No one knows the ins and outs of electric-car usage like the early adopters, especially those who've already taken delivery of a 2011 Nissan Leaf or a 2011 Chevrolet Volt. (Or both.)

So when a thread on required parking permits to recharge electric cars erupted in our recent article on the opening of a new public charging station in Palo Alto, California, we turned to noted electric-car advocate Chelsea Sexton to help us sort it out.

In January 2003, she explains, "California passed an ordinance to prevent gasoline cars from parking in spots with electric-car chargers."

"To make electric cars identifiable to parking enforcement agents, the state decided to require a sticker on them" to identify them as Zero-Emission Vehicles. It can be obtained for $17 by filling out an application.

OK, great, that makes sense. So what's the problem, exactly?

California Zero-Emission Vehicle parking permit, from

California Zero-Emission Vehicle parking permit, from

"At the time," Sexton notes, "plug-in hybrid cars weren't really on the legislative radar."

"So, the ordinance and the parking sticker it spawned apply only to battery electric cars like the 2011 Leaf."

Which is fine, except that owners of 2011 Chevy Volts--and any other vehicles with both a plug-in battery pack and a gasoline engine--are out of luck.

"There's a bill now on the table to change the legislation to include plug-in hybrids," Sexton notes. But in the meantime, plug-in hybrids like the Volt (and the upcoming 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid) can't legally park in those spaces or use those chargers.

This all applies, Sexton points out, only to "those charging sites that post the ordinance signage to begin with" (it's section 22511.1 of the California Vehicle Code).

Our commenter Jeff N adds, "Some of the older-generation charging stations are signed this way, but so far I haven't found this to be a problem at the new public J1772-2009 stations that I've used at three public parking lots or garages in San Francisco and Santa Monica, or a fourth at a shopping mall in Newport Beach."

Plug-In Vehicle Parking Only

Plug-In Vehicle Parking Only

Sexton also notes that some of the most extreme electric-car advocates have suggested that plug-in hybrids in fact shouldn't be allowed to use the chargers.

Their reasoning? Since a Volt's gasoline engine gives it another form of power, whereas pure battery electrics like the Leaf have no other alternative, the battery electrics should take priority.

Sexton hastened to add, diplomatically, that she finds that argument remarkably counterproductive if the goal is to encourage adoption of plug-in vehicles that minimize oil use.

[ZEV Parking Permit photo:]