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Long Term

Living with Leaf: Getting a Charge Out of Southern California

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2011 Nissan Leaf

author photo by Joni Gray

As I jumped onto the electric car bandwagon last February, I had this crazy idea that, since I lived in Southern California, I'd drive from charger to charger as I shopped, ate, watched movies and vacationed in the southland. After all, this is where actor and environmental zealot Ed Begley Jr. lives.

I knew I'd be waiting a year or so before charging stations began to multiply and this has certainly proven to be the case. What I didn't know is that finding a simple map of stations that were compatible with my car would not be so easy.

So, with a lot of effort, research and my good fortune of knowing some pretty clever green experts (thank you, Nick Chambers), I've come to terms with the current state of the Golden State's charging stations in mid 2011.

All Charging Stations Are Not Compatible

In California, a proliferation of test EVs like the RAV4 EV, GM EV1, Ford Ranger EV and other electric conversions have created a mish-mash of plug-in devices including paddle chargers and the rectangular "Avcon" units. The Nissan Leaf and virtually every EV that will be made in the future for mass consumption will use the new standard, the "J" 1772 round plug. So, although you may find a map that shows charging stations are available, it may not be the plug needed for your late model EV.

Hundreds Promised and Planned

Although hundreds of charging stations have been contracted with grants paying for half the cost of installation in the greater LA area, there are less than 100 of them installed now (if you don't count Nissan Dealerships). The Federal Government grants are up at the end of 2011, so there's only six months left for hundreds of stations to go up in my immediate area. I'll believe it when I see it.

Nissan Dealerships – By Appointment Only

Nissan has finally updated the internal navigation screen to show all the Nissan dealerships that have charging stations in the area. At present, there are around 23 of them in the area. The challenge is that they require an appointment in advance of the charge. Some are located near Starbucks and other hangouts, but what's more depressing than whiling away several hours inside a dealership service waiting area?

No Central Online Source

It's going to take some time for communication to catch up to reality when it comes to finding stations with compatible plugs. Each charging plug provider has their own site that includes its products, but even Nissan has not yet put the plug information on one easy online map. According to AutoTrader green car specialist, Nick Chambers, the answer is for a kind of "Wikipedia" of plug in information to develop. "Crowd-sourced sites are beginning to spring up where plug-in users can check in and validate that the plugs exist, are compatible and were in use on a given date," he said. One site he recommends is Recargo.com. The thing I liked about the site was that you could filter the map by which plug your car uses.

DC Charging Has Not Yet Arrived

There are two charging plugs on the Leaf – a 110-240 Volt "J" type and a larger DC charging connection. These "fast charging" power sources that are contracted by the Federal Government to be sprinkled across our state have yet to be built. "The contracted companies that won Federal Government contracts have agreed to place DC chargers all along the California coast on Interstate 5 and if they don't get them in, the money will go away," said Chambers. The beauty of these chargers is that they give you 80% charge in only 30 minutes (versus 7 hours for a full charge on smaller units). When and if the chargers are installed, my traveling options will expand exponentially.

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As we get closer to 2012, my fingers will remain crossed that the promises made and will be fulfilled and charging an EV will be at least easier than it is now in Southern California. Until then, I'll be staying closer to home.

Want to learn more? Follow our long-term test of the Nissan Leaf.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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Living with Leaf: Getting a Charge Out of Southern California