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Electric car owners use creativity to plug in

Owning an electric vehicle requires more than global-cooling ambitions. It takes guile, planning, sharp vision, a silver tongue — and a 50-foot extension cord.
Electric Car Charging
Steve Bernheim shows off his Corbin Sparrow all-electric, three-wheeled vehicle at his home in Edmonds, Wash.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Owning an electric vehicle requires more than global-cooling ambitions. It takes guile, planning, sharp vision, a silver tongue — and a 50-foot extension cord.

Steve Bernheim knows accessible outlets like a firefighter knows hydrants. He has to — his Corbin Sparrow runs only 25 miles on a charge.

"You do guerrilla charging where you locate these plugs," said Bernheim, an attorney who lives in the Seattle suburb of Edmonds. "I'm an expert at finding them."

While California has more than 500 public charging stations at parks, malls and grocery stores to serve electric vehicles that rolled out in the last decade, the network is still thin across the rest of the country, forcing drivers like Bernheim to get creative.

That may change as charging stations crop up in San Jose, Seattle and Portland to serve early adopters and pave the way for a new breed of mass market plug-in cars.

"Every auto company in the world is developing all-electric or plug-in hybrids," said Zan Dubin Scott, a spokeswoman for Plug In America, a nonprofit advocacy group for electric car owners. "The utilities, municipalities and smart business people are seeing that this is the future."

The vast majority of electric vehicle owners charge their cars at home while they sleep, so most trips aren't a problem.

Charging stations start showing up
But drivers can now plug in — reservations recommended — at two park-and-ride lots in King County, which includes Seattle. The county plans to add sockets at three garages under construction.

"We want to make sure we're ahead of the curve in doing what we can to support the use of these vehicles," said Rochelle Ogershok, a county transportation spokeswoman.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric put five free charging stations in downtown Portland, Salem and suburban Lake Oswego and plans to add more.

At the end of the year, Coulomb Technologies plans to roll out five curbside charging stations in downtown San Jose that drivers can access through a prepaid plan. The company is working with entities in New York and Florida to do something similar, president and founder Praveen Mandal said.

Palo Alto-based Better Place is working with Renault SA to develop charging stations for electric cars in Israel and Denmark that would work on a paid subscription, said spokeswoman Julie Mullins.

In recent months, the smaller cities of Edmonds and Lacey invited drivers to plug in their electric vehicles at free public stations near city hall.

"We haven't seen much usage yet, but we wanted to put it out there," said Graeme Sackrison, mayor of Lacey, a town of 38,000 an hour south of Seattle. "You have to have the infrastructure in place so people feel comfortable using them."

Street-legal "neighborhood electric vehicles" that can travel up to 25 mph typically go about 35 to 40 miles on a single charge. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt that General Motors Corp. plans to sell in 2010 can travel about 40 miles before the gasoline engine kicks in.

Drivers like Bernheim, whose range is about 25 miles to a charge, has become adept at sweet-talking use of a 110-volt outlet if he needs to travel farther. Once he persuaded a fruit stand owner to let him plug in. He ended up buying $50 of produce there.

Bernheim says there are about 30 reliable sites in the Seattle area to plug in. Most are free, some require calling a fellow enthusiast ahead of time. Others charge the same as parking a gas-powered car — $7 an hour at the downtown Seattle Public Library garage.

Jeff Smith, 51, a mechanical parts inspector, carries three extension cords of varying lengths when he drives his ZENN (Zero Emission, No Noise) two-seater.

At his home in a Seattle suburb, Smith has posted a sign "plug in vehicle parking only" outside his kitchen window and invites others to plug in. No one has taken him up on the offer yet.

Mexican restaurant helps out
When he wanted to go to a Little League game — a round-trip that required an extra charge — Smith cold-called restaurants to find one willing to let him plug in while dined there.

Eric Diesen, co-owner of the restaurant Acapulco Fresh, didn't mind. He'd let others do the same.

It didn't cost him much — about a dime or so. "If it brought people in, we would do that again," he said. "And it's something we believe in."

Plug In America estimates there are several thousand freeway-capable, road-certified EVs, including both factory-built and conversions. Neighborhood electric vehicles may number in the tens of thousands.

It's a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 250 million vehicles on the road.

Driving an electric car can be a challenge when your roundtrip work commute is much longer than your car can travel. But Jason Henderson, 29, feels obligated to make it work.

"I saw 'Inconvenient Truth' and then realized that I needed to make a personal change to show others how easy it is to reduce our dependency on petroleum," Henderson said.

He bought a used Saturn with 100,000 miles and paid an expert $12,000 to convert it to all-electric. He estimates it has cost him about $252 in electricity to drive 9,000 miles in the past 18 months.

It's not hard to find places to plug in, but "there should absolutely be more spots," he said. "Everyone has power outlets, so it's just a matter of making them available."

Henderson now drives his car 15 miles from his Tacoma home, charges it at a friend's house and hops a vanpool another 35 miles to his office at Microsoft Corp.

He said he's just like a normal driver, "except my car has a much smaller carbon footprint and has a cheaper energy source."