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Electric car parking: Perk or privilege?

Nissan Leaf Charging Station Portland

A Nissan Leaf charges at a electric vehicle charging station in Portland, Ore. (AP)

They drive whisper-quiet cars, zing past you in the parking lot, and use dedicated charging stations just a few steps from the front entrance. Electric car owners enjoy many perks, and there’s a growing frustration among owners of conventional cars about the charging stations popping up at places like Ikea, Whole Foods, Walgreens, and other stores -- especially when the spots in front of them are empty.

“This makes me think drivers of electric cars must be a little disabled,” one customer who did not want to be identified told FoxNews.com about the charge ports at a Goodwill store in St. Paul, Minn. “They are usually health freaks, so I wonder why they don’t mind walking a half-mile back to a charging station.”

Meanwhile, charging stations are being installed at public libraries, sports stadiums, and even airports. In some cases, the electric vehicle-only parking spots are located closer to the front entrance than the handicapped spaces. Yet, even an advocate for green living says the charge ports are superfluous.

“If stores and organizations wish to minimize their environmental footprint then they can give priority access to bicyclers and pedestrians,” says Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar and the University of California-Berkeley, and author of Green Illusions, an upcoming book that pokes holes in alternative energy practices. 

Zehner says EV charge stations just reinforce eco-fetishism and urban sprawl.

“American taxpayers give electric car owners tax breaks and credits to buy their vehicles as well as priority parking and special freeway lanes even though there’s no evidence they’ve done anything positive for the environment in return," Zehner says. "In fact, the mining, heavy metals, and other side effects of electric car production and operation are likely worse for the environment."

Some retailers are moving cautiously into the EV charging market. Best Buy is running an experiment at 12 stores in California, but has not announced plans to install chargers at additional locations, according to a company spokesperson. Costco recently announced they would start removing existing electric charging stations from some of their stores that were installed years ago because they aren’t used often enough to justify their upkeep. (Costco did not immediately return calls for comment.)

The main issue has to do with public perception, says Chelsea Sexton, a consultant for the Lightning Rod Foundation, an EV advocacy group. Sexton worked at General Motors on the EV-1 and appeared in the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

Sexton says retailers in particular want to be recognized for their green efforts. The EV charging stations are no different from an employee-of-the-month parking space or spots reserved for delivery trucks. There are also technical reasons why the EV ports are so close to the front entrance: the infrastructure for EVs is still in an infant state, and retailers have to run electric transmission lines out from the building to power them.

As for why the stations are rarely used, Sexton says there are only about 20,000 electric and hybrid cars on the road today. The spots will start filling up with cars eventually, she says.

According to Rob Peterson, a spokesperson for the Chevy Volt, the location of charging stations is more of a statement a city or retailer makes about their commitment to the environment. For them, it’s like Apple putting free Wi-Fi in their stores -- a charge station is an appeal for a greener stance.

Not every EV owner is an advocate of front-of-the-parking-lot privileges, however. Angela Miller, an IT executive in San Diego, owns a Nissan Leaf and says she would not mind parking in a back lot and walking. She says it will be less likely that a massive gas-chugging SUV will take her spot.

At the same time, Miller says many public parking places are locating the easily-identifiable parking spots near a front entrance as a way to incentivize the market by showing people that choosing an EV not only means you will save the planet, but that you’re total transmit time will be less due to easier parking.

"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," Sexton says. "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."

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