California will prohibit the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. But charging-station infrastructure takes time to develop. Already, some places are in danger of being left out, perpetuating historical disparities. Can supporters of a green future avoid the mistakes of the past?
Reinventing the Gas Station EVGO via Flickr
Andrea Talley loves her electric Kia Soul, but she doesn’t love charging it.
“Finding charging stations is a real struggle in my life,” said Talley, who lives and works in West Oakland, where she is a co-owner of a grocery cooperative. Until recently, since neither her apartment nor her neighborhood had outdoor charging ports, Talley needed to drive two miles north to Emeryville. With her car parked at the charging station next to an Urban Outfitters, she would plan her evenings around the hours needed to replenish her car battery.
Now, she charges at a brand-new charging station in Old Oakland, one of ten in a part of Oakland separated from her neighborhood by the I-980 freeway. It’s closer to where she lives, but not close enough. In West Oakland, there are no charging stations at all.
There are parallels between Talley’s work at Mandela Grocery Cooperative and her search for charging stations. The neighborhood now lacking charging stations was once devoid of groceries as well, in part because of decisions made the last time the American public shifted its primary mode of transportation.
Chiara Coetzee via Flickr
In the 1950s, cars replaced trains and soon highways were built cutting through urban neighborhoods. The construction of I-980 cut West Oakland off from the rest of the city. Urban renewal projects led scores of homes to be razed, while mortgages for new home purchases were scarce due to redlining practices. Major retailers fled. As profits declined, major grocery stores left. For the next 50 years, West Oaklanders had few places to buy fresh and affordable food, particularly produce. Mandela Grocery was founded in 2009 and helped alleviate the problem.
As for charging stations, it’s not clear whether any major companies will step up to do the same for West Oakland’s EV owners.With America on the verge of another transformation of transportation technology, will West Oakland again be denied a basic resource?
“Most people I talk to already understand the benefits of an electric car and love the idea,” said Talley. “But...how do you charge if you’re not a homeowner, and you don’t have a driveway with a charging port or an outlet?”
Thomas Hawk via Flickr
Current projections suggest electric vehicles will account for a quarter of car sales by 2035, and will achieve cost parity with gas-powered vehicles by 2025, according to the online magazine Utility Dive. Although fleet turnover will take time, governments are depending on widespread electric-vehicle adoption to stay on target with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Biden’s infrastructure proposal has a significant EV incentive plan, including installing 500,000 more charging stations across the country, though the budget for that plan may hit partisan roadblocks.
California is at the forefront of the transition, with more electric vehicles than any other state: 425,300 at the end of 2020, compared to 58,160 in Florida, the next largest market, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center. Governor Newsom announced in September that California would ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035.
Electric Vehicle Registrations By State as of December 31, 2020
Bill Lane Center for the American West
Of the approximately 9,000 public charging stations in San Francisco, the Peninsula and the East Bay, almost half—about 4,200 of them—are in Santa Clara County, which leads the Bay Area in EV sales. In Alameda County, which has a comparable population but an income level about $5,000 annually lower than that of Santa Clara, there are about 2,000 charging stations.
Founded in Campbell in 2011, ChargePoint has installed more than two thirds of the public Level 2 charging locations in the state, with over 9,000 stations holding 15,000 charging ports. Tesla follows with 8% market share, and unaffiliated chargers at institutions like universities at 6%. Electrify America, which got an investment from Volkswagen as part of its diesel emissions fraud settlement, has announced plans to add 1,800 fast chargers and 10,000 individual chargers nationwide by 2025.
Bill Lane Center for the American West
Charging station availability makes a real difference in ownership. A recent study from UC Davis showed that one in five Californians switched back to gas-powered vehicles after trying an EV, in large part thanks to the inconvenience of charging. For electric cars to gain widespread adoption, all communities must have them, especially low income and majority Black and brown areas, says Chih-Wei Hsu, a transport policy researcher at Humboldt State University. Now people in those neighborhoods are less likely to be able to afford the upfront costs of EVs. They are also more likely to live with the poor air quality fouled by the traffic from nearby highways.
“I see technology adoption as a train, with the head of the train and the tail of the train—we need to make sure the distance between the head and the tail isn’t getting wider and wider, so we’re moving forward together but not that far apart,” said Hsu.
Policymakers and the EV industry can’t solve those problems overnight. The amount of time it will take to preemptively invest in an equitable charging-station network bears a striking resemblance to the decades of chronic disinvestment that left West Oakland without supermarkets.
“We’re in a moment where there’s a window of opportunity for investment,” said Leslie Aguayo, the Environmental Equity Program Manager at the Greenlining Institute, an Oakland nonprofit focused on environmental justice. “If we miss this window, we might be locked in.”
