Emily Pickrell, UH Energy Scholar
If you build the charging stations, the electric vehicle (EV) purchasers will come.
That is the premise upon which the Biden administration is banking its promise to build 500,000 new charging stations to help move forward the tipping point towards the climate-friendly technology.
Where you build them – and accordingly, which EV purchasers you are encouraging – is the next question.
Those looking at the history of transportation say that making charging stations accessible to lower-income communities is one way to ease the disproportionate pollution burden that they carried in U.S. highway development.
“For the last 70 years, the impact of fossil fuel burning cars has disproportionately hurt communities of color and neighborhoods that have the lowest mobility,” said Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, an urban studies professor at The New School. “They own less cars than other people, and yet their healthcare costs and co-morbidity rates related to air pollution are higher. If you are spending a lot of time in the emergency room because you are breathing polluted air, that is a huge impact on your life, every single day.”
This higher burden that lower-income communities has continued to this day. A recent University of Houston study showed a direct relationship nationwide between lower life expectancies and low-income communities that are hard hit by contamination.
Air pollution is a big part of this. In California, for example, cars and trucks are a chief cause of poor air quality, contributing nearly 80 percent of the nitrogen oxide – i.e. smog – and 95 percent of the toxic diesel particulates in the air.
At the same time, in the early days of the EV mobility transformation, most EV cars don’t rely on publicly-accessible charging stations. The vast majority are charged at home, with owners living in single-family homes.
Currently, EV ownership is skewed towards the affluent. Tesla
The Biden administration is trying to address these energy justice issues in its ambitious $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan. The program – which is still being debated in Congress with no clear resolution in sight – would ensure that 40% of the overall benefits from clean energy would be for communities that have not historically been invested in.
Biden’s budget includes $4 million for programs that encourage workplace charging as a way to make EVs possible for communities that won’t have access to home charging. Electrify America, a program started by Volkswagen as part of its diesel emissions settlement, has also helped push public charging forward. To date, it has established a network of more than 500 charging locations and over 2,200 individual charging units. Electrify America stations have been located in public access areas, such as parking lots and big-box store parking garages.
States and cities are following suit, making sure that minority communities are part of the planning.
Oregon’s Dept. of Transportation, for example, has already estimated a need for 600 charging stations by 2025 for disadvantaged communities and 6,000 by 2035. These estimates take into account that a significant proportion of the population live in apartments or other multi-unit homes that do not provide convenient overnight on-site charging.
New York City recently announced its plans to add 100 charging ports in the city, trying to remove barriers to EV adoption. The new ports will be level-2 chargers, which provide an 80% charge in four to eight hours and will be distributed across the city.
“The current limited charging capacity in the city has been a challenge to expanding EV access for New Yorkers, with most of the existing chargers today located in expensive or private Manhattan parking garages,” city officials explained in their announcement of the new sites.
The first charging station was installed in the Norwood section of the Bronx, which has a median income of about $38,000, far below Manhattan’s $93,000 median income. Plans are underway to fund more than 21,000 level-2 chargers by 2025 throughout New York City and the surrounding counties. The cost is not insignificant: Each level 2 charge takes between $5,000 and $10,000 per installation. New York City currently has roughly 15,000 registered EVs.
The State of California has developed strategies to ensure that disadvantaged and rural communities are included in the planning. Priorities include ensuring that charging solutions are equitably distributed, and involving communities in this process.
The economic and environmental case for access for all is compelling: fewer repairs are needed for these costs and the price of electricity is a lot less than gasoline.
And would-be EV purchasers, regardless of economic status or background, are becoming increasingly interested in doing so.
In a recent consumer survey, more than 70% of drivers expressed interested in owning an EV, but more than half of them said they were held back by lack of access to public charging stations.
Yet, how and why communities are consulted about EV infrastructure planned for their neighborhood could be critical in whether the new gadgetry is either embraced or viewed as an unwanted solution to a problem they are still left to struggle with.
Michael Breish, an energy policy specialist for the Washington State Dept. of Commerce who has worked with communities statewide regarding upcoming electrification plans, noted that EV infrastructure – if mishandled – may come across as a top-down decision that could signify impending gentrification or leave a community feeling patronized with confusing technology.
Moving several chargers to a neighborhood will eventually require a major upgrade to the electric infrastructure and this expansion – if done without a community’s consent or participation – could further generate misunderstandings.
Including community participation early in the process helps ensure transportation solutions that the community thinks are most important, Breish said. Locals will be the best positioned to identify the key bottlenecks and find uniquely local solutions.
EVolve Houston, an organization working with the City of Houston to encourage electric vehicle adoption, has recognized that working with communities upfront will be critical to their mission. They are currently developing an equity plan in their deployment strategy that will be “a blueprint to engage the community,” according to Stephanie Coates, secretary of the board for EVolve Houston.
“That is the kind of feedback we want, and our goal is to get it before we rollout pilots,” Coates explained. The plan will also draw on community meetings that have already been held by the City of Houston; a benefit of private and public groups working together.
Having this kind of information upfront could mean that highest priority might be the electrification of school buses or diesel trucks that drive through their neighborhoods, with charging stations to make this possible. And additional measures – increasing the affordability of EVs and addressing the last-mile challenges these communities often face with ride share EVs – might be crucial for these communities to expand their use of mass transit.
But it may mean having to rethink charging stations for local residents as being the top of the list.
“Charging stations and EVs are one slice of a portfolio of solutions for clean mobility services for a community,” Breish said. “There are other priorities, such as transportation, electrified garbage trucks, sidewalks, ride shares. It might not be the immediate goal they desire and we have to be okay with that, even though the narrative is that electrified transportation are a savior.”
Emily Pickrell is a veteran energy reporter, with more than 12 years of experience covering everything from oil fields to industrial water policy to the latest on Mexican climate change laws. Emily has reported on energy issues from around the U.S., Mexico and the United Kingdom. Prior to journalism, Emily worked as a policy analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office and as an auditor for the international aid organization, CARE.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.