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How to build an equitable electric vehicle infrastructure

Tips on meeting the electric transportation needs of underserved communities, from high-level analysis to on-the-ground experience.

Jeff St. John
Jeff St. John
7 min read
How to build an equitable electric vehicle infrastructure

The “chicken-and-egg” problem for electric vehicles is pretty well defined: People won’t buy EVs without enough charging stations on the road to allay their “range anxiety,” but more EVs need to be on the road before chargers can be profitable.

For low-income and disadvantaged communities, this chicken-and-egg problem is multiplied by lack of capital to buy EVs and lack of investment in the infrastructure to support them.

At the same time, disadvantaged communities and communities of color have been overburdened with the harms of our fossil-fueled infrastructure, from neighborhood-destroying highways to disproportionate levels of pollution from diesel-powered vehicles.

The billions of dollars in local, state and, soon enough, federal government funding aimed at boosting electric transport will have to deal with this legacy to ensure that the benefits of EVs are equitably shared. And while some states and utilities are directing big chunks of EV spending toward this goal, there’s still a long way to go — and there's a significant “risk that some communities will be left behind.”

So says Peter Huether, senior transportation research analyst for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the author of a new report on the subject. Of the roughly $2.4 billion in EV charging investments and incentives approved by utility commissions in 25 states and the District of Columbia — a figure that’s rising rapidly as new programs are being added — about $2.1 billion have some focus on underserved communities.

But of that amount, the percentages designated for actual investments in underserved communities vary from program to program and state to state, he said. Using data from Atlas Public Policy’s EV Hub, Huether identified at least $646 million that is earmarked for charging in underserved communities, or enough to support about 2,300 direct-current fast-charging ports, more than 21,000 medium- and heavy-duty EV charging ports, and more than 180,000 Level 2 charging ports.

The vast majority of these are in California and New York, the two states leading EV investments overall. Of the EV spending from California investor-owned utilities and the California Energy Commission aimed at allowing the state to end sales of fossil-fueled cars by 2035 and trucks by 2045, about half is targeted at low-income and disadvantaged communities. About one-fourth of New York’s $750 million in EV charging infrastructure spending, part of the state’s goal of zeroing out its carbon footprint by 2040, is aimed at low-income communities.

Other states including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon have passed laws or utility commission orders focused on EV charging for disadvantaged communities. In January, Colorado regulators approved Xcel Energy’s $110 million plan, which includes $22 million for underserved communities.

But as more and more states seek to bolster EV adoption in disadvantaged communities — and as the Biden administration presses ahead with an infrastructure plan that includes $174 billion in EV spending — “community engagement is really a crucial issue,” Huether said. “A lot of these communities have unique needs, both for transportation and for pollution abatement. It’s really important to engage with those communities to make sure you know what they need, and not just assume what they need.”

EV charging systems to serve communities and build human capital

Consider the challenge of EV charging for low-income residents of multifamily housing. A lot of the utility-led EV infrastructure investments in California and New York are focused on apartments that lack garages and can face higher infrastructure costs to support heavy charging loads. But beyond the cost of installing chargers, there are also the costs of and barriers to using them to take into account.

“We’re expecting 5 million people to be driving EVs in nine years [from now]” in California, said Paul Francis, CEO of KIGT, a Los Angeles-based maker of EV charging systems that are deployed across Southern California, including in disadvantaged neighborhoods. But the biggest public EV charging networks require drivers to have bank accounts in order to sign up for membership plans that allow them to use the stations.

In underserved communities, “there’s more than a handful of folks who are unbanked,” he said. “Can you imagine going to a gas station and someone telling you, 'You need a bank account'?”

KIGT’s chargers come with credit card swipe devices to get around this problem, along with mobile pay and touchscreen display options that can be set up to offer free charging for tenants of low-income housing or to support the use of electronic benefit transfer cards, he said. The startup, backed by about $600,000 in funding from angel investors and the Elemental Excelerator, is also offering homeowners a miniaturized charging station for as low as $99 upfront.

Keeping EV chargers up and running is another challenge. Unlike gas stations with attendants and access to maintenance staff, EV chargers are mostly in garages or business and workplace parking lots, and equipment or software glitches that take them offline can go unfixed for weeks at a time.

Kameale C. Terry experienced this problem firsthand while working as program director for charging station software vendor EV Connect. Qualified maintenance support was hard to come by, forcing her to personally drive out to stations that drivers reported as inoperable in order to diagnose the problem.

