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California EV charge site has drawing power

Diana Marcum
Los Angeles Times

Coalinga, Calif. — Along this stretch of Interstate 5, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, pickups outnumber cars, radios usually pick up only Spanish-language and country music stations, and the state’s largest beef-cattle feed lot is within sniffing distance.

Then there are the Teslas. Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant, a landmark at this crossroads, is drawing the pricey electric cars like cows to a salt lick.

About half of all Teslas — and 40 percent of all plug-in cars — are registered in California. That amounts to only 100,000 cars out of 13.2 million.

If California is to succeed in its effort to help solve the climate change crisis by edging the nation off fossil fuels, it’s going to need to get more Volts, Leafs, Smart cars, BMWi3s and Teslas on the highway fast, many advocates argue.

A well-placed charging station is essential to this effort, even as electric cars evolve beyond 200-mile ranges. The state has about 6,300 charging stations. The goal is to have at least 100,000 to support 1.5 million zero- and near-zero-emission vehicles by 2025. The unlikely scene unfolding in the heart of California oil country may be cause for electric car boosters to feel optimistic.

On a recent Harris Ranch stop, Arthur Mrozowski paused on his way out of the restaurant to snap a photo of four Teslas sitting in a row.

“It’s a change to see that many in one place,” said Mrozowski, managing partner of Silicon Hill Ventures. “But it makes sense. It’s a natural stopping place. When I’m coming from the Bay Area meeting film producers from LA, it’s two hours for both of us.”

Mrozowski said Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told him Tesla was also building a fast battery-swap station at Harris Ranch.

It was already there, occupying an old carwash, partly hidden by a bustling Shell gas station across from the charging station. Tesla said the goal of the pilot battery-swap program is to get drivers back on the road in less than three minutes for about the price of a tank of gasoline.

Tesla fans have been posting photos of the station since January, but it’s not yet open to the public, and so far no customers have actually experienced the service.

For now it’s the “Supercharger” station that has road-tripping Teslas crisscrossing in this parking lot. A charge takes about half an hour.

Harris Ranch waitress Erika Cabrera said she can often spot the Tesla owners because they put their cellphones displaying the charging app right at the edge of the table.

“It’s like they want you to say ‘wow’ and ask a lot of questions,” Cabrera said.

Larry Kaplan, a retired aerospace engineer, and his wife, Marie, a master gardener and rose expert, were settled in a booth in front of two Harris Ranch steaks. They were on their way to a funeral and had carefully plotted their charging points before leaving their solar-powered home in Henderson, Nev.

They cited concern for the environment and U.S. foreign-policy decisions based on foreign-oil dependence as reasons for driving a Tesla. But Marie also praised the “frunk.”

“All that space in front where there would usually be an engine,” she explained.

Larry said it was impossible to stop in the area — with some of the worst air pollution in the country — without thinking about the need for a cleaner form of transportation than gas and diesel engines.

But for Tesla to make a real difference, he said, the price — as high as $104,000 — would have to drop, as the company has promised.

“I didn’t wait, because I’m 75, I had some stock that did well, and I wanted one,” he said. “But Tesla automobiles don’t use any gasoline or oil, and they need to become affordable because in numbers they would make a difference. Especially to somewhere like the Central Valley.”

John Harris, owner of Harris Farms, said he hadn’t really heard of Tesla when the company asked about leasing land for charging stations some eight years ago.

“I’m a climate-change denier, so an electric car wasn’t high on my list,” said Harris, whose interests lean more toward fast horses than cars. (Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome was born on the ranch.)

Now Tesla owners are regulars, and Harris said he likes it. “We’ve got a little bit of everything,” he said. “It adds to the cachet of the place.”