No Place to Plug In: Welcome to the Age of Socket Insecurity

Oct. 12, 2015
Watch the weary traveler in almost any airport, battery-drained cell phone in hand, hunting intently for a charging station. The same is true in cities, big and small. We have more and more electric gadgets and no place to plug in.

America is good at making enough electricity to serve its increasingly plugged-in economy.  Ample juice is flowing. Problem is, there is no place to plug in.

We are becoming a nation beset by socket insecurity.

Watch the weary traveler in almost any airport, on the hunt for a charging kiosk to save his cell phone before its final tweet. Finding none (or none available), he ends up standing amid the bustle of the airport corridor guarding the gadget as it regains its life force from a lone wall outlet meant for the floor cleaners.

Or witness the coffee shop wars, the glares at the plug hog who is sitting at the corner table. He has laptop, phone and tablet all connected to the only outlets. Wearing headphones, this oblivious energy ominvore is deaf to polite entreaties to share.

California’s Socket Black Market

Socket insecurity is only going to get worse as we transition over to electric cars. The New York Times reported last week that Californians in Silicon Valley are behaving downright rudely at electric vehicle charging stations, unplugging one another, lobbing techie obscenities, and even “creating black markets and side deals to trade spots in corporate parking.”

Yep, socket insecruity is creating a sort new criminal class. But that’s not all. We have a new neurosis as well. It’s called “range anxiety” — the fear of driving an EV because it might run short on power before you reach a charging station.  California has a plan to ease range anxiety by creating a spine of EV charging stations from Oregon border south to Baja California —  obviously no soon enough.

But there is hope.

Many cities are planning in advance and installing EV chargers. I even found some chargers in my little town of Charlottesville, Virginia, outside of an old Coca-Cola factory that was renovated into a gourmet store.

In addition, more and more communities are installing advanced microgrids (themselves a kind of plug to the larger electric grid). EV charging stations are integral to many microgrids. Designed to provide power during an outage, some microgrids also include special gathering places for recharging cell phones.

It’s worth noting that EV charging stations are becoming greener and more efficient too, as demonstrated by NRG EVgo and Princeton Power Systems at this year’s Solar Decathlon now underway.

As for cell phone charging, more airports are installing stations.  And New York City is replacing phone booths with kiosks that offer device charging and high speed wireless access. Other places are considering similar kiosks within ‘smart city’ plans.

And then of course, someday we’ll all have wireless electricity. Some day.

I’d tell you more, but my laptop is running out of juice. So for now, America, where might I plug in?

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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