The number of U.S. electric vehicles is expected to skyrocket in the coming decades. But how are cities and utilities preparing for that influx?
In a two-part special report, Utility Dive and Smart Cities Dive explore that question from both the urban planning and power sector perspectives. Read our Deep Dive on the utility perspective here.
As environment and transportation goals drive cities to foster the growth of electric vehicles (EVs), they face a major challenge in ensuring there is enough charging infrastructure to meet demand.
Cities have looked to legislation, new building codes and partnerships with businesses and public utilities to encourage EV use and build out infrastructure, however concerns like range anxiety linger. Experts say cities need a wide-ranging strategy if they are to help more residents go electric in a way that is accessible and equitable.
"If we want EVs to succeed, they have got to be available to all Americans," Rep. Paul Tonko, D-NY, said at an event celebrating the rollout of 1 million EVs in the U.S. hosted by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) last year.
The most direct way cities have flexed their planning muscles in the preparation and expansion of EV infrastructure has been through legislation. That includes beefing up building codes and emphasizing the need to use renewable energy sources for charging, as well as new laws that deal with EVs directly.
Such plans can start relatively small. Spokane, WA last year moved to waive the building and construction permit fees for new EV charging stations and solar panels. Permit fees for the charging stations are typically around $50, and while the change may seem small financially, it could make a big difference by encouraging more infrastructure installation.
Elsewhere, the push for more charging infrastructure has been brought into a push to modernize building codes.
Berkeley, CA passed a historic law in July banning the use of natural gas in new low-rise residential buildings, beginning Jan. 1, 2020. That legislation also requires that all new buildings in Berkeley be "electric-ready," with proper solar panels and wiring conduits to support electric infrastructure.
The mandated preparations for electrification will be significant with more EVs coming online, as previously such panels sometimes haven’t been big enough to support EV charging.
"We don't want to have to adapt later," Councilmember Kate Harrison said before the vote on the new law. "We want to make sure that as they're built, they're ready to take on the challenge of being electrified."
It is a similar story in San Jose, CA, which became the biggest U.S. city to ban natural gas infrastructure from being installed in many new residential buildings. It also requires all new multi-family buildings to have 70% electric vehicle (EV) capable parking spaces, at least 20% EV ready spaces and at least 10% EV supply equipment spaces.
"[We] try to educate the public and really get around that range anxiety issue that is probably still the number one reason the average consumer is not putting the EV higher on their shopping list."
President, Ricart car dealership
In a statement for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) after the San Jose City Council’s vote, Maria Stamas, western director for energy affordability, and Pierre Delforge, senior scientist for building decarbonization at the Climate & Clean Energy Program, said the new law means more visible and available charging infrastructure, and "even more San José residents will have the opportunity to purchase EVs and easily fuel them."
EV-specific ordinances are also seeing more emphasis in cities across the U.S. Atlanta passed an "EV ready" ordinance in 2017 that requires all new homes and parking structures to be wired for EV charging.
In Seattle, elected officials passed a series of EV readiness standards requiring that a certain number of parking spaces at new buildings have wiring and outlets for EV charging. In a statement when the package passed, Mayor Jenny Durkan said it is "significantly more cost efficient to include EV infrastructure in construction from the start."
Before the Seattle City Council voted on the legislation, Councilmember Mike O'Brien said cities are creating a race to the top with these EV-related laws, and it should push others to do the same or go even further.
"It builds on what other jurisdictions have done, takes the strongest parts of various cities and combines it," O’Brien said.
It is not just legislation that is helping cities plan and prepare for the growth in EV charging infrastructure, but also their partnerships with businesses and utilities. But as EV rollout enters a new phase in the coming years, experts acknowledged even more must be done, especially as cities bid to further cut emissions.
For Columbus, OH, rolling out greater numbers of EVs and charging infrastructure has been part of its broader smart city strategy, which got a shot in the arm when the city won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) inaugural Smart City Challenge. The city has a target of introducing 300 EVs in its public fleet by 2020.
Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus, which oversees the city's smart city initiatives, said Columbus has been deliberate about partnering with its utility, American Electric Power (AEP). AEP had a pilot approved by the Ohio Public Utilities Commission to participate in growing EV infrastructure, and Smart Columbus and AEP have about $9 million they are investing in charging infrastructure around the region.
"At many electric charging stations that you see in malls and certain public places, they're still having to work around getting people off the chargers."
President, Rickart car dealerhip
"We believe that utilities are the foundational backbone to supporting the growth of electrification with the charging infrastructure and being able to modernize the grid to balance demand, as you would think that there's going to be an increase of demand on the load," Davis told Smart Cities Dive.
Partnerships with utilities are important for cities as they plan for and roll out more charging infrastructure. A September 2019 report from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) warned that city grids could be overwhelmed by the influx of charging stations if local governments do not effectively partner with utilities.
