Life With Tesla Model S: Local Supercharger Joys & Frustrations


Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

As an early Tesla Model S owner, I’m accustomed to waiting.

After putting down a $5,000 deposit in April 2009, I waited nearly four years to take delivery of the car.

And then I waited another 18 months for the vast barren Northeast Supercharger Desert to bloom, finally unleashing the car’s long-distance potential.

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Then, recently, came the most lingering, tantalizing, frustrating wait of all: for a long-promised Supercharger just minutes away from my home.

It would be the site that would allow me to enjoy fast, free charging for life.

It's not the money

Sure, free is good. But for me, the main attraction of a neighborhood Supercharger is not saving $40 a month in electricity.

I happen to be engaged in a long-running war with my electric company. And a local Supercharger is a tactical nuke in my arsenal.

2011 Chevrolet Volt and 2013 Tesla Model S [photo: David Noland]

2011 Chevrolet Volt and 2013 Tesla Model S [photo: David Noland]

I live in New York’s Hudson Valley, on six acres of woods with a creek. Four years ago, I built a small hydroelectric generator on the creek.

With a peak output of 2200 watts at full flow, it generated enough power during the first two years to run my house and recharge a Chevy Volt (now departed).

Over those first few seasons, my net electric meter--calibrated to run backwards when the hydro generated excess power--fluctuated back and forth between positive and negative territory, depending on the creek flow.

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At the end of each of the first two years, the meter was slightly below zero. As a result, instead of a bill from Central Hudson, I received a check.

Let me tell you: there are few things in life more satisfying than getting a check from your local electric company--even if it’s only for $13.57.

Drought and freeze

Unfortunately, though, a combination of dry autumns and frigid winters over the last two years has forced me to shut down the hydro system for extended periods.

2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]

2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]

The result: my electric meter has been climbing, slowly but inexorably. It now stands at a horrifying 13,595 kilowatt-hours into the red.

I’m losing the war. Badly.

And about one-third of those kilowatt-hours have gone into the Tesla.

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A Supercharger nearby would allow me to cut my electricity usage by a third, reverse the meter’s long-term climb, and eventually return to my ultimate goal: negative territory.

Great expectations

The idea of a Supercharger in in the nearby town of Newburgh, New York, has been percolating in my fevered brain for a very long time.

It’s an obvious site for a Supercharger: 60 miles north of New York City on the New York State Thruway (I-87) where it intersects Interstate 84.

Tesla Supercharger locations in the United States, March 2015

Tesla Supercharger locations in the United States, March 2015

More than two years ago, Tesla’s Supercharger map showed a dot in the Newburgh area promised for “Fall 2013.”

But in late Fall 2013, with no sign of any Supercharger, the label was changed to “Coming Soon." It remained that way for the next 18 months.

A neighbor in the commercial real estate business, also a Model S owner, briefly talked to Tesla about installing a Supercharger at one of his Newburgh properties.

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It didn’t happen, but in December he alerted me that Tesla had finally chosen a location: Cosimo’s, an upscale brick-oven pizza parlor and “ristorante" a mile or so from the Interstate interchange, just 8 miles from my house.

For four agonizing months, nothing happened.

Then, in early April, I drove by the restaurant and saw three guys with hard hats standing in the parking lot looking at the ground. After a screeching U-turn, I pulled into the lot.

They saw me coming, recognized the car, and gave me a thumbs-up even before I’d come to a stop.

Construction of the Newburgh Supercharger was officially underway!

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, under construction - June 2015

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, under construction - June 2015

Unusual location: up front

Unlike virtually all other Supercharger sites I’ve visited, this one occupied prime parking spots—six of them—directly in front of the restaurant.

Typically, Superchargers are located in the remote back corners of parking lots at malls and such, so as not to inconvenience regular customers.

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

This location strategy is not entirely altruistic; remote spots are far less likely to be occupied by drivers of gasoline or diesel vehicles, defying--whether deliberately or inadvertently--the “Tesla only” signs.

Cosimo’s owner told me he preferred the close-in location. He wants his regular customers to associate the restaurant with the green cred and prestige of the Tesla brand.

“It’s the future,” he said. “I didn’t want to hide them out back."

Maybe so, but I hope he has some road cones ready. He may need them to discourage "ICE-ing" (use by internal-combustion-engine cars) on busy Saturday nights.

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, under construction - June 2015

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, under construction - June 2015

Delays, screwups

Construction went quickly at first. Within two weeks, the red-and-white charging stanchions were in place, along with much of the heavy electrical equipment to supply them. The work crew’s prediction of a mid-May completion looked entirely reasonable.

Then the site went quiet. (By then, I was checking almost daily.) I was told the crew had left to start work on another Supercharger in New Hampshire that week.

Mildly annoyed, I checked back the following week. Annoyance turned to shock: the outer shells of the charging stations had all been removed, leaving only thin metal skeletons in place. This was regress, not progress.

The restaurant manager told me the crew had apparently put the charging stanchions too close together, and that they all had to be ripped out and repositioned.

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

A worker later admitted to me that they’d misread the plans, and measured the specified 11-foot spacing for the canted parking spaces in the wrong direction. “We measured the hypotenuse of the triangle instead of the base,” he told me.

The crew eventually returned to tear out the remaining skeletons and re-install the stations correctly. In the process, however, they managed to sever the restaurant’s gas line, resulting in the sudden appearance of a fire engine.

Then they cut the restaurant’s phone line. And then, with many details unfinished, they apparently headed back to New Hampshire.

At this point, I was fuming in frustration.

