Why aren’t the Tesla chargers at the Hooksett tolls used more? And why are they alone?

  • A closeup of the Tesla charger at the Hooksett rest stop. It won’t fit other electric cars. DAVID BROOKS / Monitor staff

Published: 4/26/2016 12:50:35 AM

If you want a hint about the obstacles facing the transition to electric vehicles, stop texting the next time you drive through the Hooksett tolls and glance over at the Tesla Superchargers.

All 12 are empty, I bet.

This is not a very risky bet: According to the vague numbers provided by Tesla, bumped up by some generous assumptions, each charger in the new hospitality centers on Interstate 93 is used an average of just one hour per day. (Details on that calculation in a moment.)

But a relative shortage of Tesla drivers isn’t the point I want to make. The real issue is that these work-only-with-Tesla chargers are all alone. Owners of a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt or any of the various plug-in hybrids on the market are out of luck: the rest stop features no chargers that they can use.

This isn’t due to lack of trying, said Rusty McLear, co-owner of Granite State Hospitality, which operates the Hooksett rest stops.

“We have been trying to arrange with a more universal charger company to come in and basically do the same kind of thing as Tesla,” said McLear, who makes his profit when drivers are strolling through the center, buying food or gifts. “I’d rather see 20 Leafs than one Tesla parked out there.”

The problem, McLear said, is that while there are some programs that seek to create electric car-charging stations, nobody will help pay for them.

“All those programs, right at the moment, require the property owner to contribute a significant amount of the cost of the installation. In the Tesla case, Tesla put in 100 percent of the cost – in excess of $300,000,” he said. (That is a lot less than it would cost to install a dozen gas pumps, he said.)

Before I go further in my infrastructure lamentation, a caveat. Public fuel supplies are much less important for electric vehicles than for ICE, the industry term for cars with internal combustion engines. As electric car owners will tell you, one of the best things about dumping fossil-fuel vehicles is that you don’t have to schedule any more stops at gas stations because you “fuel up” at home. That’s a surprisingly big convenience.

Until, that is, you want to drive farther than the battery will carry you. Which is why Tesla, as part of its money-be-damned foresight, has built a network of Supercharger stations scattered across the country, mostly on interstates. If you’ve got a Tesla, you can stop and charge up for free, taking at most 75 minutes if you’re running on empty and usually more like 20 minutes to top off.

Tesla is expanding the Supercharger network in Europe and recently boosted the power of some Superchargers to 120 kilowatts, speeding up the recharge time.

But Tesla uses a proprietary connector to handle the huge amounts of electricity involved in DC fast charging (aka Stage 3, compared with Stage 1, which involves a regular wall plug, and Stage 2, which is hooked into your 220-volt system). The Hooksett chargers have what looks like a fancy dumpster fence alongside them, but they actually hide dedicated transformers necessary to process the power.

Their Superchargers won’t help any other electric car owners. Neither Nissan, the world’s electric car leader by a mile, nor General Motors, whose upcoming all-electric Bolt car is going to beat Tesla to the mass market, has expressed interest in building a charger network using CSS, the network connection for all non-Tesla cars in North America. That makes me wonder how much they’re really committed to electric vehicles and how quickly we can shift to a transportation system that has the potential to ditch fossil fuels.

McLear thinks I may be right, pointing out that a staggering 26.5 million cars pass through the Hooksett tolls each year.

“With that car volume, if we’re having trouble finding a partner, I would think that there is an issue in the industry,” he said.

And now, let’s return to the question of how often the Tesla chargers are used on I-93. I asked McLear for data, and the best he could get was this: “Tesla called back and said in the first year of operation they had 3,000 uses.”

Rounding up, that’s about nine uses per day for all 12 Superchargers, or about three-quarters of a use per charger per day. If every one of those Teslas spent the maximum 75 minutes plugged in, each charger is used on average roughly one hour out of every 24, or 4 percent of the time.

Is that more than expected, less than expected, on par with other Superchargers across the country? Darned if I know, or anybody else hereabouts.

“Tesla is kind of secretive,” is how McLear put it.

The only way to overcome such stonewalling is firsthand reporting. With that in mind, I’ve told the Monitor they need to buy me a Tesla so I can better serve you, our loyal readers. For some reason, they haven’t gotten back to me on that yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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