirmed that overnight charging was available at the hotel I’d booked. If I could get there, I could surely get back without all this drama.

The dinner was sublime. The evening stroll along the L.A. River was delightful. But when I returned to the park, I found it was locked. I couldn’t get to the car, and I couldn’t get the car out of the lot.

I caught a Lyft home. The following morning, I returned by Lyft to the park. The I-Pace was fully refueled. I’d been charged $5 for the electricity. The car said it had a range of 245 miles — above the company’s promise.

That was well above the range I’d hoped for when I had set out the previous afternoon. Abandoning the car overnight in a parking lot, and having to take Lyft rides to home and back, were not part of my original plan. But now I had the electricity I needed to make the drive to the desert.

For years I’ve been blithely recommending BEVs to people who commute in Los Angeles. But this charging experience really altered my feeling about owning a battery-electric vehicle here.

For a driver with a commute to and from work that’s below the car’s range, who has access to home charging, an I-Pace or a Bolt EV or a Tesla might be the ideal L.A. car.

For anyone relying on access to public charging stations, at least in my part of town, I’d issue an electric caveat emptor.

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