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Wait, So Where Will Urbanites Charge Their EVs?

So you’ve got a nice house with a garage where you can charge your electric vehicle—you’re living in the future. You’re also—sorry!—far from original: 90 percent of US EV owners have their own garages. But woe to the urbanites. Chargers built into apartment parking lots are few and far between. And as if parking in a city isn’t nightmarish enough, competition for plug-friendly street spots leaves EVs stranded from the electricity that gives them life. Could you hack into the power lines above and snake a cord into your Tesla? Sure, if you prefer your biology extra crispy. But a better way is coming, because smart people are working to bring power to thirsty urban EVs.

That’s good news, because transforming smoggy cities’ vehicles into electric ones is going to be an important part of any plan to stave off further climate change. But convincing urban dwellers to pony up for EVs is tough. Even those who have gotten over anxieties about battery ranges will find there aren’t many places to charge them. Someone’s going to have to fix that, says Dave Mullaney, who studies electrification as the principal of the Carbon-Free Mobility team at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability-focused research organization. “What’s pretty clear right now is that electric vehicles are coming, and they are quickly going to saturate the market of wealthy people with garages,” he says. “They need to expand beyond that.”

So the goal is clear: Build more chargers. But in dense places, the eternal question is, where? And how to guarantee that they will not only be accessible, but cheap enough for anyone to use them? 

“I’m not sure there's a one-size-fits-all strategy,” said Polly Trottenberg, the US deputy secretary of transportation, during a media call Thursday. She would know: Trottenberg was, until recently, head of the Transportation Department in New York City, where she oversaw her fair share of EV charging experiments. At least money is on the way to help cities figure it out. The federal infrastructure bill contained $7.5 billion to support hundreds of thousands more public charging stations. States including California—which has pledged to stop selling new gas-powered cars by 2035—also have programs dedicated to building more chargers.

Whatever the strategy, though, cracking the problem is vital if cities—and the feds—want to stick to bigger goals for improving equity, accessibility, and racial justice, which many politicians have named as priorities. After all, low-income folks can’t switch from traditional cars to electric ones until they have abundant access to affordable charging infrastructure. The capitalist temptation would be to let private companies battle to see who can put more chargers in more places. But that risks creating charging deserts, the way the US already has food deserts, poor neighborhoods where grocery chains don’t bother setting up shop. Public schools in the US have a similar structural inequality: The higher the tax base, the better the local education. And since the still-nascent charging business is actually pretty bleak right now, the government will likely need to keep directing resources or subsidies to low-income communities to make sure they’re included once the EV economy booms.

Making charging a taxpayer-funded public good, not another corporate cash grab, could help encourage the adoption of EVs in low-income urban neighborhoods—they might even be powered with community-owned solar arrays. Pulling gas-powered cars off the road will improve local air quality, which is far worse for the poor and people of color. And installing chargers in under-resourced communities will be especially important because buyers in these areas might be more likely to own used EVs with old batteries that don’t get the optimal range, so they’ll need more consistent charging. 

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But getting buy-in from residents in those places will be critical, because communities of color have grown accustomed to “neutral or benign neglect and sometimes even directly malignant [transportation] policy decisions,” says Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, the clean transportation consultant at GreenLatinos, a nonprofit. For communities unfamiliar with EVs, who might depend on gas stations or conventional auto repair shops for jobs, the sudden appearance of chargers could look like a harbinger of gentrification, she says—a physical sign that they are being replaced. 

Some urban areas are already experimenting with new charging strategies, each with their up- and downsides. Big cities like Los Angeles and New York City, and smaller ones like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Portland, Oregon, have swiped bright ideas from Europe and are installing chargers next to streetside spots, sometimes even on street lights. These are often cheaper to put in, because the space or pole is likely to be owned by a local utility or city, and the necessary wiring is already there. They also can be easier for drivers to access than even a charger at a gas station: Just park, plug, and walk away. 

