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Can streetlights unlock big city EV charging? This startup thinks so

Voltpost unveiled its new EV charging product, which is designed to tap into the electricity available in streetlights — and withstand life in urban settings.
By Jeff St. John

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A computer rendering of startup Voltpost’s streetlight-integrated Level 2 EV charger.
A computer rendering of startup Voltpost’s streetlight-integrated Level 2 EV charger. (Voltpost)

It’s hard enough to find street parking in a city — let alone a spot where an electric vehicle can also plug in and charge. But a potential solution rests in the streetlights and lampposts that blanket city sidewalks and are already wired up to the power grid.

That grid hookup makes light posts ideal hosts for curbside EV charging — so long as that charging system is cheap and easy to install, safe and simple to use, and able to withstand the vagaries of life on the street.

New York–based startup Voltpost has spent the past three years working on a technology package aimed at meeting those curbside charging challenges, which it’s tested in small pilot projects in New York City and Detroit so far. Last month, it announced the commercial availability of its product — a modular, street-proofed system that it hopes to deploy in cities later this year.

Cities are a tough place to build EV charging stations, compared with more wide-open suburban or highway environments. It’s also less common for city dwellers to have their own driveway or garage where they can charge.

Half of city drivers park on the street without a garage to charge in,” said Luke Mairo, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer, who joined colleagues to demonstrate the new product line at Voltpost’s shop in San Francisco last week. We need citywide solutions, before people start to take matters into their own hands by running wires out their windows.”

The reason it’s hard to build EV charging stations in cities is because it’s hard to access the power grid, Mairo said. Most cities bury their power lines underground. Extending power lines to new locations requires costly and inconvenient projects to cut trenches into streets, curbs, and sidewalks — a major bottleneck for curbside charging.”

Mairo cited the example of one of the first major U.S. curbside charging projects in New York City, which racked up about $250,000 in construction costs per charger for a 100-charger pilot deployment. The sites, using equipment from EV-charger manufacturer Flo, have seen high demand. But while New York City has a goal of 10,000 curbside chargers by the end of the decade,” he said, it can’t afford to spend a quarter of a million dollars apiece on all of them.

Tapping the power already at light posts is an obvious workaround to those costs, which are driven in large part by installing the grid hookup.

In Europe, thousands of these built-in chargers have been installed using technology from Ubitricity, one of many EV charging companies that’s been acquired by Shell. In the U.S., Los Angeles has installed about 600 light-post-connected EV chargers since 2022, using chargers from Flo, ChargePoint, and Shell Recharge at city-owned and -operated streetlights. Researchers at the University of North Carolina have worked with utility Duke Energy to install a handful of utility-pole-mounted chargers in Charlotte, North Carolina, using technology from electrical equipment manufacturer Eaton.

These were among the curbside charging deployments highlighted in a February report from the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, the federal entity managing billions of dollars of federal EV-charging funding. The report focused on how to expand charging access in cities, as well as for the nearly one in three Americans who lives in multifamily housing.

Tapping into existing, powered infrastructure such as streetlights or utility poles can significantly reduce or eliminate civil construction costs and lead times” for EV charging installations, the report noted. But the option is not without challenges of its own — challenges that Voltpost has taken into account with the unique design features of its technology.

Designing EV chargers to survive on city streets

The first hurdle light-post projects have to clear is power availability. European cities operate streetlights on distribution grids that deliver 240-volt power, enough to power a typical Level 2 EV charger that can charge an EV battery from zero to 100 percent over several hours. But many U.S. streetlight networks are wired to operate on 120-volt power, which extends recharging time to about eight hours or more, the report noted.

Jörn Vicari, Voltpost co-founder and chief product officer, acknowledged at last week’s product launch in San Francisco that lower-power grid connections can be a limitation. But he also noted that many U.S. city streetlight networks have switched or are switching to LEDs, which use far less power than older lighting technologies, freeing up power for EV charging. Lower-power charging is also suitable for commuters and other drivers who don’t need to charge as quickly, he added.

Another challenge is protecting curbside chargers. The Joint Office report noted that cord cutting, power theft, and screen smashing have been frequent issues” for the LA light post charging project, and included some photos of vandalism at chargers — including an enterprising vandal who diverted power for a washing machine on the sidewalk.

These aren’t just problems for curbside installations; vandalism and charging-cord theft are also surprisingly common reasons that public EV-charging stations, which are typically unattended, are rendered inoperable.