ChargerHelp, the startup Terry co-founded with Evette Ellis, trains community workforce development program participants to service charging stations, with a focus on “opportunities to help create jobs and become more aware of the industry, through [earning] a paycheck,” she said. Last month ChargerHelp raised $2.75 million from investors including Trucks VC, Kapor Capital, JFF, Energy Impact Partners and The Fund.

EV investments in disadvantaged communities should take community needs into account, she said. “Is it structured in a way for local business owners to utilize their cap-and-trade benefits when there’s a charging station on their property? How are you getting people qualified to install the stations?”

Vic Shao, CEO of managed EV charging startup Amply, said services like those being built by ChargerHelp are urgently needed in the industry as the pace of EV infrastructure expands to meet projected need. The number of EVs on U.S. roads is expected to grow from about 2 million today to more than 18 million by 2030, which will require about 9.6 million public charging ports, according to the Edison Electric Institute utility trade group.

“We are having trouble locating qualified electricians to deploy the projects we have backlogged,” Shao said. “I think the country ought to train up and develop a lot more electricians to handle the volume of work.”

From heavy vehicles to ride-share services

Much of Amply’s work is with fleet vehicle owners like transit agencies and logistics companies trying to manage the costs of charging electric trucks and buses at multi-megawatt scale. Converting these fleets from diesel to electric will play a major role in reducing pollution in low-income communities and communities of color, which are  more likely to be close to highways, ports and truck routes.

Amply is working to electrify drayage trucks that carry cargo containers from the Port of Long Beach to distribution centers in California’s Inland Empire. Both the port and the destination of its cargo are communities listed on the state Environmental Protection Agency’s CalEnviroScreen index, which measures data on the percentage of people of color who live in the communities, along with poverty levels, asthma rates and other measures of pollution harms.

Not all the charging infrastructure to electrify those fleets needs be located in disadvantaged communities to enable the switch from diesel that can reduce those pollution harms, Huether noted. But policies that encourage investments and workforce development as part of that conversion can certainly help.

Alexis Wiley, Amply vice president of marketing, notes that California EV charging infrastructure programs that encourage fleet owners such as Amazon or FedEx — two companies with aggressive electrification goals — with increased incentive funding for sites located in disadvantaged communities could be a “model for states across the country.”

Electric buses can also yield big lifetime savings in fuel and maintenance costs if transit agencies and school districts can win financial and infrastructure support to cover the higher upfront costs of converting to them.

Huether’s report also identified ride-share services Uber and Lyft as key electrification targets. But ChargerHelp’s Terry said it’s hard to convince ride-share drivers in disadvantaged communities to move to more expensive EVs — particularly if they’re unsure the charging they need will be available when they need it.

A growing used EV market will help reduce upfront cost burdens, she said. So will shifting EV rebates from payments after the fact to “on-the-hood” price reductions at point of sale.

But making sure there are enough charging points to refuel on the go — and that they’re working when EV drivers get there — could be a serious stumbling block, Shao said. One option might be to build charging points at airport waiting lots, where ride-share drivers tend to spend a lot of downtime, he noted.

Community involvement and ownership

ChargerHelp co-founder Evette Ellis also highlighted the importance of one of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy report’s key findings: the need to involve disadvantaged communities directly in the processes that determine how investments are being made in their name.

“How can regular folks and business owners become part of those decision-making processes? We would love to be part of them.”

Huether pointed out some utility case studies indicate how that can be done. Municipal utility Seattle City Light, for instance, worked with the city’s Department of Neighborhoods and met with more than 50 stakeholder groups, including 25 environmental justice community leaders, to help set its transportation electrification priorities. The result was a plan that prioritized charging for bus and truck fleets and ride-hailing vehicles.

Groups like Grid Alternatives and the Greenlining Institute have put together frameworks for how to embed these processes in ongoing electrification plans, Huether noted. While it can take more time to engage communities in this way, utilities can build on longstanding relationships formed in the process “to strengthen their working relationship for the future.”

KIGT’s Francis noted that the same principle informs how EV charging companies like his, or large-scale competitors including ChargePoint, EVgo, Blink or Electrify America, develop relationships and expertise to meet future market needs.

“I’m going to hire the folks in our community to install and manage the charging stations where we live,” he said. “We’ve done work in the community to do network troubleshooting,” identifying the utility infrastructure that needs to be upgraded to support rising charging loads.

“These are skill sets that will be required,” he said, as EVs proliferate from the most wealthy neighborhoods where they’re concentrated today to become a mainstream transportation option.

(Article image courtesy of KIGT)

electric vehiclesdisadvantaged communitiesenergy equityKIGTChargerHelpAmplyEV charging

Jeff St. John

Jeff St. John covers technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He is former managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.