EVGO via Flickr
Because charging takes time, charging stations must be near daily activities.
Unlike filling up a tank with gas, which takes five minutes, it takes hours to charge a battery. How many hours? That depends on how powerful the chargers are, and how much they cost. A Level 1 or 2 charger might take a few hours to fill a battery; their average costs range from $80 to $2000. A Level 3 DC fast charger can fill up a battery in as little as 20 minutes, but costs anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000.
Fast-charging technology for electric vehicles has advanced quickly, to the point where rapid chargers can top up the battery of compatible vehicles in an hour or less. It’s partly a matter of current – when large amounts of raw power are travelling through a thick enough cable, a car can suck down a large amount of juice. But most homeowners lack an exterior or garage-based 240-volt connection typical for dryers and water heaters, and upgrading home electrical systems can cost thousands of dollars. Here’s a look at the gamut of charging options.
Level 3/DC Fast Charging
Charges through 120v AC plug.
No additional equipment needed, but outlets might not be available to apartment dwellers in urban areas.
Charging range per hour
Time to 100 mi. range
Charging device connects to 240v appliance outlets, if available.
$80-$2,000+, plus installation.
Charging range per hour
Time to 100 mi. range
Charges through 480v AC input using specialized, high-powered equipment regulated by municipalities.
Prohibitive cost and high power levels make these unsuitable for home installation.
Charging range per hour
Time to 100 mi. range
Bill Lane Center for the American West
Local governments with the time and resources to advocate for fast-charging investment often represent more affluent communities where there are already a significant number of EV drivers. And fast chargers are often sited along highways to benefit commuters or long-distance travelers.
“There’s a difference between proximity to a charger versus access to a charger,” said Michelle Solomon, a Guenther Congressional Fellow who previously worked at the California Energy Commission. “Fast chargers are more likely to be along highways, but just because you have a fast charger on a highway near you doesn’t mean it’s something you can easily get to.”
“What is going to get us to California’s decarbonization the fastest: investing in cheaper, lower-powered charging right now to get more people involved in the transition, or going all in on the best technology available that’s more expensive and will block some people out of the system at first?” asked Sindhu Nathan, a former Schultz Fellow at the California Energy Commission.
“If you look at trends of EV adoption, we’re almost at the stage where it’s going to grow very, very rapidly,” said Nathan. “Really, the thing making me hesitant is, ‘Are we going to do it the right way?’ We have historically designed infrastructure in a way that’s discriminatory. And we also know how to not do that going forward. But old habits die hard.”
Similar to the digital divide in broadband, rural and agricultural areas tend to have less charging station infrastructure. Huron, an agricultural town about 45 minutes from Fresno whose predominantly Latinx population doubles to about 15,000 during harvest season, used to be a prime example. In 2015, it had only four charging stations. Then Mayor Rey Leon stepped in. .
“Currently we have 30 electric vehicle chargers in Huron, 26 of which I had something to do with,” said Leon, who was elected to office in 2016. As part of his broader environmental justice advocacy plan, he and other officials wrote letters seeking better investment from the California Air Resources Board. As a result, California made Fresno a focus area for charging-station development, placing an additional emphasis on including low-income and vulnerable communities in the rollout.
“Electric cars are the best available technology, and they need to be adopted by everybody,” said Leon. He hopes that widespread EV adoption could help a local population whose health is already disproportionately affected by pollution from Interstate 5 and Highway 99, which contribute to skyrocketing rates of asthma and cancer in California’s Central Valley.
With the new charging stations in place, Leon was able to support a local group that maintains an informal ridesharing network, now called the Green Raiteros project. The town provided two electric cars to the existing community network, along with charging stations from EVgo. Neighbors support each other by pitching in when they can to give free rides to medical clinics, the Mexican consulate, or grocery stores, all of which are far from agricultural areas.
“If we hadn’t had the chargers, the Green Raiteros program would have been a challenge,” said Leon. And while the program has seen success so far, Leon noted that the raiteros need fast charging options, since they often need to charge at least once during the day.
“There’s been occasions where the staff have to drive the vehicle ten miles away to plug into a DC fast charger, which is really inconvenient,” he said. Leon hopes to get more fast chargers installed in Huron, but getting funding has been a hurdle.“It’s just like always,” said Leon. “We had to come to the table and make sure we got attention from the corporations and state agencies, because nobody’s going to fight for us but us.”
Two charging station companies, ChargePoint and EVgo, were asked to comment on their strategy for charging station rollouts and whether equity factored into their business models. EVgo failed to answer a dozen questions about charger siting and equity issues they were sent 11 weeks ago; ChargePoint did respond, saying that their company “works closely with organizations and state and local governments to increase access to public EV charging and electrified public transport.” They also noted that ChargePoint does not own the physical charging stations —the stations in their network are owned by businesses or fleets.
