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State Wants More Electric Cars; Faulty Public Chargers Pose Hurdle

Nearly 23 percent had inoperable screens, payment failures or broken connector cables. On another 5 percent, the cables were too short to reach the vehicles’ charging inlets.

More than a quarter of electric vehicle public charging stations in the Bay Area don't work, according to a recent survey.

Concerned about reliability, a retired professor of bioengineering from UC Berkeley, David Rempel, decided to test charging stations around the Bay Area. Rempel got support from the San Rafael nonprofit Cool the Earth, which provided funding and volunteers. They fanned out across the region’s nine counties over three weeks in February and March, visiting 181 public charging stations with a total of 657 plug-in kiosks. Testers tried to charge their electric cars for at least two minutes and noted any problems.

They found 73 percent of public kiosks in working order. But nearly 23 percent had inoperable screens, payment failures or broken connector cables. On another 5 percent, the cables were too short to reach the vehicles’ charging inlets.

They did not test charging stations for Tesla — though it is the most widely sold electric car model, with about 66 percent market share, because those chargers are available only to Tesla drivers. The company bucks the trend with some of the fastest and most reliable banks of stations, according to Rempel.

Rempel, who drives an electric car, said he was surprised by the extent of the problems.

“Everyone is pushing for a pretty high reliability, and we’re not seeing that,” he said.

At gas stations, it’s easy to pull up to another pump if one is not working — and also to know if a pump is not working before you get out to refuel.

But when it comes to charging stations, “some sites you have to call a 1-800 number to get (a public charger) to work, adding another 10 to 20 minutes,” Rempel said. “That shouldn’t be the case.”

It’s a critical issue for California, which wants to slash one of the state’s greatest sources of pollution, vehicles, as it races to reduce emissions that cause global warming. Ending sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2035, a state goal, could dramatically slash greenhouse gasses by 2040, according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

In a statement, EVgo, one of the top three charging network operators outside Tesla, said the charging industry “is still in its infancy.” The company “is dedicated to identifying the root causes of these issues and correcting them.” The company said it is improving its detection and notification systems to deal with problems quickly. The others, ChargePoint and Electrify America, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Inadequate chargers are not an emergency today, when most EV drivers charge at home. But it will become urgent as more people transition away from gas-powered vehicles, especially apartment dwellers and renters more likely to rely on public charging infrastructure.

Nearly half of all 2.6 million electric vehicles sold across the country have been in California, according to Veloz, a Sacramento nonprofit tracking electric vehicle data. In San Francisco, electric cars make up 11 percent of all vehicle registrations compared to 1.8 percent across the United States, according to IHS Markit, a London subsidiary of S&P Global analytics firm.

California has more than 73,000 public and shared chargers, but it needs nearly 1.2 million public and shared chargers by 2030 to reach 7.5 million electric cars on the road, according to the California Energy Commission. The state’s proposed 2021-22 budget includes $500 million for charging infrastructure to help fill the gap.

The Biden administration is also spending $5 billion over the next five years to help states build charging networks along highways.

Daniel Sperling, a member of CARB and founding director of UC Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies, said that most charging stations operate with a government subsidy because of the difficulty of making a profit selling power to electric vehicles — and it’s imperative that California sharpen its requirements for the stations.

“I want to hear an answer in terms of accountability and in terms of performance,” Sperling said at a recent public hearing about charging infrastructure before CARB.

The state’s early EV drivers may be more willing to push through the hassles because of their strong beliefs in emissions-free driving, but others may not.

(c)2022 The San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.