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Tesla expands network of fast-charging stations to broaden appeal

A Tesla Motors electric sports car charges in

A Tesla Motors electric sports car charges in the automakers showroom in San Jose, Calif. Credit: Bloomberg News, 2011

Tesla Motors Inc., the electric-car maker that has tripled in market value this year, is preparing to expand a network of fast-charging stations to make its Model S a more viable alternative to gasoline-fueled cars.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive officer and biggest shareholder, has said he will make a “big supercharger” announcement this week. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company operates nine stations that provide free electric power for owners of high-end versions of the Model S and has said it will have at least 100 along U.S. and Canadian highways by 2015.

Tesla needs an expanded network of charging stations to appeal to customers beyond California and the Northeast U.S. where it now has fueling spots. Without such stations along nearby roads, Tesla drivers are limited by the estimated 265- mile (426-kilometer) range of a battery charge.

“Like most things Tesla has done, it’s very good marketing and a very good early-adopter thing to do,” said Brett Smith, an alternative-vehicle analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Given who’s buying Teslas, it won’t mean much for the mass market.”

The planned announcement follows a series of events this month that put the carmaker on the most secure financial footing since its founding a decade ago. Tesla’s first quarterly profit was followed by a top rating from Consumer Reports for the Model S and a share-price surge. Investor demand created an opportunity to raise $1 billion from selling equity and debt and retire its U.S. Energy Department loan nine years early.

Changed Story

“Tesla’s role is kind of interesting: They’ve changed the whole story line” about electric vehicles, said Tom Turrentine, director of the California Energy Commission’s Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis. “This is a company that thrives on mythology.”

Musk said May 20 that the supercharger network expansion announcement was pushed back to this week as the company focused on completing its Energy Department loan repayment. Shanna Hendriks, a Tesla spokeswoman, declined yesterday to provide details on the timing of the announcement.

The carmaker named for inventor Nikola Tesla has opened nine of its solar-powered charging stations since last year, including six on California highways and three in Connecticut and Delaware, according to Tesla’s website.

More Chargers

At an opening of a supercharger station in Los Angeles in September, Musk said Tesla’s goal was “giving Model S the ability to drive almost anywhere for free on pure sunlight.” The company said a 30-minute charge provides 150 miles of range.

The ability to drive an electric car coast to coast isn’t as essential as making standard public chargers more ubiquitous, said Smith and Don Anair, research director for the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, Calif.

“Most people don’t go that far from home on a regular basis, but want to know they’ll have no difficulties using their vehicles under normal circumstances,” Anair said. “To the extent it makes some people feel more comfortable with the range they can go in a Model S, it does help improve acceptance of electric vehicles.”

Costly Alternative

Regardless of range, the Model S is too costly to be an option for most drivers, Smith said. The luxury sedan with a $69,900 base price is rated by the U.S. as traveling as far as 265 miles per charge.

Use of Tesla’s supercharger is standard with high-end versions of the Model S, which feature an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack and are priced from $79,900. One with a 60- kilowatt-hour battery can use the chargers as a $2,000 option.

Owners repower their cars for free at the stations, using electricity produced by solar panels installed and maintained by SolarCity Corp., where Musk is also the chairman and largest investor.

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