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The Trouble With Electric Cars

Plug-in vehicles may remain little more than a novelty until cities begin making it easier for motorists to recharge their batteries at home.



Mary Goulart didn't realize that going green would be such a hassle. The Berkeley resident had converted her Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid, boosting its gas mileage to more than 100 miles per gallon. And she thought she had worked out a deal with the city so that she could recharge her car's battery while it was parked in front of her home. But then a city inspector spotted the ad hoc charging station near Goulart's house and ordered her to remove it or face thousands of dollars in fines. By the time it was over, the licensed acupuncturist had wasted nearly $7,000.

The frustrations that Goulart faced in her altruistic quest to reduce her carbon footprint are illustrative of the roadblocks that American consumers will soon encounter when major carmakers begin introducing plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles to the domestic auto market later this year. Her experience also should serve as a warning to cities like Berkeley — which has received national recognition for its efforts to fight climate change — that they need to devise ways to make it easier for motorists to buy electric vehicles. "If they don't, it's really going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of early adaptors," said Matt Mattila of, a nonprofit organization dedicated to smoothing the transition to electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The biggest challenge is for the many residents of urban areas who have no garage or driveway. Apartment tenants, condo dwellers, and homeowners like Goulart who park on the street or in shared garages with no access to electricity may find themselves unable to purchase vehicles that must be plugged in. As a result, hundreds of thousands of consumers in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco may be blocked from buying electric vehicles, even though they represent a key segment of likely buyers.

In fact, experts say that no city in the Bay Area, a region known for its environmental activism, has yet devised a permitting process that allows apartment building owners to offer charging stations for their tenants. "That's the unfortunate truth about what's going on right now," said Peter Skinner, senior director of transportation and land use for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business consortium working with local governments to prepare for the advent of electric vehicles. "The planning process is just starting."

Indeed, it's becoming increasingly clear that if electric vehicles are going to penetrate the auto market in a way that will ultimately lessen the devastating impacts of climate change, cities must become more proactive. After all, according to the acclaimed Climate Action Plan that the Berkeley City Council adopted last year, at least 47 percent of greenhouse gases emitted within city limits come from transportation. Yet the city will not be able to adequately address its single largest source of carbon dioxide unless it starts making it easier for motorists to charge up their electric cars at home.

Mary Goulart's electric car odyssey began in 2008, when she decided to convert her Prius to a plug-in hybrid. Goulart purchased a conversion kit from 3Prong Power in Berkeley, which also installed it for a total cost of about $7,000. The kit includes a large battery that goes in the Prius' trunk so that the car can operate on electricity while driving around town. It meant that Goulart, who is a licensed acupuncturist with offices in Berkeley and Oakland, could make short trips without ever having to use her Prius' gasoline engine.

As Goulart was converting her Prius, she began working with the office of Mayor Tom Bates to figure out how she could plug in her car at night. Her problem was that she has no garage or driveway. But after several conversations, she believed she had a deal worked out with the mayor's office that would allow her to plug in her car in front of her home on Euclid Avenue. "I thought I had come up with a perfect solution," she said.

The solution involved hiring an electrical contractor to run a wire from her home, underneath the sidewalk, and to the curb, where he built a small outlet box. Goulart said she was given the green light by the mayor's office after she told them that the box would be on her property, as would a small, concrete parking pad she had built for her Prius.

But when a city inspector, who was examining some construction at a neighbor's home, saw Goulart's setup, he told her it was illegal, issued her a citation, and threatened her with large fines. Part of the problem was a mistake that Goulart had made. The small parking pad and outlet were not on her property; they were on city property — a large median strip between the sidewalk and the curb.

When staffers in the mayor's office told her that there was nothing they could do, Goulart turned to her councilwoman, Susan Wengraf, who spent months helping her navigate the city's bureaucracy. Wengraf eventually learned that the real issue was not the parking pad, but legal liability for the electrical outlet. "What it really came down to," the councilwoman explained in an interview, "is who would be liable if some kid came and stuck his finger in the outlet."

Mayoral aide Calvin Fong, with whom Goulart had several conversations, denied that the office had ever given her the go ahead to build the charging station and parking pad. But in the end, it didn't matter. Because it was on city property, Goulart had no choice but to it rip out even though it cost her $5,500 to install. Additionally, the cost to remove it and restore the city's median strip came to more than $1,000. "It was just ridiculous," Goulart said during a recent interview in the kitchen of her Berkeley hills home. "I was so pissed."

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