The Petrified Forest Is In Charging Hell Right Now, But It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way

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Being both an EV charging nerd and being way into national parks, I spend more time than I care to admit looking at national parks on Plugshare. It’s a weird hobby, but I’m at least trying to make something useful out of it by building a website with EV travel guides to the parks, so it’s not a complete waste of time.

Sadly, I came across something sad the last time I did this. Petrified Forest National Park’s only remaining charging station recently went down.

When I Counted On This Station in 2019

Growing up and as a young adult, I went to the Petrified Forest several times. As a kid, I remember seeing multiple people in a row lined up behind their trunks unloading bits of petrified wood from their pockets, some of whom probably ended up sending the pieces back once they learned about the curse that supposedly brings.

But, my most memorable visit to the park was in 2019, when I drove over there in a Nissan LEAF. In those days, we had to walk uphill both ways to school barefoot in the snow there were almost no fast charging stations outside of larger cities. So, with a mix of RV parks, Level 2 chargers, and even an extension cord run out under a motel door, I made a 1200-mile journey through the charging deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.

One very important charging station along the way was the one at the north end of the Petrified Forest, near the Painted Desert Visitor Center. There were two J-1772 plugs, one of which worked half the time and one of which didn’t. So, I’d have to plug it in, go do something for a few, and then come back to check on it and make sure it was still charging. I charged there three times, with the last time being the evening I started back for New Mexico.

But, I was pretty disappointed on the first day there, because there were supposed to be two charging stations. At the south end of the park, there’s another visitor center with its own ChargePoint station, but when I arrived without much charge left, the station was dead. After several unsuccessful tries, I gave up and limped back up to the other station. Now, about five years later, there’s still a dead charging station at the Crystal Forest.

The Deterioration Continues

During that five years, the south station remained dead, but the north station has limped along, even if it’s a little flaky about starting a charge. Despite the flakiness, many people have relied on the station to fill in the gap in charging along I-40. Others used it to gain a few extra miles to make unplanned trips down into the park.

In other words, it’s not one of those Level 2 stations that has been supplanted by faster charging stations. It’s still an essential station for some travelers, and a nice thing to have for others.

Why The Stations Are All Dead

I’ve actually learned a lot about how the charging industry works from these ailing and now dead chargers, as well as a little about how the National Park Service manages parks.

First off, it’s important to not blame NPS for this. While the agency works to keep the park, the museums, and the visitor’s centers open, everything else in a national park is run by private concessioners who have to bid to get contracts to keep running things every few years. This includes restaurants, hotels, and…EV charging stations.

It’s also not very fair to blame the park’s current concessioners for the problem. Because the government created the possibility for changing concessioner companies every few years, priorities change every time a new company takes concession spaces over. The original company that put the charging stations in may have been excited about it until they didn’t see the value in them anymore. Without revenue coming in to support the cost of maintenance, the next concession company doesn’t want to risk spending money to repair or upgrade the chargers.

It’s also not correct to blame ChargePoint. ChargePoint runs a charging network, but in most cases the company doesn’t own the stations. So, the ultimate responsibility for maintenance falls on the station’s owners. In this case, it’s not really clear who owns them because they were abandoned by a previous concession company and the current one only is responsible for amenities with no requirement to upkeep them.

Because it’s a complex situation, there’s no one entity to blame and no one entity that’s responsible for making the stations work again. So, nobody does it.

That doesn’t mean that anybody escapes the blame. The National Park Service, the concessioner, the non-profit that runs the bookstores, and ChargePoint all end up looking bad when someone wants to charge their EV but can’t. It leaves drivers who don’t know the whole story feeling like NPS doesn’t care about EVs, that the concessioner just wants to sell burgers and Navajo tacos, and that ChargePoint can’t upkeep the charging network. Nobody wins the blame game here.

How This Mess Can Be Fixed

It may require an act of Congress, but the federal government (of which the National Park Service is a part) needs to rethink this approach to EV charging. It makes sense to make EV charging something that concessioners provide like all of the other commercial activity in the parks, but without some clear guidance in the contracts about who’s responsible for the stations, or even a requirement to keep stations operational, it should be no surprise that somebody fumbles the ball.

It might even make sense to simply open space up to a dedicated charging concessioner than to make it part of the larger contracts. This would make it easier to hold the company accountable because they literally only had one job at the park, and not 10 or 20 jobs. If the station doesn’t meet uptime requirements, the concessioner gets a penalty or gets the boot.

In some cases, in-park charging might not even be the best solution. When there’s a decent gateway community nearby, that’s probably the best place for charging, like we’ve seen develop at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, with both Electrify America and Tesla there providing services. But, when there’s a park with no businesses near the gates, there needs to be a coherent plan for EV charging and not utter failures to plan. We all know what happens when we fail to plan.

What the NPS really needs is for someone to be in charge of coordinating not only in-park charging, but working with companies to make sure there are good charging corridors into each park. But, in the absence of that, it’s probably going to take someone like me to push for this stuff via Charge to the Parks.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1989 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba