John M. Broder/The New York Times
When I embarked on a test of Tesla’s new East Coast electric vehicle charging network, I did not expect to become a rate-paying customer of Norwich Public Utilities, a small municipal electric provider in Norwich, Conn. But my Tesla Model S was running dangerously low on juice and I needed a quick fill-up to make it to the Tesla Supercharger station in Milford, Conn., about 60 miles away.
The Norwich utility, taking advantage of a grant from the Energy Department under President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, recently installed four medium-power electric-vehicle charging posts at its customer service center. But they haven’t proved terribly popular.
Jeanne Kurasz, programs coordinator for the utility, said that only five people had applied in the last year for the electronic cards needed to activate the J1772 chargers, which work on most electric vehicles, including the Tesla.
When I walked into the service center looking for a few amps for the Tesla, I had to fill out a form to establish an account so I could be billed for the electricity the car would draw. When I returned to the car after a little more than an hour of charging, I found a note from Ms. Kurasz saying that the company would forgo the charge if I’d return the electronic card. I had drawn 8.4 kilowatt-hours for a total cost of about $1.36. It would have cost more to prepare and mail the bill and keep me as a customer — I live in a Maryland suburb of Washington — than the billing was worth to the utility. In a follow-up telephone conversation, Ms. Kurasz expressed some skepticism about electric vehicles, based on the sparse use of the charging station as well as the utility’s experience with battery-powered vehicles.
She said the company owned a Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and a Ford Transit Connect van converted to run on battery power alone. The Volt, she said, drove perhaps 30 miles before switching to its gasoline engine, which then generates the electric power that turns the wheels. The Ford van, which promised 100 miles of range, got a fraction of that and could not complete a day’s work before having to be plugged in. “It wasn’t good for what we purchased it for, so that was a disappointment, and then the company that did the conversion went bankrupt,” she said. “So, O.K.”
The company powers much of its day-to-day fleet with compressed natural gas, which she says is clean, quiet and cheap.
“That’s a success,” she said. “If you want to talk about alternative fuels for transportation, C.N.G. is more successful than electric.”
Certainly my trip along Tesla’s East Coast electric highway proved disappointing — my high-tech Model S test car ended up stranded off Interstate 95, requiring a flatbed truck to get to the Supercharger in Milford. You can read the entire account of the trip here, and post your comments below.