Fast-charging company Electrify America’s 2020 Annual Report to the California Air Resources Board includes initiatives to support low-income communities, but describes its specific station siting process as a “proprietary methodology.” The report also describes challenges with “soft costs” such as zoning and permitting that ultimately resulted in the company installing fewer stations per dollar in California than in other states.
“Private charging companies want to see a return on their investment,” said Aguayo. “They have to be convinced—[they say,] ‘why should I put a charger in a census tract that is low-income, if it’s not going to generate any profit?’”
Even when policymakers put a focus on equity, barriers arise. Switching to an EV can be a challenge for low-income individuals, because government incentives like rebates don’t account for the burden of upfront payments. Renters and people who own apartments have a harder time charging because they often park on the street or in public lots shared by many vehicles. By contrast, homeowners in wealthier census tracts don’t need access to public chargers because they are more likely to have access to a personal charger in their garage or driveway.
Black- and Hispanic- majority populations are 30 percent less likely to have charger access than other groups, according to Hsu’s latest research.
“When the race group disparities first popped up, that surprised me, because in those programs they always talk about ensuring these investments in communities are disproportionately being harmed,” said Hsu. “But just because it’s in the program design doesn’t mean it’s rolling out effectively.”
To address these concerns, the l AB2127, which the California legislature enacted in 2018, requires the California Energy Commission to assess charging station access in relation to census tract data every two years. But agencies like the Air Resources Board, the Energy Commission or the utility companies have no common definition of equity or shared metrics to know if it has been achieved.
“Because charging infrastructure is dependent on manufacturing companies that make vehicles, private companies that make the stations, and utilities that supply electricity, that back-and-forth on ‘what is equity?’ can create a lot of unnecessary barriers to the acceleration of the deployment,” said Aguayo. “If we’re trying to reach zero emissions goals by 2035, it’s not going to be helped by bureaucracy.”
Nathan, who formerly worked at the California Energy Commission, also stressed the need for community-specific research in the face of a new technology whose convenience, cost and reliability fluctuate. “It’s not only about access but about behavior,” she said. “It’s going to take very intentional planning on a local level, a concerted inclusion of every community and their needs to design the system appropriately.”
She pointed out that equity does not always mean expensive DC chargers at apartment buildings, but should include plans for communal or public transportation and be tailored to a specific area’s needs. “We have to make sure not only that the chargers are in place,” added Nathan, “but that people in those communities want and are able to use them.”
DAN BREKKE via Flickr
West Oakland still has no public charging stations. In 2015, the city proposed adding one in the parking lot of De Fremery Park, in the center of town. In principle it seemed a fine idea. But not in practice, said C.N.E. Corbin, an expert on green cities.
Corbin is now a professor at Portland State University. Five years ago, she was on the Oakland Parks and Recreation advisory commission. Defremery Park, she said, has served as a social and political hub for decades. Its parking lot has long been home to high school reunions, festivals, the historic Black Cowboys parade, and funeral repasts.
“This [parking lot] is where people are saying ‘bye’ to community members who have passed away,” said Corbin. “There’s food, and family members, and I just cannot see a bunch of outsiders...charging up their electric vehicles in the middle of community grieving.”
The city pulled the proposal.
Concerns about green gentrification remain. Like free WiFi at a Starbucks, chargers drive foot traffic, increase property values, and improve air quality, said Catherine Brinkley, an urban planner at UC Davis. That makes them a double-edged sword. Their arrival could prevent another chapter of environmental racism, but it could also attract wealthier EV owners, driving up rents and forcing longtime residents out of their homes.
Measuring the threat of gentrification against public health outcomes complicates matters. Stanley Young, communications director at the California Air Resources Board, called zero-emission vehicles “a crucial solution to the air pollution challenges that communities face, especially those adjacent to ports or close to goods corridors.” Corbin is not so sure that they will “solve the [injustice of] multiple generations of Oaklanders who have been exposed to pollutants.”
For Hsu, “It’s a balancing act. What has more risk, and what has more harm—a complete lack of investment, or some investment with a risk of gentrification? For me, some investment is always better than no investment.” Aguayo agreed, highlighting the concern that fears of green gentrification could be weaponized to justify a failure to invest in communities that need additional support.
Aguayo, along with Leon, Corbin, and Nathan, also believes policy makers must ensure that community members have a seat at the table when making decisions about charging station infrastructure. And back in West Oakland, Talley believes community connections will be an asset in cultivating equity as the future of transportation, food and housing begins to take shape. “Investing in each other and our children’s futures by being hyper-local, taking care of our neighborhoods, and taking pride in them,” said Talley, “that’s my hope.”
Edited by Felicity Barringer and Geoff McGhee.
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