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Electric-Vehicle Owners Fall Into Charger Fixation

If the electricity is being offered for free, as it is in many electric-car charging locations, Michael Delune will park his Tesla Model S there. Even if he isn’t running particularly low on juice.

“If it’s free, I’ll take it,” the Irvine, Calif., lawyer said. “I admit that I have done that on occasion.”

Free is free, even if you did spend $70,000-plus on an electric car.

As Tesla, Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt owners can attest, buying an electric car tends to rewire your brain. You no longer think in terms of miles per gallon, but charge per hour. With a gas-powered vehicle, it’s safe to assume there’s always a gas station within reach. Not so with an e-vehicle.

So the electric-car driver installs smartphone applications to locate the nearest charging stations. They start coveting that plug-in spot at work or the grocery store. And even though they might have a free pass for the carpool lane, e-car owners might not blow past the speed limit because that dramatically lowers their range.

Charging spots are scattered among parking structures, public transportation stations and businesses throughout the region. Local malls each have a few spots. Disneyland recently joined the EV charging party, with 20 spots on the first floor of the gigantic Mickey & Friends parking structure.

ChargePoint, one of the larger charger networks, has grown from 5,254 ports at the beginning of 2012 to more than 15,000 now. A person starts charging a car on that network every 10 seconds.

Competition at those public spots can be fierce. Unlike the proprietary super-charging stations that Tesla is building, most public plug-in spots accommodate the majority of e-vehicle types.

So you get fully electric cars, like the Leaf, vying for spots along with plug-in gas hybrids such as the Volt. The Volt owners likely bought a hybrid to relieve range anxiety then discovered they could reduce their gas costs by living off electric and hopping from open charger to open charger.

And charging at public plug-ins is often relatively slow: Tens of miles of charge per hour versus hundreds at the Tesla station. So drivers often leave a car plugged in longer.

San Juan Capistrano, Calif., resident Jerry Dunton recalls trying to park at a Westin hotel in his new silver Model S on a business trip.

The hotel had two plug-in spots; one was occupied by a service vehicle and the other by a gas-powered car. (iPhone apps can’t help there.) Security couldn’t move the car quickly enough, so Dunton drove to a nearby Marriott that had an open spot and had lunch while his car charged.

To cut down on plug squatting, parking structures and businesses which have installed chargers started shifting from free to asking for a nominal amount for the first few hours and then several bucks for longer stays.

In the past year, ChargePoint has seen the number of free ports on its network shrink from 80 percent to roughly two thirds, and it’s still dropping.

“If you talk to me in six months, it’s probably going to be 40 (percent),” said Pasquale Romano, CEO of ChargePoint.

The Tesla supercharging stations bring a new twist in the charging equation. They only work with Teslas, which can draw more than 150 miles of juice in about 30 minutes.

Driving home in his Model S, Dunton will glance over at the Union Bank parking lot in San Juan Capistrano, gauging the progress of the Tesla station that’s going up less than a mile from his house.

A road warrior who sells furniture to stores in the Southwestern United States, Dunton said he travelled about 45,000 miles last year in his Range Rover and BMW. Dunton figures he spent about $12,000 last year on fuel.

“Six months ago, the last car I wanted to buy was a Tesla. I’m a high performance car guy,” Dunton said. “Two to three months after driving the Tesla and (my gas-powered cars) sound like they need a tune-up.”

Dunton said his Tesla would have covered the same ground at about a tenth of his 2013 fuel cost if he charged it at home. He said he hasn’t seen an increase in his electric bill since he bought the car in September because he switched to a San Diego Gas & Electric rate plan that varies charges based on the time of day. Using the car’s 17-inch touch-screen dashboard display, Dunton set it to charge when the lowest-tier rate applies, after midnight.

Nonetheless, Dunton is eyeballing one of the seven spots at the supercharging station.

Dunton’s wife asked him why he’d bother when the station is so close to home. He reasons he could eat dinner at Richard Nixon’s old haunt down the street or one of his other preferred restaurants while cutting his already meager fueling costs to zero.