Feb 8, 2023 - Economy

Cities race to add EV charging stations — pronto

Illustration of a lit up cityscape at sunset featuring freeways filled with streaking lights

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's been a steady drumbeat of announcements from mayors about their plans to blanket their cities with electric vehicle (EV) charging stations — and to keep equity considerations front and center when choosing sites.

The big picture: Obstacles are plentiful — from the price of urban real estate to outdated zoning rules — but momentum is high.

  • "There's a sense of urgency," Denver Mayor Michael Hancock tells Axios. "We know we've got to get this infrastructure built out."

Why it matters: Ubiquitous coverage could coax more city dwellers to buy EVs, helping reduce vehicle emissions.

  • The (stated) emphasis on placing chargers in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods could improve access not just for everyday drivers, but also for rideshare and livery workers.

Driving the news: Cities are attacking the charging-station shortage from many different angles, taking a creative patchwork of approaches.

  • They're passing new building codes and zoning rules to coax — or force — developers to install rapid-charging stations (or at least reserve space for them).
  • They're expediting the often-slow permitting process for charging-station applicants.
  • They're working with car companies (like GM and Hertz) and charging station purveyors (like EVgo and Volta) to add public chargers at minimal cost to taxpayers.
  • They're leading by example, converting municipal fleets to electric power.

Where it stands: California cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Irvine, San Jose and San Francisco are among the leaders in the number of charging stations per capita.

  • Atlanta, Austin, Kansas City (Missouri), Seattle and Boston are also out in front.

How it works: Building a charger network is a complex and multifaceted process that requires local adaptations.

  • Los Angeles has been attaching EV charging stations to streetlights — a boon to renters.
  • Seattle is installing curbside chargers, also aimed at renters.
  • Denver partnered with Hertz to jump-start the build-out of neighborhood charging stations.
  • San Diego is experimenting with solar power to charge its own EV fleet.
  • Hoboken, N.J. has a deal with Volta (which was just purchased by Shell) to install charging stalls — at no cost to the city — that can display revenue-generating digital advertising.
  • Tucson is among the growing list of cities that require certain new businesses and multi-family dwellings to provide charging stations in their parking lots.

Yes, but: Progress is uneven, and perception sometimes lags reality.

  • "There's lots going on across the country, but it can seem like a different reality, depending on what city you're in," says Alexia Melendez Martineau, policy manager at Plug In America, a nonprofit that promotes EV use.
  • Cities are focused on "rolling out these stations in an equitable manner, to try to rectify some of the historical mistakes" they've made, she tells Axios.
  • But "the lion's share of the work is still left to be done."

What they're saying: "Frankly, the state of the industry is a little bit better than people think," Jonathan Levy, chief commercial officer at charging provider EVgo, tells Axios. "We just have a lot more work to do."

  • "One of the common things that I hear is, 'Oh, there's no charging where I am,'" Levy said. "And I often say, 'well, why don't we look at the PlugShare app and see what charging is near you?'"

Reality check: Cities everywhere, particularly the most densely populated, face formidable hurdles, from recalcitrant landlords and antique infrastructure to physical constraints — like a shortage of driveways, curb space and parking lots.

  • Retrofits for EV wiring can be expensive, particularly in multi-family buildings, and urban utilities tend to be backed up with projects.
  • Most places don't have EV-specific zoning regulations — and local boards can be persnickety.
  • Many public charging stations are poorly maintained or simply don't work, per a study released by J.D. Power in August.

Follow the money: Under the 2021 infrastructure law, states are getting $5 billion in federal incentives to build out a national charging network, while cities can apply for a share of $2.5 billion in competitive grants.

  • Those grants prioritize expanding access in underserved areas.
  • An organization called Climate Mayors has formed an Electric Vehicle Purchasing Collaborative to pool officials' buying power when bidding on resources of all kinds.
  • "There’s a lot of money on the table right now, and ample opportunity to improve the quality of life for communities across the country," says Melendez Martineau of Plug In America.

The bottom line: Despite ambitious promises and a spate of new partnerships and pledges, these are still early days in the actual placement of public, operational fast-charging stations in U.S. cities — particularly in places where they can be used by people who can't afford Teslas.

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