Shopping and Charging: What's Not to Like?

By · June 11, 2012

For the very first time this weekend, I plugged into the public electric car network. It was exhilarating, and something I could easily get addicted to—a junkie looking not for a fix but for free electricity.

Chevy Volt at Whole Foods

Sitting pretty at Whole Foods. Free charging, and you get the best parking spot--which has some folks upset. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Like all of you, I have errands on the weekends, and I try to group them together to save gas and to reduce the time expended on the whole tedious effort. It happens that I had a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid test car this week, and I’ve been trying to run it on electricity as much as possible. Of perhaps 50 miles driven so far, 10 have been on gasoline, and that’s only because I forgot to plug it into the wall the first night.

Sunday rolled around and my honey-do list: a) get non-toxic organic weed killer at Home Depot; b) buy cat litter and healthy dry dog food at Petco; c) pick up a few things for dinner at Whole Foods. Fortunately, they’re all close together, and Whole Foods and Petco are in the same shopping center. So let’s do a timeline here:

3:45 p.m.: Arrive at Home Depot, find the weed killer, get some sticky glop from the container on my hands.

4:00 p.m.: Arrive at shopping center, and realize suddenly that Whole Foods has free EV charging, and I’m driving a plug-in car, with 10 miles of electric travel left. The natural grocery chain has come a long way since it added EV charging at its flagship store in Austin, Texas. Here's video on that momentous event in 2010:

Whole Foods unveils charging stations:

4:02 p.m.: Pull into one of two spaces right near the entrance with Leviton 240-volt Level II chargers. Even though it’s not Staples, I say, “That was easy.” Then I realize the charging wand is locked up and a sign directs me to customer service.

4:06 p.m.: Locate customer service, and an efficient young woman who rummages around in a drawer for something. I ask why they keep the chargers locked, and she doesn’t know. We walk together back to the charger, which she unlocks with a swipe of an RIFD card. I plug in the car, and see the all-important dash light indicating it’s charging. “Good luck,” she says. “Let me know when you’re done.”

4:12 p.m.: I walk across the hot parking lot to Petco, where I run into the usual obstacles: I can’t find the specific dog food on the list, or the entire wall of litter-based products. I enlist store help, and we puzzle over the fact that the enormous bags of food don’t indicate what flavor they are. Color coded, or something. And all the while my Volt is charging.


My local Whole Foods has two of these Leviton Level II 240-volt chargers. Electricity is free, but ask for the RIFD swipe. (Jim Motavalli photo)

4:22 p.m.: The litter’s heavy so I use a cart to get it to my car, then realize it wouldn’t be friendly to leave a Petco cart in a Whole Foods storage area. I push the thing back across the lot and into the store. And all the while my Volt is charging.

4:35 p.m.: In Whole Foods finally, I’m hit by an arctic blast from the air conditioning. How do they generate such frigid air in an environmentally friendly way, I wonder? The store is, of course, not only huge but constantly being reorganized, so the search for organic crunchy peanut butter continues long after I’ve enlisted a store employee to help. I stop to watch an artist paint a bumble-bee on the floor. And all the while…

4:50 p.m.: They’re out of the hake special, so I go with the $9.99 a pound tilapia filets. I buy fresh watermelon chunks in a plastic jar because my gourmet cook wife, who’s fine chopping everything else up, hates to deal with this fruit in bulk. Plus, she’s left with three-fifths of a slowly going bad watermelon crowding out everything else in the refrigerator. I stop to talk to a librarian of my acquaintance, and point to my car in the lot. “And all the while I’m shopping, it’s charging,” I tell her.

5:07 p.m.: Back at the car, I load up the food and return the cart. Then I walk back into the store and inform customer service that I’m done charging. A second young woman comes out with me, and swipes the card again after I unplug and wrap the charger cord back up. I ask her how many people use the station. “A lot,” she says. I ask her which kind of vehicles, and she says, “They have to be environmentally friendly cars.” I add, “With plugs, right?” There’s no point in a Prius parking in an EV spot. Whole Foods also has nicely located spaces that are reserved for vaguely defined “fuel-efficient vehicles,” though I see patrons regularly defying that edict. Green parking privileges are sparking resentment in some places, though it’s worth pointing out that EV charge spots need to be close to the stores because of the high per-foot cost of running the electric conduit to them. The further away, the more asphalt that has to be dug up.

Chelsea Sexton, the well-informed EV consultant, told Fox News, “EV drivers are very aware of resentment against them from gas car drivers, which typically manifests as those gas car drivers parking in the charger spots out of spite. There are various state and local laws allowing those gas cars to be ticketed or towed, so this isn’t the most prudent form of protest on the part of the gas car drivers, but it happens. In any case, many of the EV drivers actually would prefer that chargers be located in the back of the lot or somewhere else desirable.”

5:10 p.m.: I pull out of Whole Foods, with all my purchases. I now have 15 miles of EV range, and arrive home with approximately the same range I had when I started out. Fully charged, I'm getting about 35 miles of electric range from the Volt--not sure why it isn't more. But I could get used to this. Can you imagine a similar scenario—smiling workers putting gas in your car as you shop?

I could easily use the Volt’s highly visual displays to find other available charging stations in the area. My town has at least four public spots, all of them currently free (though that may change). I can charge at the railroad station parking lot, and charge while shopping downtown. What’s not to like?

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.