It is understandable if you’ve never heard of EV charging equity, at least by that name. Unfortunately, unless something changes trajectory, EV charging equity is likely to become a defining line between socioeconomic classes for a generation.
In short, when it comes to EV charging, there’s no place like home.
The Nitty Gritty Details of EV Charging Equity
Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said, Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. The stage is being set right now for a huge transition to electric vehicles. Governments around the world have set dates beyond which all new passenger vehicle sales must be zero emissions; in California, it’s 2035. In response, auto manufacturers are investing billions in battery plants. All the while, left-leaning politicians and nonpartisan bureaucrats are thinking about the necessary infrastructure using last century’s thinking, which, not unlike global warming, is a colossal problem unfolding on a glacial time scale.
Where is the Puck Going?
Think of EV charging in the following way. A smartphone is a pretty convenient aspect of modern life, isn’t it? And you likely have a place to charge yours. Probably several places. You just plug it in when it gets low on power—it’s as thoughtless as breathing.
How would your smartphone experience change if every time your phone got low on power, you had to take it somewhere special to charge it? Even if that special phone-charging place was just down the street, doing it every day or even every third day would quickly become a dreaded chore. This will become a reality for millions of EV owners unless we stop applying last century’s thinking to today’s evolving charging infrastructure problem.
That “last century’s thinking” has a name—the gas station model. Your EV gets low on charge and you need to go someplace to charge it, which can take 20 to 90 minutes depending on various factors like what car you have, what charger you are using, and how much charge you need. The gas station model contrasts sharply with plugging in your car when you pull into your garage, then waking up to a full charge in the morning. That contrast is the root of the problem in EV infrastructure policy. For those that haven’t experienced it, the simplicity of waking every morning to a “full tank” can’t be overstated.
If EV charging is a continuum, the two extremes could be described as “slow and at home” (destination) and “fast and on the road” (transit). Less than 10% of all charging is transit charging, and yet it gets an outsized amount of attention not only from the media, but also from policymakers and government budgets that allocate funding for EV charging infrastructure.
Make no mistake, transit charging is crucial to the electric vehicle experience, even if it only makes up 10% of all charging. But the infrastructure that supports transit charging (DCFC) isn’t the solution to “the other 90% of the problem” –despite policymakers hoping otherwise.
The current trend (pun intended) is to make transit charging (known as DC fast charging or DCFC) the preferred solution for “the other 90% of charging?” That’s because policymakers are applying last century’s thinking (i.e., the gas station model) to EV charging.
The Puck Stops Here
Destination charging makes up 90% of all charging. The most obvious charging destination is your home, but other notable destinations could be your workplace, grandma’s house, the train station, and so forth. Destination charging is best served by slower Level 2 (or, in some cases, the even slower Level 1 option). In this scenario, charging speed isn’t important because parking at destinations tends to be several hours, overnight, or even days. What does Level 1 & 2 charging have going for it compared to DCFC? It has a far lower cost of installation. And when charging stations are installed during initial construction, the costs are insignificant when compared to the rest of the structure.
Not having a destination of your own to charge at is effectively a tax for any EV driver as they fall back to DCFC for their everyday charging needs. This unintended tax is not only a tax of money but also on time. Is it little wonder, then, that according to the California Energy Commission, over 85% of EV owners live in single-family homes?
Wealthy EV drivers can essentially buy their own destination, typically their own home, and install EV charging at their own discretion. But 31% of American families can’t do that as they do not “own” their home. By only deploying DCFC for those EV drivers who don’t have a destination charger to call their own, policymakers are unwittingly creating an EV tax by forfeiting two very large benefits from driving electric for millions of would-be EV drivers: cost and convenience. This unwitting tax is a small problem today, but the impacts of that tax will be profound for disadvantaged communities in two decades’ time when the sale of gas-powered cars ceases. This is the colossal problem unfolding on a glacial time scale that I previously referred to.
After convenience, the next bestselling point to driving an EV is lower cost. Charging your car at home, depending on your utility rates, can be 50% to 70% less than covering the same number of miles with gasoline. Both of these compelling features of driving electric are forfeited when drivers must rely on a local DCFC once or twice a week.
Higher costs may not be obvious when using DCFC vis-a-vis charging at home. Think of it this way—when charging at home, you’re paying a retail price for energy. When charging at a DCFC, you’re not only paying for energy, you’re paying for the access to it, and with that comes the cost of the network, touch labor to keep it maintained, the real estate that the parking space is consuming, and so forth, not to mention profit for the network. Unless the cost of using DCFC is subsidized by some third party, good ol’ capitalism will guarantee it will be more expensive than charging at home. According to NerdWallet, charging at a public DCFC can be more than 10x more costly than adding the same miles at home.
So then, where is the puck going? Where has it been? Simply put, we cannot continue to use last century’s thinking (the gas station model) to solve our 21st-century needs. Continuing to build multi-family homes without access to EV charging is simply building out tomorrow’s retrofits.
EV charging at your destination, wherever that may be, is the oxygen of EV adoption, and plugging in should be as thoughtless as breathing.
What Can I Do to Support EV Charging Equity?
There are organizations that lobby for EV charging equity. Two big ones are Plug In America and the Electric Vehicle Association. Join one of them and get involved. These organizations do lots of work involving EV adoption. In my view, one of the most critical issues they work on evolves around trying to change building codes so that new Multi-Family Housing will install the appropriate infrastructure at the time the building is built, because retrofitting can be up to eight times the cost of installation during initial construction.
Next week we’ll tackle the issue: “Help! My car won’t charge!”