City Actions to Address Electric Vehicles
Beyond that, Smart Columbus has looked to engage with the private sector, offering incentives to encourage greater build-out of EV infrastructure. The organization, a public-private partnership (P3), offers financial incentives to apartment and condo developers to install EV charging stations, and awarded $30,000 to the Columbus Yellow Cab taxi firm to help electrify its fleet. In addition, Smart Columbus has made $90,000 available in incentive funding to help ride-hailing drivers and fleet managers electrify.
Columbus Yellow Cab now has 10 Tesla Model 3s and 10 Chevrolet Bolts in its 175-vehicle fleet, with plans for more. CEO Morgan Kauffman told Smart Cities Dive that electrification will save 70.42 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, the equivalent of the energy generation of eight single-family homes. Taxis around the world are electrifying, and Kauffman said there is a lot to learn.
"It's been a wonderful community to connect with, because in this early stage of change, everyone is willing to help each other," he told Smart Cities Dive. "We're trying to cover a lot of ground in a very short period of time, and the only way we've learned is through collaboration."
"I think we've been successful in this first wave of focused investment, but similar to everything you're hearing, it's not going to get us much further. We have to continue that investment and continue to figure out how we build it out."
Director, Smart Columbus
For Columbus, Davis said its efforts so far reflect a start, but more work will be needed to continue fostering growth. She said that has started already, as Smart Columbus is engaging again with its various stakeholders and working with them to figure out how to move the ball forward even more. With the continued impact of climate change and a desire to cut emissions deeper, Davis said it is incumbent on city leaders to find ways to continually raise the bar.
"We've tried to take a really comprehensive approach," Davis said. "I think we've been successful in this first wave of focused investment, but similar to everything you're hearing, it's not going to get us much further. We have to continue that investment and continue to figure out how we build it out."
As cities have taken steps to prepare for more EV infrastructure through legislation, incentives and partnerships, they have also invested in educating the general public to make electrification and its benefits easier to understand. It can be tricky to overcome range anxiety and ensure people don't hog chargers, but work is underway to shift that thinking.
Cities can partner with car dealers to educate consumers on the benefits of EVs as part of the drive to encourage wider adoption. Smart Columbus has around 30 of the Central Ohio region's car dealerships certified as EV dealers, which requires them to install charging infrastructure, have a constant pipeline of EVs available and have sales associates trained not only about the vehicles but also about what it is like to own an EV in the city.
"[We] try to educate the public and really get around that range anxiety issue that is probably still the number one reason the average consumer is not putting the EV higher on their shopping list," Rick Ricart, president at the Ricart car dealership in Columbus, OH, told Smart Cities Dive. "People are worried about trying to get everything they need to do done and go everywhere they need to go on a single charge."
Those partnerships go beyond education, too. They also extend to incentivizing developers to add charging infrastructure when they build new commercial buildings or houses. It is particularly important in the residential sector, both for new homes and any that are retrofitted, but it also presents an opportunity in workplaces. Some businesses may install charging at their employee parking lots for use during the week, then those lots might be open for public use on the weekend, potentially welcoming more users.
"There's many examples of folks that will quote that the primary reason that they bought an EV is because they either have priority access to parking or in some cases priority access to the HOV lanes that allows them to mitigate some of their congestion woes."
Manager, Rocky Mountain Institute's Mobility Transformation Program
But then, the education piece must include encouraging EV users to vacate a public charger once their battery is full, something that may be easier said than done.
"At many electric charging stations that you see in malls and certain public places, they're still having to work around getting people off the chargers," Ricart said. "Once the car is charged, how are they going to make sure that car is not just sitting and taking up that parking space for eight hours when somebody else really needs that charge."
Part of that education and planning piece for cities should be finding ways to make it convenient and beneficial to use an EV, in addition to providing easy access to charging, Ricart said. At the state level, California was something of a pioneer by being the first to allow certain plug-in hybrid, alternative fuel, and clean-air vehicles with one occupant in its high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, while some cities that already have congestion pricing exempt those vehicles from paying a charge.
"There's many examples of folks that will quote that the primary reason that they bought an EV is because they either have priority access to parking or in some cases priority access to the HOV lanes that allows them to mitigate some of their congestion woes," Garrett Fitzgerald, a manager in RMI's Mobility Transformation program, told Smart Cities Dive.
Fitzgerald noted that schemes such as those should be managed to make sure they do not just benefit the wealthiest who can afford an EV. He said cities can also support the deployment of more charging infrastructure through minor adjustments, like giving it access to premium real estate and creating signage that gives it more visibility.
"Having that infrastructure is one thing but having the EV owners and the potential EV owners see that this is there, it's been very well documented that it eases that challenge," Fitzgerald said.