Driving electric car? Be creative

Owning an electric vehicle requires more than global-cooling ambitions. It takes guile, planning, sharp vision, a silver tongue – and a 50-foot extension cord.

Steve Bernheim knows accessible outlets like a firefighter knows hydrants. He has to – his Corbin Sparrow runs only 25 miles on a charge.

“You do guerrilla charging where you locate these plugs,” said Bernheim, an attorney who lives in the Seattle suburb of Edmonds. “I'm an expert at finding them.”

While California has more than 500 public charging stations at parks, malls and grocery stores to serve electric vehicles that rolled out in the last decade, the network is still thin across the rest of the country, forcing drivers like Bernheim to get creative.

That may change as charging stations crop up in to serve early adopters and pave the way for a new breed of mass market plug-in cars.

“Every auto company in the world is developing all-electric or plug-in hybrids,” said Zan Dubin Scott, a spokeswoman for Plug In America, a nonprofit advocacy group. “The utilities, municipalities and smart business people are seeing that this is the future.”

The vast majority of electric vehicle owners charge their cars at home while they sleep, so most trips aren't a problem.

Drivers can now plug in at two park-and-ride lots in and around Seattle.

Street-legal “neighborhood electric vehicles” that can travel up to 25 mph typically go about 35 to 40 miles on a single charge. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt that General Motors Corp. plans to sell in 2010 can travel about 40 miles before the gasoline engine kicks in.

Drivers like Bernheim, whose range is about 25 miles to a charge, has become adept at sweet-talking use of a 110-volt outlet if he needs to travel farther. Once he persuaded a fruit stand owner to let him plug in. He ended up buying $50 of produce there.

Jeff Smith, 51, a mechanical parts inspector, carries three extension cords of varying lengths when he drives his ZENN (Zero Emission, No Noise) two-seater.

Smith once cold-called restaurants to find one willing to let him plug in while he dined.