Green Technology

Charging An Electric Car In Montana Becomes Front Page News

Chad Lauterbach is a noted taxidermist who lives in Los Angeles. A few weeks ago, he drove to Ekalaka (population 400) in eastern Montana to volunteer at the Carter County dinosaur festival, something he has done several times before. He normally drives a Toyota Land Cruiser that gets about 10 miles to the gallon, which means gasoline for the 3000-mile journey would have cost him more than $1000. So, he decided to drive an electric car — the Tesla Model Y owned by his girlfriend Allis Markham –instead.

According to the Montana Free Press, Ekalaka is a two-hour drive from the nearest Walmart — and the nearest electric car charger. Lauterbach and Markham told MTFP reporter Eric Dietrich the navigation system in the Tesla warned them as they drove east from Gillette, Wyoming, that they were headed into an area with no EV chargers available.

eastern Montana

Eastern Montana is not a place where EV chargers are likely to be found. Credit: Google Maps

“It kept throwing warnings and red banners and stuff,” Lauterbach said. “It was trying to protect me from doing something stupid.” But he wasn’t worried. An electric car can sip electrons from any available electrical outlet, assuming it has the right adapter for its charging cable.

Even if all he could find was a standard 110-volt wall outlet somewhere, he could still add some miles in an emergency — if he and Markham were patient. At best, a Tesla can add about 3 miles for every hour it is plugged into a wall outlet, but since they planned to stay for the weekend anyway, 3 miles times 48 hours would get them enough battery charge to get back to a Walmart with an EV charging station, at the very least.

Charging An Electric Car In The Middle Of Nowhere

When the intrepid adventurers arrived in Ekelaka, the Tesla was in desperate need of electricity. As they drove down Main Street, Lauterbach noticed an electrical outlet mounted to a utility pole. The cover was unlocked and underneath was a 50-amp outlet of the kind usually found in RV camp grounds. “It was just sitting there, so I plugged in,” he said. Fortunately, Markham happened to have an adapter for her Tesla charging cable that fit the outlet, so the couple plugged the car in and then went to check in at the museum.

Markham said she warned him he shouldn’t leave his car charging at a random outlet without getting permission, in case the locals assumed he was “just some jerk from California, doing what jerks from California do.” Lauterbauch said he did in fact consult the museum director and assumed he wouldn’t be too hard to find if someone had concerns they wanted to share with him.

A few hours later, when they returned to the car, a local resident drove up and showed them a photo of their car plugged into the outlet. It was featured prominently on the front page of the Ekalaka Eagle, the town’s local newspaper. Beneath the photo was a headline announcing “Borrowed Volts.”

It seems the editor of the Eagle, who is also the assistant editor, copy editor, ad manager, and head of distribution, had taken a photo of the unattended Tesla charging and printed it above the fold next to stories about an upcoming pet parade and the Thursday night cribbage games at the Carter County Senior Citizen Center. Must have been a slow news day in Ekalaka.

The photo caption labeled the car a “UEV (unidentified electric vehicle)” and suggested it might be the first time an electric vehicle had been charged in town. The Eagle also reported that it wasn’t clear as of press time whether the car’s owner had paid for the electricity.

Markham said that as soon as she saw the paper, she rushed over to the local power utility, the Southeast Electric Cooperative, which has its headquarters a block off Main Street. She walked in and told the front desk staff she was “here to pay for the crimes of the UEV,” which was met with howls of laughter.

The co-op staff initially told her not to worry about the bill, Markham said, but after some back and forth, the couple ended up paying $60 for access to the electricity. That sum also covered the electricity used by the musician who plugged into the outlet for the dinosaur festival street dance on Saturday night, and much more. The couple paid in cash because the electric co-op wasn’t able to take a credit card. They received a handwritten receipt in return. Lauterbach and the co-op staff also exchanged autographed copies of the Eagle. “Having an ‘I told you so’ on the front page of the paper is very validating for a woman,” Markham said.

Lauterbach said the round trip drive from LA totaled roughly 3,000 miles and ended up costing about $300 in charging fees, not counting the impromptu bill from the electric co-op. He also thinks there’s a possibility the electric co-op could install a real charging station for any electric vehicle owners who might be interested in adding Ekalaka to their itinerary.

Tye Williams, the manager of the electric co-op, said this week that the outlet exists primarily to supply power to vendors during fairs and other events on Main Street. It’s typically unlocked a few weekends a year, he said, and Lauterbach just happened to catch it open between events.

Williams said the utility has been kicking around the idea of installing a formal charging station in Ekalaka for awhile, but hasn’t made any definitive plans. While the state has some grant money available to help install charging stations, he noted that backroads like the route that runs through Ekalaka aren’t anywhere near the top of the state’s priority list. “We’re going to have to do something in the next decade, or some amount of time,” he said.

A search of the Ekalaka Eagle website for Tesla, EV, electric car, and charging station found no results. This appears to be breaking news that the newspaper would just as soon forget about.

Charging An Electric Car

Tesla charging adapter kit

Credit: Tesla

The lesson here is, we are surrounded by electricity wherever we go, but there are many different kinds of electrical outlets. Every driver of an electric car should have a collection of adapters to fit a wide variety of outlets, because you never know what issues you may encounter during your travels. And never assume the natives are all that happy to have you and your electric car come to visit.

Tesla sells a set of 9 adapters for its charging cable that will fit just about any outlet you are likely to come across in your travels. It costs $245 and is well worth the peace of mind it provides. Campgrounds have either 50-amp or 30-amp outlets available. Having an adapter for a standard dryer outlet is always a good idea, since many people have a dryer near the garage.

The takeaway from this is to never assume you are welcome to plug in somewhere just because you see an outlet. Always ask permission and be prepared to offer payment. It’s just common courtesy, unless you are some jerk from California doing what jerks from California do.

[Note: Tesla no longer supplies a charging cable with its new cars, a decision that we at CleanTechnica think is unwise and wrongheaded. Investing in a charging cable and a set of adapters is strongly advised.]


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