Two things are almost never free in the life of an urban motorist: parking and fuel. So when I started to hear buzz among electric vehicle drivers in Boston and Cambridge that they were enjoying both, I had to check it out. On a drizzly day last week, I hopped into a white BMW coupe — one of 700 all-electric vehicles the company has leased to US drivers — and started hunting for these mythical free parking spots and complimentary charging stations.
The streets of Boston aren’t exactly clogged with electric cars. But in asking around, I found a handful of people who routinely look for a place to plug in — from venture capitalist Ric Fulop, who drives a Tesla Roadster (base price: $109,000), to Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference, who drives a Fisker Karma (base price: $96,000).
I found one person who drives the much more affordable Nissan Leaf, which starts at $36,000, Paul Gaynor, chief executive of First Wind, a Boston developer of wind farms. Eric Giler, a Boston entrepreneur who leases the BMW I went for a ride in, told me the lease costs him $500 a month, plus a $2,500 down payment. This new plug-in fleet seems to appeal mostly to early adopters who aren’t exactly sensitive to price.
It didn’t take long to find that free electricity is readily available. I met Giler in Harvard Square, and we popped in briefly to the garage beneath the Charles Hotel, where there are two charging areas. There are at least 10 locations for electric charging in Cambridge and 15 in Boston.
Most don’t charge, but some are part of the ChargePoint network that hits you up for $1 to $2.50 an hour. More charging stations could start, um, charging as usage picks up, ChargePoint spokeswoman Anne Smith says.
At the Cambridge Innovation Center high-rise in Kendall Square, I’ve often seen Chevy Volts and Leafs (Leaves?) charging in the dedicated spot near the garage entrance. And when we nosed in last Tuesday, it was occupied by a white Volt.
“There really isn’t any etiquette yet about this,” Giler told me. “Someone could be parked there all day, plugged into the charger.”
Nearby, on the MIT campus, we found two free parking spots in a street-level lot. Charging there was gratis, though you needed to have a card from the ChargePoint network to take advantage of it.
But a free spot that I’d heard about at the Lenox Hotel, across from the Boston Public Library, turned out to be somewhat less than free. The valets said if we wanted to stay for a while, we’d have to pay a $24 valet parking fee. Since the BMW wasn’t in desperate need of a fill-up, we stayed for about 10 minutes — long enough to get some coffee and add 0.723 kilowatt hours of electricity to the battery.
The valets noted that there are two regular users of the spot on Exeter Street. One of them, it turns out, is a Volt-driving former state official: Ian Bowles, who ran the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental affairs. Bowles told me that by his estimate, it costs about $1.50 in electricity to charge up the Volt; General Motors says the car’s range using the battery alone is 25 to 50 miles. (It’s a plug-in hybrid, meaning that it also has a gas engine for longer journeys.)
Giler said that going from empty to full on the BMW cost about $2.50, and gave him about 100 miles of driving. Giler and Bowles both have outlets at home to charge their vehicles, but Bowles acknowledged it was hard to beat the free power he could get at the State Street garage where his office is, or at the Lenox.
Tedd Saunders, chief sustainability officer for the Lenox, said installing the charging station cost $16,000. While he said hotel guests don’t use it regularly, he added, “It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. You have to create the infrastructure first.”
At Logan Airport, thanks to a $114,000 grant from the state and federal governments, there are 13 charging stations in the parking garages — many in prime locations near the elevators. Users “can stay plugged in for as long as they’re away,” spokesman Richard Walsh said.
Fulop, a partner at Waltham venture capital firm North Bridge Venture Partners, said he wasn’t a regular user of the city’s charging stations because he rarely drives his Tesla more than 40 miles in a day. “One of the nice things about electric or plug-in vehicles is that they are always fully topped off each morning, because you leave them charging at night,” he said.
As Giler and I headed back toward Harvard Square, he updated me on what his company, Watertown-based WiTricity Corp., has been up to. It is working with carmakers like Toyota and Audi to design a wireless charging system that would allow a mat on the floor of your garage to effectively “beam” electricity to your vehicle whenever you pulled in, no plugging required.
Another entrepreneur, Kevin Leary of Westwood, is developing the Power Hydrant. It’s a robotic arm that can perform one task: automatically insert a plug into your car.
“Plugging your car in by yourself may be a badge of honor for the early adopters,” says Leary, a former executive at Analog Devices, “but it’s not so great when it’s raining out or the plug has been sitting on a dirty garage floor. Convenience is going to be necessary for the mass market.”
That means the landscape of charging stations around Boston today may soon need an upgrade — to wireless mats, robotic plug-handlers, or something else not yet invented.