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But streetside charging comes with plenty of challenges. For one, these kinds of chargers are generally slow, taking anywhere between three and eight hours to fully “top up” an EV. They’re also subject to the delightful randomness that makes up city life—if too many trucks, motorcycles, or sedans are parked on the block, the EV won’t be able to line up with the available charger. Then there’s the ICE-ing issue: That’s what EV drivers call it when a car with a regular old internal combustion engine hogs their charging spot. “On-street parking is definitely a challenge,” says Anne Smart, the vice president of public policy at ChargePoint, a company that builds and installs electric vehicle chargers. “We’ve found the parking lots create a better charging experience.” Her company, along with other US-based ones like Greenlots and Electrify America, have struck deals with urban malls and shopping centers to build chargers outside stores.   Still, it’s most convenient for people to charge at home. But renters and condo owners have little guarantee that their next place will have a charger, which makes it harder for them to pull the trigger on an EV. So lots of cities and states are working through how to convince apartment developers and managers to buy into the unfamiliar and expensive process of installing them. Los Angeles is offering rebates for managers who put charging stations into their apartment lots, and it is updating its building codes to require chargers in new construction. “Los Angeles is a city of renters more than anything else, so we have to be really conscious of that potential tension and the solutions we have to offer,” says Lauren Faber O'Connor, the city’s chief sustainability officer. 

Another option is to convert gas stations to provide electricity instead. These spaces would provide a faster type of charger for drivers who need quicker boosts. (They also tend to be more expensive to install and use.) “The challenge now is, can you have enough of these major charging stations that dispense electricity at a high rate?” asks Michael Kintner-Meyer, a research engineer and systems analyst at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who studies the power grid.

Revel, a company that runs fleets of electric mopeds and ride-hailing vehicles, is going after a slightly different charging strategy. In Brooklyn, the company built a “superhub”—basically an empty parking lot with 25 fast chargers. (Other companies have undertaken similar projects in European and Chinese cities.) The sheer number of chargers should guarantee that drivers will be able to charge when they want, says Paul Suhey, Revel’s chief operating officer. Finding new spaces for these hubs in a space-constrained area like New York City will always be a challenge, but Suhey says Revel plans to stay flexible, considering parking garages and lots near big shopping centers. “The first and most important constraint is the grid,” he says. “That really drives everything we do.”

Indeed, the charging dilemma goes far beyond the plug. You have to consider the power grid too. Utilities maintain a balance of supply and demand by generating about as much electricity as is being used. With fossil fuels that’s easy enough: If demand spikes, power plants can burn more fuel. But renewables complicate matters because their sources are intermittent—the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Even worse, peak demand is usually in the early evening when people return home and turn on appliances and plug in EVs, right as the sun is setting

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EVs could help steady the demand. With better distribution of charging infrastructure, some owners will still charge their cars at home overnight, but some might charge them at work, in a parking lot covered with solar panels. Others will plug in at the grocery store or what used to be a gas station. This would more evenly distribute the temporal demand, particularly by pushing it into daylight hours when there’s more solar power in the grid.

And in return, EVs can become on-demand batteries for the grid to tap into. Say 100 cars are sitting in a company parking lot overnight, fully charged. Demand spikes a few miles across town—but it’s dark, so solar energy isn’t available. Instead, power could flow from those plugged-in EVs to where it’s needed. 

Individual charged-up cars could even chip in to support the grid in an emergency, like the power failure that followed last winter’s Texas freeze. “They could become together like a virtual power plant,” says Patricia Hidalgo-Gonzalez, director of the Renewable Energy and Advanced Mathematics Laboratory at UC San Diego. “They could actually provide this backup that we have during all hours of the day, ready to kick in whenever the grid needs that type of support.”

If grid operators can exploit idle EVs, they won’t have to spend so much money on batteries to store emergency power. “We could see up to 30 percent savings in the total cost of operating the electricity grid,” says Hidalgo-Gonzalez. “So that's quite dramatic. That would save us from having to install massive amounts of storage, if we can leverage the storage that we have in electric vehicles.”

Of course, what might be best of all for the grid—and for city residents—is less demand for electricity altogether. Better charging infrastructure will encourage better air quality; after all, EVs don’t spew carbon and particulates. But putting every resident in their own car isn’t great either. It worsens traffic congestion, is dangerous for pedestrians, and undercuts the demand for public transit. But maybe you don’t have to own an EV to enjoy one. Kintner-Meyer, for example, envisions ride-hail companies that include electric vehicles, which might be parked in central urban lots, where they charge via solar panels until they are picked up by a driver or deployed autonomously. (In fact, Uber and Lyft have pledged to transition to electric by the end of the decade—and some governments are requiring they do so.) Another option: electrify the buses and trains, and convince urbanites to ditch private cars altogether. “Public transportation is the other side of the coin,” says Faber O’Connor, the LA official. The city’s transit agency has converted one line to all-electric buses, and it plans to operate only zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Get urbanites to hop on the (electric) bus, and they won’t have to worry about charging at all.


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