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What happened when a Tesla came to Ekalaka

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Posted at 4:47 PM, Jul 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-27 18:47:41-04

EKALAKA — An “unidentified electric vehicle” — actually a Tesla Model Y — accused of siphoning power from the local electric utility energized the gossip mill in the small eastern Montana town of Ekalaka last week, prompting front page newspaper coverage, a frantic apology and, in the end, much jawboning about the future of transportation in one of the most remote counties in the lower 48 states, reports Montana Free Press.

Driver Chad Lauterbach said in an interview after the fact that he and his girlfriend, Allis Markham, had driven up from Los Angeles to volunteer at the county museum’s annual dinosaur festival. Markham, a nationally prominent taxidermist, has helped out at the museum in the past, but drives a 1989 Toyota Land Cruiser that only gets 10 miles per gallon of gas, so they decided to make the trip in Lauterbach’s electric car instead.

As it turns out, though, Ekalaka’s sparsely populated corner of southeast Montana — the town, two hours in any direction from the nearest Walmart, is home to all of 400 residents — is still an uncharted frontier as far as electric vehicle charging networks are concerned. Lauterbach and Markham said the Tesla’s built-in navigation system spent the entire stretch of the drive up from Gillette, Wyoming, telling them they were headed into a charging desert.

“It kept throwing warnings and red banners and stuff,” Lauterbach said. “It was trying to protect me from doing something stupid.”

If push came to shove, Lauterbach said, he figured he’d be able to plug the car into a standard 120-volt outlet in someone’s garage, even though charging that way would have taken days.

The power outlet used to charge the Tesla Model Y. The outlet is normally used for Main Street fair vendors and musical performances. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

As luck would have it, though, the couple pulled into Ekalaka to discover an RV-style outlet attached to a utility pole on Main Street. The cover, Lauterbach found, was unlocked.

“It was just sitting there, so I plugged in,” he said.

Markham said she warned him he shouldn’t leave his car charging off a random outlet without getting permission, lest the locals assume he was “just some jerk from California, doing what jerks from California do.” Lauterbauch countered that he did in fact consult the museum director and figured he wouldn’t be too hard to find if someone had concerns.

Which, it turns out, is precisely what happened.

After concluding a successful charging session, Lauterbach said, he brought the Tesla back later to find the outlet turned off. Then a guy driving a Subaru rolled by and told him he should take a look at the front page of the local newspaper, the Ekalaka Eagle.

As it turned out, the Eagle editor had taken a photo of the unattended Tesla charging and printed it above the fold, next to stories about an upcoming pet parade and Thursday night cribbage games at the Carter County Senior Citizen Center.

The photo caption labeled the car a “UEV (unidentified electric vehicle)” and suggested it might be the first time an electric vehicle had been charged in town. The Eagle also reported that it wasn’t clear as of press time whether the car’s owner had paid for the electricity.

Markham said that as soon as she saw the paper she rushed over to the local power utility, the Southeast Electric Cooperative, which has its headquarters a block off Main Street. She was expecting something like the Los Angeles DMV, she said, but after she walked in and told the front desk staff she was “here to pay for the crimes of the UEV,” she was met with howls of laughter.

The co-op staff initially told her not to worry about the bill, Markham said, but after some back and forth the couple ended up paying $60 for access to the electricity. That sum also covered the electricity used by the musician who plugged into the outlet for the dinosaur festival’s Saturday-night street dance.

The Tesla Model Y that ended up at the center of a small-town charging controversy in Ekalaka after its driver, Chad Lauterbach, plugged it unto an unattended utility outlet. The vehicle is pictured here outside town. Photo courtesy Chad Lauterbach.

They paid in cash because the electric co-op wasn’t able to take a credit card, and received a handwritten receipt in return. Lauterbach and the co-op staff also exchanged autographed copies of the Eagle.

“Having an ‘I told you so’ on the front page of the paper is very validating for a woman,” Markham said.

Lauterbach said the round-trip drive from LA totalled roughly 3,000 miles and ended up costing about $300 in charging fees, not counting the impromptu bill from the electric co-op. He’s also bullish on the possibility the co-op could set up a real charging station for electric vehicle owners interested in adding Ekalaka to their itinerary.

Tye Williams, the co-op’s manager, said this week that the outlet exists primarily to supply power to vendors during fairs and other events on Main Street. It’s typically unlocked a few weekends a year, he said, and Lauterbach just happened to catch it open between events.

Williams said the utility has been kicking around the idea of installing a formal charging station in Ekalaka for awhile, but hasn’t made any definitive plans. While the state has some grant money available to help install charging stations, he noted that backroads like the route that runs through Ekalaka aren’t anywhere near the top of the state’s priority list.

“We’re going to have to do something in the next decade, or some amount of time,” he said.