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Costco Pulls Plug On Electric Cars, Declines Offer Of Subsidies

“We were early supporters of electric cars, going back as far as 15 years. But nobody ever uses them.”

Costco, the membership warehouse-club chain, was an early leader in offering electric-vehicle charging to its customers, setting an example followed by other retailers, including Best Buy and Walgreen. By 2006, Costco had installed 90 chargers at 64 stores, mostly in California but also some in Arizona, New York and Georgia. Even after General Motors crushed its EV1 battery cars, the Costco chargers stayed in place.

Yet just as plug-in cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt enter the market, Costco is reversing course and pulling its chargers out of the ground, explaining that customers do not use them.

“We were early supporters of electric cars, going back as far as 15 years. But nobody ever uses them,” said Dennis Hoover, the general manager for Costco in northern California, in a telephone interview. “At our Folsom store, the manager said he hadn’t seen anybody using the E.V. charging in a full year. At our store in Vacaville, where we had six chargers, one person plugged in once a week.”

Mr. Hoover said that E.V. charging was “very inefficient and not productive” for the retailer. “The bottom line is that there are a lot of other ways to be green,” he said. “We have five million members in the region, and just a handful of people are using these devices.”

Plug In America, the California-based E.V. advocacy group, contends that the stations do get used, and is conducting a rigorous grassroots campaign to save them. The group asserts that some of the units have been delivering free electricity to loyal E.V. owners for a decade or more, and that people regularly plug in.

The group says that the Costco chargers are invaluable for owners of Toyota’s older RAV4 electrics, many of which are still on the road in California. But the actor Ed Begley Jr., a longtime environmentalist and RAV4 owner, said in an e-mail that some of the Costco chargers around Los Angeles stopped working years ago.

The Costco outlets are also outdated by current standards, but a state-supported program stands ready to upgrade them at no cost to Costco.

That was one impetus for a $2.3 million program supported by the California Energy Commission and overseen by the charging companies Clipper Creek and EV Connect, which would have 600 to 650 so-called legacy E.V. chargers upgraded. According to Will Barrett, a Clipper Creek program manager, 30 new chargers have been installed since the program began operations in July. Mr. Barrett said that Costco decided not to participate in the state program last March.

Financed by a $2.3 million California Energy Commission program, an electrician working for Phil Haupt Electric in Roseville, Calif., replaces a so-called legacy charger with a new unit.

Mr. Hoover said the company was aware of the state-funded upgrade program, but did not see a compelling reason to take advantage of it.

“Why should we have anybody spend money on a program that nobody’s thought through?” he said.

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