Electricity for Your EV: A New Entitlement?

Published December 6, 2013

An incident blew up in the media this week, in which a Georgia owner of an electric car was arrested, after he plugged in his Nissan Leaf at a DeKalb County middle school without permission.

Except, unable to resist a good spin, journalists glommed on to the sympathetic portrayal of the Leaf owner’s seeming inconsequential crime: He only stole a nickel’s worth of electricity. If you didn’t dig very far into the story, you’d see the portrayal of driver Kaveh Kamooneh victimized by a cold, unyielding police officer in the Atlanta suburb of Chamblee. Worse, the officer’s boss, Sergeant Ernesto Ford, said, “I’m not sure how much electricity he stole. He broke the law. He stole something that wasn’t his.”

You’d think from the account that Kamooneh was the electric vehicle-driving version of Jean Valjean, the peasant of the novel Les Miserables who received a five-year sentence for stealing bread for his starving sister’s family. Hey, he just needed a little more power so he could make it home after playing tennis at the school!

Except what appears to be closer to the truth is in the officer’s report of the incident. Rather than the image of an unwitting offender who pleaded for leniency for a minor crime, the cop’s account described a “difficult and argumentative” suspect who had to be pointed out by another tennis player as the owner of the illegally charging Leaf. Rather than apologize or show contrition, he blamed the officer for damaging his car door, which was disproved by video footage that captured Kamooneh driving up to the school. Finally, it was later learned that Kamooneh, due to previous problems, had been warned not to use the school’s tennis courts unless previously approved and was on the property without permission. So, the officer issued a warrant for his arrest – a far cry from the Valjean of EVs!

While that’s an amusing recount of what really happened, there’s a larger point to be made about the government-driven expansion of the electric vehicle market and the public charging systems that re-power them.

Without the extenuating circumstances excerpted above, a situation in which a citizen charges his electric car for 20 minutes (like Kamooneh did) does not warrant an arrest – just a warning. I think we can all agree about that.

But an unintended consequence of the deployment – almost entirely paid for by taxpayers – of electric charging stations has to do with the expectations by EV owners about them: That is, that they are entitled to free electricity. Are we creating a class of vehicle owners that will demand free juice?

The roots of this attitude can be found in the habits Americans have developed when visiting cafes where they buy coffee and camp out for a while with their laptops or tablet computers. Most of these shops – especially Starbucks – have a good number of outlets for customers to plug in to. Their use is not discouraged so long as a purchase is made – part of the cost of doing business. It’s just an hour or two (at most, usually) of electricity – probably less than 30-40 cents-worth of power. And the Internet connection is free too.

Speaking of the Web, there’s another expectation among Americans that’s been instilled: free content. Because media organizations started giving away their information online and have done so for so long, readers expected permanent, free access. It nearly destroyed the newspaper industry, which still struggles. Now most of them are trying to make readers pay for their information and it’s not working very well.

So it’s not much of a logical leap for electric auto owners to think they can just plug into any unused outlet they see and extract a few cents of free juice. After all, with the limited range of their batteries, and the length of time it takes to recharge them, EV owners can be expected to be on the lookout for an outlet every time they stop somewhere – even for very short periods. Every charging second counts to an EV owner who is not safe at home connected to his home charger.

The question is: Are we creating an expectancy class for free electricity, much like newspapers did with Internet delivery of their journalism? Kamooneh certainly thought he was entitled to tap the public school’s outlet while he whacked the tennis ball around, and justified his action by making the case that, hey, it was only a few cents worth!

Sure, there are some paying charging stations around. Most of them are rarely used – just ask bankrupt charging company Ecotality. They received $135 million from the Department of Energy and still couldn’t make their chargers generate revenue. Considering how many free, unattended outlets on both commercial and public properties there are, why would very many people pay for power?

And many of the chargers deployed by Ecotality and others were intentionally set up to not collect money for electricity used anyway. In a fledgling business in which entrepreneurs want to remove every obstacle to adoption, giving away the power was easy to do – especially since the expense for that could be easily foisted on taxpayers too.

The mentality that is sympathetic to Kamooneh is one that is endemic to the Left. It’s reflected in their approach to public policy on budgeting and spending. Whether it’s raising sales taxes a fraction of a cent; or mandating renewable energy that adds a few cents to the monthly electric bill; or increasing property taxes to pay for pet projects – they are all imposed with the idea that “it’s only a few cents” that are worth the expense to gain the intended outcomes they want to impose on you.

That mindset is what got us billions of dollars in subsidies for EVs in the first place. So it’s not beyond the realm of expectation to let people who try to use electricity in public garages and facilities to skate on paying for it. Hey, it’s just a few cents!

In addition to getting scammed on the whole stimulus scheme for EVs, the Obama administration may have imposed a new category of unforeseen entitlements as well.

[Originally published on the National Legal and Policy Center]