Though electric car sales have been slow in the face of low gas prices (averaging around $2.80 a gallon at the moment), the ownership equation keeps getting better for one simple reason — free public charging.

Dave Noland, who lives in the Hudson Valley, New York, is a proud Tesla Model S owner. In good years (when his stream is running strong), he gets free electricity from a homemade hydroelectric dam. But lately it’s been dry, so he stared in horror at a bill for 13,595 kilowatt hours, a third of that attributable to the Model S charging.

free ev charging at the Samuels Boutique Hotel in Canada

Free EV charging at the Samuels Boutique Hotel in Canada. (Photo: Sun Country Highway)

But relief was in sight! Tesla opened a free Supercharger near him at a restaurant in Newburgh, New York. “I was the first Tesla owner to plug in, at 2:11 p.m.,” he said. “I charged 44 kilowatt-hours in 38 minutes!” I talked to another Tesla owner who charges for free on the highway on the way to work, sipping coffee and reading the paper as he waits out the 20 minutes or so it takes to charge.

And if you’re in California (especially Los Angeles or San Francisco, but Sacramento and San Diego, too), public charging has become nearly ubiquitous. That’s led to so many people buying electric cars that workplace chargers are seeing an overload.

Scott Thompson (left) and his Leaf at the unveiling of a free public charger at the Fairfield Public Library in Connecticut.

Scott Thompson (left) and his Leaf at the unveiling of a free public charger at the Fairfield Public Library in Connecticut. Librarian Laurie Weiner says it's getting a lot of traffice. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Even in the Northeast, EV owners like Scott Thompson of Connecticut (who traded in a Mustang convertible for a Nissan Leaf and then a Volkswagen e-Golf, and also charges from rooftop solar panels), say they are using ever-larger free public charging networks to enhance the bottom line for EV ownership. With savings on fuel for his VW e-Golf of $460 a year ($4,600 over a typical 10-year ownership), Thompson (who has 19 free charging locations available in his town of Fairfield) says he can pay back the cost premium on the car in about three years. And that’s still true with lower-priced gas. The lease savings for a Nissan Leaf bottom line at a monthly savings of $105 a month, says Thompson.

Some businesses that aren’t requiring payment for their electricity now might switch to a pay model soon, and Elon Musk of Tesla recently made headlines by saying that the Supercharger network is supposed to be for long-distance travel, not commuting. But the “free” model lives.

Enter Volta Industries, which co-founder and CEO Scott Mercer said he wants to “remove all the friction about electric car acceptance.” According to Mercer, Volta’s business model is finding sponsors for free (but sponsor-branded) EV charging stations that are located in strategic hot spots like Trader Joe's and movie chain parking lots. The car owner pays nothing, and the property owner pays nothing. So far, 108 Level II Clipper Creek stations have been installed with that model — 50 in southern California, 20 in northern California, 26 in Hawaii and 12 in Arizona. The goal is to take the company nationwide, and your state might be next.

EV owners appreciate the free charge, and the sponsor gets an affinity buzz. This installation is in Hawaii.

EV owners appreciate the free charge, and the sponsor gets an affinity buzz. This installation is in Hawaii. (Photo: Volta)

Volta’s sponsors include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Oakland A's, Sungevity and Whole Foods. “It’s like a free service sponsored by advertising, like tennis at Wimbledon sponsored by Mercedes-Benz,” Mercer said.

Basically, it’s an affinity play, associating progressive brands with a concept everybody likes — electric cars. “We’re trying to inspire people to buy, to get them excited,” Mercer said.

Another project I’ve written about, Charge Across Town, is also aiming to make free plug-ins a fact of life, though it’s concentrating on San Francisco. The group has three portable and solar-powered chargers that it’s moving around to high-traffic locations.

So if you’re weighing the option of an electric car, consider the free charging thing. It’s a nice perk.

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.