The shift to electrified transport represents a societal and technological change on par with the industrial revolution, the New Deal and the more recent digitalization of everything. The effects will have lasting impacts on our economy and built environment. The Senate’s passing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill is a historic breakthrough in the country’s progress toward decarbonized transport, with $7.5 billion allocated to create charging stations across the country and another $7.5 billion to transition buses and other public transportation to zero-emission options. As we embark on the mission to increase electric vehicle (EV) adoption, it is incumbent upon all stakeholders leading the transition to ensure equitable access to the benefits.
LACK OF EVs HAS DISPROPORTIONATE EFFECTS
Countless studies have indicated the disproportionate impact of climate change and pollution on low-income and BIPOC communities. For example, Black Americans are 75 percent more likely than white people to live in areas near commercial facilities that produce noise, odor, traffic or emissions that directly affect the population. In the U.S., non-Hispanic white people are exposed to 17 percent less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption of goods and services, while Black and Hispanic people inhale 56 percent and 63 percent excess exposure, respectively, relative to their consumption. In the New York City borough of the Bronx, where median household income is $40,088 (compared to $86,553 in largely affluent Manhattan), hospitalizations for asthma are five times the national rate, a consequence of the proximity of four major highways. EVs would undoubtedly improve health outcomes, but there are only 17 EV charging stations for the borough’s 1.4 million residents.
While EVs are becoming more attainable to average consumers thanks to government incentives, battery innovation and used cars entering the market, access to charging stations is a major barrier. Installing home charging systems is expensive, and for moderate-to-low-income people living in apartments or affordable housing, it’s simply not an option. Consider that nearly two thirds of renters do not have a garage or carport. Currently, most EV stations are located in higher-end shopping areas that may be difficult or inconvenient to reach for middle- to lower- income consumers, because of where they are in relation to where they live, or the types of businesses that host the stations.
EXPANDED PASSENGER CHARGING IS PICKING UP SPEED
Some cities are accelerating efforts to expand charging access. A pilot project in Kansas City. Mo., is installing EV chargers on existing street lights in residential neighborhoods that anyone can pay a fee to use. Texas utility Austin Energy has leveraged government funding for an affordability program offering unlimited access to charging ports with a $4 per month subscription. For initiatives like this to be successful in creating true equity, community engagement is essential. Organizers for the Kansas City pilot held virtual community meetings and compensated the first 100 participants for their time. They presented potential charging infrastructure locations and gathered feedback on why those sites would or would not work well for community members.
It’s also important that we shift the perception of EVs as being a status symbol for eco-conscious affluent consumers. A 2017 study by the California Air Resources Board found that EV adoption increased at a faster rate in neighborhoods that saw early adoption, indicating that socioeconomic status and exposure does indeed play a role. Like with the diversity issue in tech, we need to increase representation of EV owners. A lot of this will come down to community engagement programs and automakers’ marketing campaigns, with a shift in messaging that emphasizes health, environment, financial and community benefits.
WHAT ABOUT COMMERCIAL AND PUBLIC FLEETS?
While much of the focus has been on passenger EVs, electrifying fleets will have a much greater impact on fighting climate change and mitigating the disproportionate effects on low-income and BIPOC communities. Thanks to corporate sustainability mandates and favorable total cost of ownership for EVs, the demand for medium to heavy-duty fleets will quickly surpass those of passenger vehicles. The large electrical demand required to power commercial electric fleets will stress an already overburdened grid. As such, on-site electricity generation, storage and demand-side management must be developed alongside charging stations to ensure cost-efficient, reliable and sustainable energy delivery. Compared to passenger EV charging, building this infrastructure will require a much more concerted effort from utilities, capital markets and the private sector. However, rapid development is critical to ensuring the benefits of electrification are distributed equally, which is currently not the case. Not only will installing charging stations along key highway corridors lower the emissions and pollutants in the areas where many low-income and BIPOC communities are situated, this will help increase access to EV charging in rural areas where fleets often have to drive through to reach their final destination.
The focus of financing and incentives historically directed to consumers needs to be extended to commercial businesses and municipalities, which are increasingly shifting public bus systems to electric. For instance, both LA Metro and New York City MTA, the two largest transit fleets in the country, plan to convert their systems to all-electric buses by 2030 and 2040, respectively.
Given how lower-income families often rely on public buses to get to their jobs, take their children to school and obtain essential services, expanding access to clean, affordable and reliable transportation is a pillar of an equitable society. And like commercial fleets, electric bus fleets come with complex energy needs that can only be met by the development of robust on-site energy and charging infrastructure.
With the emergence of energy-as-a-service providers focused on vehicle electrification, real estate developers, commercial fleet owners and municipalities now have feasible, low-risk options for deploying charging infrastructure at no upfront cost. This type of business model innovation and collaboration across sectors is what will unlock rapid electrification and equitable access.
SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
The technology revolution of the 1990s and early 2000s left many people behind in terms of access, employment and distribution of wealth—with ramifications the industry is still grappling with today. With the shift to electrified transport, we have the opportunity to embed equity from the start and enable a greater number of people to participate in economic development. Electrification delivers diverse employment across the value chain—including manufacturing, construction, maintenance and operations —and expands opportunities for workers in adjacent and supporting industries. Take New York, for example: a recent report projects electric transportation (ET) jobs in the state will grow 32 percent by 2024, with 882 businesses already employing 4,200 ET-related jobs in 61 counties. Thankfully, the Biden Administration is putting forth policies aimed at supporting domestic clean-energy jobs, strengthening America’s EV supply chain and increasing penetration of renewables. But it’s also up to utilities, the private sector, local governments and advocacy groups to ensure that we’re deploying the appropriate financing models, messaging and engagement programs with equity at its core.