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After years of anticipation, the Tesla gigafactory opened just outside of Reno in 2016. In this series, KUNR explores everything from hiring efforts, the evolution of battery technology, infrastructure and workforce challenges for the region, and more. Our reporting on Tesla earned a 2016 regional Edward R. Murrow award for best small market radio news series from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

EV Charging Stations: A Growing Patchwork

Steve Jurvetson, Flickr
A Tesla supercharger station in Gilroy, California.

As part of our ongoing series on Tesla, Amy Westervelt takes a look at the state of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and whether or not it’s easier to get around without gas these days. 

I’m here in the garage of a Reno Tesla owner to check out the charging situation.

“So I’m Matthew Crapko, I live in Reno here and this is my Model S Tesla. I got it almost a year ago now and I nicknamed it Guinevere.”

When Matt Crapko bought his Tesla Model S last year, there were no Tesla superchargers in the area. Instead the car came with a charger that he installed in his garage.

“So I was able to hire an electrician and he was actually really awesome and he came and he was able to patch something together and put a plug in the wall,” he says. “It’s basically just like an RV plug.”

Teslas can drive around 200 miles before needing a charge, so building out a charging network is really important to enable longer road trips. Back in 2013 Elon Musk promised to cover 98 percent of the country with superchargers by 2015. The network, which is available only to Tesla drivers, has yet to meet that goal, but now includes 288 stations throughout the U.S.

“Without the supercharger network, you can’t really go for long road trips,” Crapko says. “Because even with high-voltage plug like I have in my garage, it still takes, if it was close to empty, it still takes close to ten hours to completely charge the battery full. At a supercharger station, it’s about 45-50 minutes, less if you’re not empty.”

In his 2013 announcement, Musk said it would take around 20 minutes and be free for life to Tesla owners. But at a shareholder meeting in June, Musk explained that the company can’t afford to extend that deal to owners of its new $35,000 Model 3. That car is scheduled to hit the road by late 2017.

“I don’t want to make this some big news headline, but the obvious thing to do is de-couple that from the cost of the Model 3,” Musk said. “So it will still be very cheap and far cheaper than gasoline to drive long distance with the Model 3, but it will not be free long distance for life unless you purchase that package. I wish we could, but in order to achieve the economics, it has to be something like that.”

That speech did make news headlines, and caused something of a backlash online. As for the short charge time, Crapko and his wife recently tested that promise on a weekend road trip to Portland, which Crapko says was fun…

“But once you start making a series of 45 minute stops to charge it, it does add a couple of hours to your driving time. So if you’re in a hurry, it’s annoying.”

Cynthia Ryan, communications director for the Electric Automobile Association of Northern Nevada, says the state could do a better job of expanding charging infrastructure for all EV owners.

“In Carson City, this is the state capital. The closest charging station is over at a rec center, not exactly convenient,” she says. “And I’ve walked over there at night; you don’t feel very safe, especially as a woman by yourself. It’s kind of out there in the dark, away from everything.”

Pasquale Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, a company that provides charging stations to businesses that want to have them in their parking lots, says Tesla took a big step in building out the supercharger network.

“Tesla had the courage to build out a highway network, for just their cars, but they built out a highway network,” he says. “We need to do the same thing in the United States, because you have to prove to people they can drive anywhere with the car.”

But while the supercharger network is great for Tesla owners, other electric vehicle owners are out of luck. Charging for non-Teslas is lagging behind.

Romano says that’s particularly true in states where there have not historically been incentives for electric vehicle owners.

“When you drive around California, it feels like EVs are really here,” he says. “When you drive around, you know, pick your state, Nevada, you won’t feel like EVs are here.”

In the absence of government funding or interest from gas stations in installing a variety of chargers and attachments for electric vehicles, EV companies are following Tesla’s lead, supplying home chargers and working to build out charging networks.

That could eventually lead to a sprawling patchwork of proprietary charging stations, but the hope amongst EV advocates is a third party will step in before that happens.

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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