On most days, Michael Delune can drive his Tesla Model S electric car
to and from his Irvine law office without needing any charge other than the one
he gets with an overnight hookup in his Laguna Niguel garage. The car has an
estimated range of 230 miles, after all.
But any trip up to Los Angeles or farther presents challenges. Three times since he bought the $62,400 car (after a $7,500 federal tax credit) in January, Delune, 34, has taken advantage of Tesla's new supercharging station in Hawthorne. There, he can recharge his battery with 150 miles worth of electricity in just 30 minutes. And it's free, generated by solar panels on the roof of the facility.
You could call the $300,000 supercharging stations Tesla's not-so-secret weapon to make electric cars a real part of life in the 21st century. But up to now the Hawthorne station -- nestled behind the headquarters of SpaceX, a company that builds space ships -- was one of only six in California and the closest one for the growing number of Orange County Tesla owners.
On Thursday, Tesla's billionaire founder Elon Musk (who also heads SpaceX) announced a massive expansion to the network, pledging to triple the number of stations by the end of next month. By the end of the year, Musk said, enough stations should be in place to let Tesla owners drive diagonally across the United States from Los Angeles to New York. By 2015, the company plans to have a network of 200 stations that covers most of the United States.
Tesla said four stations being installed now on the coastal routes of California should open this summer. On a map provided by the company, one of them is pinpointed somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego. Tesla did not respond to requests to detail specifically where that location will be.
Nine more stations should be built statewide in the fall, expanding coverage inland and north of Sacramento.
Tesla has been on a roll lately. It sold 4,750 of the Model S in the first quarter, and achieved profitability for the first time. Last week, it repaid the last of a $465 million U.S. loan. And its stock price has tripled since the first of the year, to close at $104.95 on Thursday.
The increasing popularity of the Model S means early adopters like Delune -- who spent two years on a waiting list to get his -- have more company on the road. But soon there also could be more competition for open spots at the supercharging stations.
Once a driver pulls into one of the four charging bays at the Hawthorne facility, they pop open the car's charging port with a touch of the 17-inch touch-screen dashboard display. Another button on the charging dock exposes a thick cable that plugs into the side of the car. To an onlooker, it looks every bit like what you do at a gas station.
After plugging in, Delune heads inside a nearby hangar-like structure, enjoys a glass of water on the couch, and surfs the Internet on his iPad or iPhone. He heads back when an app on his phone tells him his car has enough juice to get where he needs to go. The lobby is open till 6 p.m., but the station is ready 24 hours.
Delune's wife drives a conventional car, so the family still visits gas stations. "I'll say it's easy," he said of the charging experience. "It's better in that I almost never have to do it. My charging station is really at home. Whereas I used to have to go to a gas station every week or every other week and wait in line at Costco, I almost never have to worry about gas stations and go to a supercharger once every other month."
So far, only versions of the Model S with a larger battery and higher prices -- from $72,400 to $87,400 -- come standard with the ability to use a supercharging station. Delune had to pay extra to give his car that functionality. (He also got a software update on Wednesday that shows the location of superchargers on the car's dash, so he doesn't need to map them out on his iPhone ahead of time.) All future Tesla cars will work with the superchargers, according to the company.
In a conference call with journalists, Musk said expanding the network is critical to broadening the market for the Model S and subsequent electrics. "One of the key things to reach mainstream buyers is to get the word out there is super high speed charging," Musk said.
Tesla also needs to come up with a more affordable car. Its next model, which sits in the lobby at the Hawthorne charging station, is the Model X, a crossover utility vehicle that will be priced similar to the Model S. A smaller, less expensive model that can achieve mass-market volume is still a few years away.
"They're trying to get the cars out in the public because nothing sells a car like peer pressure," said John O'Dell, a senior editor with Edmunds.com. "If your neighbor has one, and you value your neighbor's opinion, you're more likely to consider one for your own household."
But electric cars continue to face an uphill climb, with high-profile, eco-friendly companies such as Anaheim-based Fisker Automotive and Coda Automotive in Los Angeles floundering recently. Outside of the pricing question, O'Dell said, the biggest issue Tesla faces is trying to establish for potential customers that the car isn't more difficult to own than a gas-powered vehicle.
"I've never felt the range anxiety," said Delune. "But I plan my trips ahead of time....to me it's all about planning."
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