Guest Author
Andrew Campbell

I tried to add EV chargers to my rental property. Here’s what happened

My experience as a landlord illustrates the challenge of electrifying everything — and points to ways to improve the system.

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This guest essay is by Andrew Campbell, the executive director of the Energy Institute at Berkeley Haas.

Go for a walk in a dense urban area like where I live in Oakland, and you’ll probably come across tangled tendrils of extension cords winding across the sidewalk to reach parked electric vehicles. This shows the need for more and better access to smart, effectively located vehicle charging. Renters are especially likely to be overlooked when it comes to charging, and this could be hurting electric-vehicle adoption.

UC Berkeley business and technology professor Lucas Davis has found that in California, homeowners are three times more likely to own an electric vehicle than renters. Even comparing homeowners and renters with similar incomes, renters are much less likely to own electric vehicles. My own recent experience as a landlord trying to provide electric charging shows how hard closing this gap will be — but it also suggests potential policy responses.

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An opportunity to add vehicle charging

My partner and I own a duplex built in 1940 that we have rented out to tenants since our family outgrew the two-bedroom units. Each apartment has an assigned parking spot in a garage, something not available to many apartment dwellers in urban areas. Our current tenants do not have electric vehicles, but if they did, they would need to make do with a standard 110-volt wall plug, which can provide only 2 to 4 miles’ worth of charge per hour. This sort of outlet is better suited to charging an electric bicycle than an electric car.

We recently decided to update our duplex’s electric system. This led us to ask whether now is the right time to add electric-vehicle charging capabilities too. Would this be a wise investment?

None of our tenants drive an electric vehicle today. When asked, one said they might get one in the future, but this is not certain. Even if none of the current crop of tenants decide to get an electric vehicle, perhaps offering EV charging would be attractive to future tenants and allow us to charge higher rents. More and more apartment ads in our area list EV charging as an amenity, suggesting that other building owners see an opportunity here.

We also considered where EV charging policy is headed. California Governor Newsom wants to eliminate the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and the federal government plans to strengthen vehicle fuel economy standards.

We decided it might be a good time to get our building ready for the influx of cars that will need charging. But soon after our initial conversations with electricians and the local electric utility, these plans started going off the rails.

How a simple project can become complex

The first thing we learned was that the size of each apartment’s electrical panel, and the electric service to the property as a whole, was insufficient to accommodate EV charging. 

However, by upgrading the electrical panels, we would trigger the imposition of the latest electrical codes and utility rules. In our case, this would mean the electrical panels and meters would need to be moved to the opposite side of the building to be more accessible to workers for everyday maintenance and emergencies. House wires would also need to be rerouted to the new location, and the utility would need to move its point of connection closer to the new meter location. The costs of the project were already growing exponentially.

The utility would then need to determine whether our street’s distribution circuit has the capacity to accommodate the increased demand. If not, the utility would need to design and implement a project to increase grid capacity. There is a complicated set of rules under which we might have to shoulder the costs of upgrades made to the neighborhood’s electrical system. This adds the possibility of substantially more costs, plus the potential for delay.

In other words, we were suddenly faced with a large, complex project that may not pay off for us as property owners.

Maybe our property is an unusually challenging one, but there is a lot of older housing stock in the U.S. Nearly half of all U.S. housing units were built before 1980, much of it in cities with even older underlying infrastructure. 

Convincing landlords to invest

Our experience points to several possible approaches government and utilities could take to better motivate landlords, and homeowners more generally, to invest in EV charging equipment.

Of course, I could suggest throwing money at the problem by offering subsidies to landlords. However, the benefits may flow primarily to higher-income property owners with higher-income tenants, following the overarching pattern of EV incentives, and this raises equity concerns. The aggregate cost of a large-scale incentive policy could also be very high. For example, UC Davis researchers Erich Muehlegger and David Rapson found that while incentives for EV purchases do increase adoption, the aggregate cost of transforming the vehicle fleet by offering incentives is surprisingly high. Before racing down the path of incentives, I would want to see some randomized, controlled trials to determine whether this is likely to be a sustainable approach.

There could be other policy levers, however.

Bringing older properties into full compliance with current codes and standards raises the costs of projects. Governments could allow building-code holidays” for EV-driven upgrades during which the requirements for full code compliance are temporarily set aside. Utilities and their regulators could do the same for the rules they administer. Older properties of all kinds, whether owner- or renter-occupied, would benefit.

Coordination between utilities, electricians and owners could also be improved in ways that lower costs, risks and delays. Today, utilities perform one-off studies each time a building owner considers an upgrade. Instead, they could perform proactive analyses of excess capacity on circuits and communicate the available capacity to homeowners with properties connected to the circuit. When new capacity is added, this could also be communicated to connected households, similar to how internet providers in my area have marketed the availability of faster internet speeds when they make local improvements.

Armed with this information, homeowners might be more motivated to take advantage of the accelerated approval process. Electricians could target their marketing in this manner as well. A utility could even gauge interest in expanded capacity on a particular circuit by inviting building owners in the area to sign up to indicate their interest in advance, similar to the open season” process that natural-gas pipeline companies employ before building a new pipeline. This improved coordination could benefit both owner- and renter-occupied housing.

Ultimately, I expect demand from tenants will be the most important motivator for landlords. EVs still make up only 2 percent of the vehicle fleet in EV-happy California, so it is not surprising that property owners are taking their time when it comes to equipment installations and upgrades. As EVs become more common, more landlords will be driven to invest in vehicle charging.

A version of this article was published at the Energy Institute at Berkeley Haas’ blog. Keep up to date with the Energy Institute on Twitter at @energyathaas.

Andrew Campbell is the executive director of the Energy Institute at Berkeley Haas.