(On the bright side, the enclosure for the power equipment was the fanciest of any Supercharger I’d seen. Instead of the typical wooden fence and doors, there was a mortared stone wall with iron gates.)

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, under construction - June 2015

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, under construction - June 2015

Finally, in early June, the crew reappeared to finish off the final details. Central Hudson installed the transformer and completed the grid connection last Friday, June 5.

The following Tuesday, a Tesla tech in a silver S85 showed up and ran a series of tests. After fixing a few glitches, he pronounced the Newburgh Supercharger officially open.

For the record, I was the first Tesla owner to plug in, at 2:11 p.m. I charged 44 kilowatt-hours in 38 minutes.

Take that, Central Hudson.

Transients take priority

Another factor to consider in local Supercharging: I may be occupying a charger badly needed by a Model S in transit.

Obviously, if there are only one or two spaces available, I’ll stay with the car and quickly give up my space to any transient Model S that appears.

Solar panels at Supercharger in Barstow, CA, during Tesla Model S road trip [photo: David Noland]

Solar panels at Supercharger in Barstow, CA, during Tesla Model S road trip [photo: David Noland]

But with the six spaces at the Newburgh Supercharger, I doubt I’ll ever run into that situation.

In my Supercharger experience—50-plus stations all over the U.S.—I’ve been the only car charging perhaps 60 percent of the time. Maybe one third of the time there’s a second car.

Only once have I seen more than four Teslas charging at a time: a full house of eight at Oxnard, California.

I’m hoping to save 100 kWh a week and let the hydro system start winding my electric meter back down toward zero. With decent rainfall, I should see another check from the electric company at the end of this year.

But getting the meter all the way back to zero will take a while. I’m shooting for 2017.

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

War games

Does it really make sense to drive 16 miles round trip and sit there for 45 minutes whenever my battery needs charging, just so I can thumb my nose at the electric company?

Of course not.

My plan is to Supercharge opportunistically, any time I happen to be driving by the restaurant.

This typically happens two or three times a week. I’ll stop and charge for however long is convenient at the time.

And if it happens to be lunch or dinner time, well, so much the better.

But if those random charging opportunities fail to present themselves, I have to admit that a low-battery warning might just trigger a sudden craving for a Southwestern pizza and a glass of merlot.

And of course that beautiful view from the restaurant patio.

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

Tesla Supercharger site in Newburgh, New York, up and running - June 2015

Musk weighs in

Four hours after my long-awaited and much-savored first local Supercharging session, there came a cosmic coincidence I’m still trying to wrap my brain around.

Elon Musk walked onto a stage at the annual Tesla shareholders meeting and unceremoniously peed on my parade.

In answer to a shareholder’s question about Supercharging, Musk maintained that the Supercharger promise is “free long-distance  travel forever,” not free charging forever. He implied that’s always been the case. 

“There are a few people who are quite aggressively using it for local Supercharging,” he said.

“We will sort of send them just a reminder note that it’s cool to do it occasionally, but that it’s meant to be a long-distance thing.”

My first reaction: It’s a little creepy that Tesla is monitoring our charging habits so closely.  It’s the downside, I guess,  of Tesla’s uncanny ability to remotely detect problems in the car before the owner even knows about them.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

My second reaction: Elon is rewriting history.  

Consider the following three Q and A excerpts from Tesla’s website:

How much does it cost to use the Supercharger?

Supercharging is free for the life of Model S, once the Supercharger option is enabled.

Will it always be free?

Yes, Superchargers will be free to use for Supercharging-enabled vehicles for the life of Model S.

How often can I Supercharge?

Customers are free to use the network as much as they like.

Let’s repeat that one: “Customers are free to use the network as much as they like.” No mention anywhere of of “long-distance travel only.”

Tesla Model S electric-car road trip, Route 66 Museum, Elk City, Oklahoma [photo: David Noland]

Tesla Model S electric-car road trip, Route 66 Museum, Elk City, Oklahoma [photo: David Noland]

My third reaction: Would an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant tell a hungry teen-age football player that the buffet is meant for people with normal appetites, and that it’s cool to go back for seconds occasionally, but not all the time--and certainly not thirds?

Little old ladies vs football players

When a restaurant (or a car company) sets its pricing, it takes into account all kinds of users. For every hungry teenager who ravages the buffet, there’s a little old lady who eats like a bird.

For every local Supercharger user—and there are very few of us lucky and/or nutty enough to fall into this category—there’s a Model S owner who never Supercharges.

And of course Supercharging isn't really 'free.'

Until recently, Supercharging was a $2,000 option for low-end versions of the Model S. (Supercharger hardware is built into every car; the $2000 premium  was simply a fee to enable the software.)

For those models with Supercharging  standard, we can assume that something close to $2,000 is baked into the base price.

In effect, we’ve all prepaid $2,000 for the ability to Supercharge.

Tesla Supercharger network U.S. coverage - March 2015

Tesla Supercharger network U.S. coverage - March 2015

Using typical Model S energy-consumption figures of 325 Wh/mile and average electric rates of 11 cents/kWh, the electricity cost of running a Model S works out to about 3.5 cents per mile.

In effect, Model S owners with Supercharging capability have prepaid for 57,000 miles of Supercharged driving, on average.

Of the 43,000 miles currently on my odometer, I’m guessing about 10,000 have been Supercharged. The way I see it, then, it’s cool for me to Supercharge another 47,000 miles or so, long distance or not.

But I’m waiting for my reminder note from Tesla  laying out the company’s side of the issue in more detail.

Let the debate begin.

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