JAMESTOWN, N.D. — For weeks before arriving in North Dakota for the Electric Road Trip, I attempted to contact the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown. The museum boasts not only a herd of buffalo, but one of the only electric vehicle charging stations on the interstate. I had questions.
Why had they built it? Does anyone use it? Are they glad they installed it? (Spoiler: In the end the buffalo museum taught me something else entirely.)
For an energy reporter visiting the state, my questions were important. The museum didn't seem to agree. I left a phone message for someone. Getting no reply, I phoned again, then sent an email. Finally I got a terse message from the executive director.
"I received a message that you have questions about our electric car charger. How can I help?"
I replied with my questions. She finally answered that, essentially, she didn't know much about the charging station except that people use it sometimes. Then she referred me to someone at the power company.
Yesterday I actually made it to the National Buffalo Museum. I plugged into its charger, which worked great. Otherwise the visit was a total bust. In my inquiries, I had neglected to learn that the museum is closed on Sundays. And the buffalo were hiding out in the trees somewhere, as elusive as the executive director.
I had lots of time waiting for my car to charge, and in the interlude I thought about my queries from the executive director's perspective.
A reporter reached out with questions that, to her mind, were irrelevant as could be (especially in a state with almost no electric cars). I might as well have quizzed her about the outlet she uses to charge her phone. Why did you build the outlet? Umm ... to charge my phone. Does anyone use it? Yes, of course. Are you glad you installed it? Yes. Now can I get back to thinking about buffalo?
Her indifference made me realize a fundamental difference between charging an electric car and fueling a regular one with gasoline.
Drivers may think only rarely about gas, but when they do it's critically important. If the tank is empty, no one's going anywhere; If the price of gas spikes, it can cause turmoil in the family finances.
Charging a car — at least in the context that most people do it, at home or at work — is entirely different. It's like charging a phone. Am I almost out of power? Yep, so I plug it in at night. Is it expensive this week? No, electricity is relatively cheap, and the price rarely changes much.
For most EV drivers, like our buffalo director, charging a device is barely worthy of attention. Except in this case, the device is a car. And the charger is like an outlet. The outlet blends into the wall, and the charger just works.
We on the Electric Road Trip are putting a great deal of attention on the charging network and the bumps and surprises that are occurring as it comes into being. But in the end, if it becomes part of our daily lives, charging may be something that people barely think about at all.