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Electric

Nearly a year after its grand opening, the electric vehicle-charging station at the Costco store in Lancaster sits empty most days. In fact, it gets used on average about once every two days.

That’s not surprising considering only about 150 electric vehicles are whirring around Southern California streets.

What may be surprising is that the number of electric-vehicle charging stations in Southern California is mushrooming. From a mere handful a year ago, the number is about 70 today and may reach as high as 200 by year end.

Most operators and industry watchers admit the current function of charging stations is clearly not to make money. Instead, they installed the stations to be leaders in the field; the value of stations as marketing and public relations devices are also important considerations.

“There’s no real financial incentive for anyone to operate a charging station at this point,” said Diane Wittenberg, president of Edison EV, the subsidiary of Edison International that sells electric-vehicle chargers. “There’s just no way you could sell someone into doing a recharging station (for profit).”

Indeed, nearly all the electric vehicle-charging stations are free to motorists.

Most electric-vehicle charging station operators use Edison-developed technology, which costs $5,000 to $10,000 for indoor station chargers and $15,000 to $20,000 for outdoor units. The cost of the actual electricity is 50 cents to $1 an hour, said Wittenberg of Edison EV.

A complete charge takes about three hours, though General Motors Corp.’s EV-1, which runs about 80 miles per charge and accounts for the lion’s share of electric vehicles on the road, can be charged to 70 percent of capacity in just an hour.

Charging station operators in L.A. include Ralphs Grocery Co., Costco Inc., Hawthorne Savings, Wal-mart Stores Inc., Universal Studios Inc. plus a number of shopping malls, including Ontario Mills and the Century City Shopping Center & Marketplace.

Most charging station operators are more interested in the upscale image associated with electric cars over any business potential, said Lincoln Mirrihew, director of special projects at J.D. Power & Associates, a car consultant in Augora Hills.

“Electric vehicle owners tend to be from the upper-income bracket, so (charging station operators) are trying to be part of that image,” Mirrihew said. “They’re also going for the good-guy image by showing they’re trying to make a positive contribution to society.”

Image is an important factor for Hawthorne Savings, which uses electric vehicles and chargers as a marketing tool, said Executive Vice President David Hardin. Hawthorne Savings has painted its logo on an EV-1 it leases from General Motors, and it uses its three charging stations to recharge the vehicle.

Hardin estimated that after deducting for tax incentives and other factors, Hawthorne Savings’ EV-1 and its charging stations will cost about $45,000 to own and operate during the next three years.

“It’s almost a guerrilla marketing thing,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing that capitalists like electric cars and drive them too. We’ve probably taken in $500,000 in deposits from people that drive EV-1s, including one guy who opened a $100,000 CD account just because we had the charger.”

Costco is one of Southern California’s most bullish charging station operators, with seven stations already in operation and another 15 slated to open over the next two months.

“We look at this as an added benefit for our members,” said Costco spokesman Ed Fitzgerald. “It’s a reason for members who are EV owners to join and shop us more frequently rather than somewhere else.”

Likewise, customer convenience was a major factor behind Ralphs’ decision to recently install charging stations at four of its L.A. County stores, said company spokesman Terry O’Neil.

“We see it as a customer service,” he said. “It’s just another reason for people to shop at Ralphs.”

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