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Charger 'rage' big problem

| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Eager to reduce energy use, German software company SAP installed 16 electric vehicle charging ports in 2010 at its Palo Alto, Calif., campus for the handful of employees who owned electric vehicles.

Just three years later, SAP faces a problem that is increasingly common for Silicon Valley companies — far more electric cars than chargers. Sixty-one of the roughly 1,800 employees on the campus drive a plug-in vehicle, overwhelming the 16 available chargers. And as demand for chargers exceeds supply, a host of thorny etiquette issues have arisen, along with some rare but notorious incidents of “charge rage.”

“In the beginning, all of our EV drivers knew each other, we had enough infrastructure, and everyone was happy. That didn't last for long,” said Peter Graf, SAP's chief sustainability officer and the driver of a Nissan Leaf. “Cars are getting unplugged while they are actively charging, and that's a problem. Employees are calling and messaging each other, saying, ‘I see you're fully charged; can you please move your car?' “

SAP is now drafting charging guidelines for its EV-driving employees.

Consider it the dark side of workplace charging, which has joined on-site sushi chefs, massages and stock options as an expected perk in Silicon Valley.

“If you want to attract the best people and top talent, EV charging is a must-have,” Graf said. “It's a recruitment tool.”

Campbell, Calif.-based ChargePoint operates the world's largest network of electric vehicle charging stations — 15,000 across the United States, Europe and Australia. It tells its corporate clients — including Google Inc., Facebook Inc., Target Corp., Whole Foods Markets Inc. and The Walt Disney Co. — that they need one charging port for every two of their employees' electric vehicles.

Charging an EV can take as little as a half-hour, to “top it off,” to as long as eight hours, depending on the vehicle and how much it is already charged.

“If you don't maintain a 2-to-1 ratio, you are dead,” said ChargePoint CEO Pat Romano. “Having two chargers and 20 electric cars is worse than having no chargers and 20 electric cars. If you are going to do this, you have to be willing to continue to scale it.”

PG&E expects to see as many as 800,000 electric vehicles on the road within its Northern California territory by the end of 2020, up from just 20,000 now, and Silicon Valley is a hot spot of adoption. In addition to home charging stations, there are nearly 20,000 public and workplace electric vehicle charging stations across the United States, according to a tally maintained by the Department of Energy. Of those, more than 5,000 are in California.

But at many workplaces, the number of electric cars is multiplying much faster than the number of charging stations. Adding new chargers is not always easy, as many companies lease their facilities instead of owning them outright, making them loath to install permanent infrastructure. In addition, the chargers themselves are expensive.

George Betak learned firsthand the perils of “charge rage” last fall when he worked at Yahoo Inc.'s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters, where he said more than 100 employees who drove plug-in vehicles regularly tussled over limited charging spots.

Betak, who no longer works at Yahoo, drives the all-electric BMW Active E and one day made the grave mistake of unplugging a colleague's Chevy Volt.

“I needed to be somewhere by 6 p.m., and all of the active chargers were full. I couldn't plug in all day,” he said. “There was a Volt that appeared to be finished charging, so I unplugged it so I could get a half-hour boost. The Volt isn't pure electric — it also has a gasoline engine. The next day, I learned that the Volt owner was furious, and he sent out this email blast saying that I stole his charge. It was awful.”

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