That’s why Voltpost has put a lot of thought and effort into protecting its systems from bad actors, Mairo said. Its power electronics and controls systems are contained within a protective aluminum outer casing that completely surrounds the light post, including the panels in the poles that access the power cables. Voltpost also uses a 20-foot retractable charging cable, only a short length of which is exposed to vandals or thieves.


The Voltpost is also designed to minimize the threat of accidents involving charging cords and passersby. For one, the port for its retractable cable is mounted about 8 feet off the ground, minimizing the risk that low-slung cables will become tripping or snagging hazards for passing cars, trucks, buses, bicyclists, pedestrians, or wheelchair users.

Voltpost also designed the shape of its charging handle with safety in mind. Standard charging handles look like gun-shaped gasoline station dispensers and stick out almost a foot into traffic,” Mairo said, making them vulnerable to being clipped by passing vehicles. Voltpost’s patent-pending plug handle looks more like a big glowing doorknob with a cord that extends from it at a 90-degree angle to lie flat against the car it’s plugged into, reducing the risk of accidental snagging.

Even the most thoughtful and tamper-proof designs can’t guard against 100 percent of the damage that may occur, Mairo noted — that’s why Voltpost says it has also made its tech easy to repair.

The Voltpost system consists of four aluminum-shielded quadrants that clip onto a collar mounted to the light post, which allows installation in less than an hour for a wide variety of pole shapes and sizes, Mairo said. It also allows damaged or malfunctioning quadrants to be removed and replaced with new ones, which is a lot faster and easier than having someone come out and do on-site repairs,” he said.


As for letting EV drivers know where to find its chargers, Voltpost has a mobile app and web interface to manage location, reservation, and payment services — an increasingly standard feature for EV charging networks. The startup has also designed a back-end software system to track charger performance and status and provide other support for the city governments or electric utilities that make up Voltpost’s customer base.

Some cities own and operate their own streetlights, while others lease them from electric utilities that are responsible for maintaining and operating them. For either class of customer, Voltpost plans to bundle its hardware, installation, software, and maintenance costs into a simple subscription fee and to let the city or utility decide how it wants to charge EV drivers, set up reservation systems, manage payment methods, and otherwise run them to meet their particular goals.

To date, Voltpost has raised $5 million of private funding, including a $3.6 million seed financing last year led by RWE Energy Transition Investments, the venture arm of German utility and energy company RWE. Other investors include Good News Ventures, Climate Capital, Twynam Funds Management, and the Exelon Foundation, the nonprofit arm of U.S. utility company Exelon.

Mixing and matching the urban EV-charging options

Curbside charging isn’t the only form of EV charging that cities will need, of course. At Voltpost’s San Francisco event last week, Mairo shared the stage with Jake Potent, director of public policy and government relations for Revel, a New York City–based startup that’s become the biggest provider of high-speed EV charging in New York City behind Tesla, largely to serve its all-EV rideshare fleet, as well as EVs driven by other rideshare company drivers.

Rideshare drivers who need to charge quickly, and often, are ideal anchor customers to support the high cost of building EV charging in dense urban environments, Potent said. But we’re never going to build out enough fast charging for everyone” driving an EV in New York City or in San Francisco, where the startup is planning its next expansion.

Henna Trewn, a program manager for the San Francisco Environment Department, agreed that cities need a combination of fast-charging and slow-charging options to help residents make the switch to EVs. Other U.S. cities deploying curbside charging include Boston, Chicago, and Seattle.

San Francisco is exploring options for curbside charging but faces competing pressures when it comes to picking the right combination of charging options, Trewn said. We’re a very congested city and have very limited parking. There’s a high demand for curb space,” she said. How do we prove that doing something there is future-proofing for the demand to come?”

Voltpost’s modular design may give cities more options to adapt to changes in the fast-evolving EV charging landscape, Mairo said, such as the ongoing shift among EV-charger manufacturers and automakers from the combined-charging-system standard to the North America Charging Standard developed by Tesla.

The same modularity can allow Voltpost’s product to do things besides charging cars. That could include serving as cellular repeater stations — the company is in discussions with 5G carriers, Mairo said, though he declined to provide more details — or as sensor platforms for various smart city” services, a much hyped opportunity for earning money from data collected from digital infrastructure, including LED streetlights themselves.

But right now the firm is focused on getting its newly unveiled EV charging tech into as many light posts as it can — starting first with Chicago, Detroit, and New York, where it hopes to start deploying on some city streets later this year.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.