As the Biden administration puts the federal government’s muscle behind widespread electrification, one fact has becoming increasingly clear: The electric vehicle revolution is coming. But states have a lot of catching up to do if they want to make sure everyone is included, a new report shows.
The report, released Wednesday by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, takes a wholesale look at how utilities are preparing to make sure that low- and medium-income households and communities of color can come along for the ride as electrification takes hold. The report examines transportation electrifications plans from utilities across the country to see which areas are preparing to bring diverse communities along with the new wave of electric vehicles—and which regions may be underprepared.
“Most states are understanding that transportation electrification is the future, but with equity, they’re a little more behind,” said Peter Huether, ACEEE’s senior research analyst for transportation and the report’s author. “There’s hindrances for low-income communities and communities of color to access charging because of unique challenges they face. If everyone lived in a single family home with off-street parking in a garage, it’d be an easy nut to crack—you just maybe need to add some subsidies. But because of the complexity in terms of the transportation needs, the housing situation these [communities] are in—that makes it extra complicated.”
Like supermarkets with fresh food, bike lanes, and subway stops, urban and suburban infrastructure that is intended to improve everyone’s life often only gets distributed in wealthy areas—and there’s no reason to think that electric vehicles will be any different, absent intervention. Chicago provides a valuable example: In 2018, data shows that 70% of the city’s public charging stations were located in just three communities on the North Side, whose residents are predominantly white and wealthy. Meanwhile, more than half of the city’s neighborhoods had no charging stations at all. Another nationwide study found that the 20 zip codes with the most electric vehicle chargers in the U.S. had a median home price of nearly $800,000.
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Electric vehicles are currently more expensive than gas-powered cars and have steep up front costs, which has traditionally locked lower-income communities out of ownership. But as these costs decline and electric vehicles become more affordable, there’s a chance that private companies could still think that only wealthy people will buy electric cars and neglect to invest in charging infrastructure in other neighborhoods. Other investments that could benefit low-income communities—like installing chargers in multiple-unit buildings, which are more expensive than installing a single charger in a house, or making moves to electrify buses—will need state, city, and utility cooperation.
“If you’re not tackling these kinds of issues head-on now, especially during the planning stages for a lot of these utilities, we’re going to have a point where in five to 10 years, electric vehicles are going to be relatively affordable and everywhere, but for other reasons, low-income communities and communities of color are not going to have the same number of chargers per person as wealthier communities,” Huether said.
There are some (perhaps unsurprising) state leaders working to fix this problem. California—the state with far and away the most electric vehicles—and New York are leading the pack nationally. The former requires that 35% of utility investment in charging go to underserved communities, while New York’s Public Service Commission ordered utilities to invest in charging in underserved areas. The report singles out three further case studies of successful and diverse efforts from three utilities—National Grid, Puget Sound Energy, and Seattle City Light—to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure in varied communities and/or engage in conversation with communities about bringing them in.
Unfortunately, these are just the standouts. The report found that of the 36 states it evaluated, only 6 had made some sort of mandate for utilities to invest in electric vehicle charging in lower-income communities or communities of color. Meanwhile, only 31 of the 61 regulator-approved plans from utilities made mention of efforts of community engagement on getting electric vehicles into lower-income areas. The bar isn’t exactly high for what counts as a community engagement effort; the study counted “posting a website” as a satisfactory example of a utility doing community outreach.
For utilities that have made no headway in factoring in equity, Huether recommends two big areas: earmarking money and talking to people.
“Saying x percentage of money should go to communities is a good baseline,” he said. “But we also encourage people to think more holistically and involve communities.”