Nearly half of Californians live in multi-family housing, but only 18% of chargers are located there

Sep 28, 2020, Forbes, Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology, Amanda Myers

Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order requiring the exclusive sale of zero-emission passenger vehicles (ZEVs) starting in 2035. This executive order raises the state’s ambition to reduce transportation emissions and other harmful pollutants, but the state will likely miss this goal unless all Californians can gain access to electric vehicle (EV) charging.

As it stands, few people in apartments or condominiums can access EV charging. Roughly 90% of California’s chargers are located at homes overall, but as few as 18% are located at multi-unit dwellings (MUDs). Nearly 50% of Californians live in MUDs, meaning the state urgently needs policies to scale EV charging access to all residents.

Energy Innovation modeling found if California is on track to reach the 100% light-duty ZEV sales target in 2035, it will have 9 million passenger battery electric vehicles on the road by 2030. These ZEVs will cumulatively reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 42 million metric tons by 2030, with even larger climate benefits as the state reaches the 100% sales target in 2035, setting the path to a 100% ZEV fleet by 2050.

Transportation electrification is also a vital public health protection; a recent American Lung Association report found $22 billion in annual public health benefits via widespread transportation electrification across California.

Transportation electrification is critical to solving climate change and protecting public health. The question is no longer if and when we will reach 100% light-duty ZEV sales, but how. One key question is how we can build enough EV charging infrastructure to support this new state goal, particularly among historically underserved markets.

Why California needs to crack the code on MUD EV charging

California’s transportation sector emits the greatest share of the state’s climate and conventional air pollutants. Despite California’s ambitious targets and programs to address transportation emissions, emissions have increased every year since 2012.

Electrification is the most practical and affordable method of decarbonizing transportation, embodied in California’s new goal of 100% light-duty ZEV sales by 2035 and previous goal of 5 million ZEVs on the road by 2030. But while California has the nation’s largest EV market, home charging access still drives many EV purchase or lease decisions. Equity is core to this challenge, as many MUD residents live in disadvantaged communities or at low- and moderate-income levels. Electric mobility solutions must reach all Californians, not just those with an easier path to EV adoption.

Energy Innovation and the University of California, Davis Institute for Transportation Studies recently hosted a workshop identifying solutions to increasing EV charging access for MUD residents, and the newly released workshop summary report provides detail on promising MUD charging solutions, indicating the need for concerted policy coordination between state and local agencies, plus significant new research needs and learning-by-doing.

What makes EV charging at MUDs so challenging?

Existing MUDs present unique EV charging challenges. Electrical upgrades at older MUDs can be costly, especially when they require trenching to lay wiring. Installing EV charging at existing MUDs can also trigger building code requirements in ways unrelated to EV charging, making a project financially infeasible, while utility interconnection approval can add cost and hassle.

In addition, property owners often get little to no return on EV charging investments, even if they are low cost, because those who pay utility bills are different from those who make capital investments. This split incentive complicates either party justifying the investment.

Many MUDs have assigned parking, making equal charging challenging without installing chargers at each parking stall – likely a cost-prohibitive option. Installing charging infrastructure in common areas or shared parking may be easier, but is less reliable if chargers are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Where space is limited, charging spaces might compete with parking spaces, partly because California differentiates parking spaces from charging spaces. As the state’s vehicle fleet converts to electric, this will become a larger sticking point as chargers are required in more spaces.

Electric Car Charging
An electric Fiat is plugged into a charging station in a parking lot in Los Angeles. (AP … [+] ASSOCIATED PRESS

While various public entities throughout the state are creating electric mobility funding opportunities, these programs are unlikely to reach the scale needed for state climate and public health goals, making solutions using private capital more sustainable models for unlocking EV charging access at MUDs.

Despite growing awareness of the need to serve MUD populations, consumer interest remains relatively low, and customers rarely consider the possibility of EV ownership without ready charging access. Other building improvements or repairs may also be higher priorities for residents or building managers, including those that save money, increase comfort, or improve indoor air quality. With limited budgets, EV chargers likely fall lower on the list of priority improvements.

What is the promising solution set?

Ideas for improving MUD charging access from workshop attendees shows tackling this problem requires multifaceted solutions. There’s no silver bullet, nor are the most promising solutions fully formed, but overwhelming consensus exists that improving MUD charging access is a necessary condition for meaningful transportation electrification.

Utilities are key partners in a highly electrified future

Utilities are central to accelerating the highly electrified future. To support charging access, utilities need to identify and invest in locations that readily support charging capability. Public charging banks and fast chargers require relatively large instantaneous power consumption that can require grid upgrades in already congested circuits and at onsite EV charging at MUDs. Utility distribution planning must integrate managed charging programs to minimize the need for building and grid upgrades, while still increasing MUD resident access.

Utilities can also anticipate and install electrical infrastructure in new construction or existing building retrofits to help alleviate the cost of charging investments for ratepayers, EV customers, and third-party charging providers. These upfront investments in “make ready” infrastructure can also mitigate split incentives for building owners and renters, while access to low-cost retrofit financing can help reduce costs. Utilities can provide pricing recommendations to MUD owners to alleviate uncertainty around electricity pricing and EV charging management systems, help them to set fair prices, recoup building investment costs, and help residents compare EV charging prices at different locations.

Reducing red tape and financial obstacles

Policymakers can increase charging access for MUD residents by adopting more stringent EV-ready building codes through state and local regulations that support charging access in new MUDs. This is typically done by increasing the percentage of parking spots requiring EV-capable or EV-ready measures, but California and its cities can also boost readiness by implementing install requirements and applying measures to existing buildings when cost-effective.

Streamlining permitting processes can also reduce obstacles, improving the likelihood building owners install on-site chargers. Local governments currently set parking minimum zoning laws dictating how much off-street parking must be available at different types of buildings. These laws should be removed or modified to not limit the installation of EV chargers.

Multi-level concrete building under construction with tower crane; new residential development in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose, California
Multi-level concrete building under construction with tower crane; new residential development in … [+] GETTY

Policymakers should provide equitable financing options to ensure all MUD housing types are sufficiently served by leveraging and scaling private capital. Consolidating building projects and public programs reduces financing costs, such as combining EV charging installations with other building upgrades, or pairing existing mobility programs with EV infrastructure programs. Public funds already exist to leverage private capital and jumpstart the state’s MUD charging market: Volkswagen settlement funds, California Energy Commission grants, utility and community choice aggregation programs, and Low Carbon Fuel Standard credits.

Level 1 charging is another complementary solution to the MUD challenge: It uses regular 120-volt outlets and most drivers do not drive more than 40 miles per day, making overnight Level 1 charging adequate. The upfront cost of Level 1 charging (a conventional outlet near a parking space) in a MUD is also about one-sixth the cost of Level 2 charging.

Fostering collaboration and building trust

MUD charging access requires intergovernmental collaboration from utility regulators, transportation authorities, local permitting and building code authorities, and affordable housing managers. Intergovernmental forums can identify solutions to the MUD charging gap and other transportation electrification challenges, and should consider and actively seek diverse stakeholder input.

Government stakeholders must also build trust with the community, as previous environmental efforts have alienated disadvantaged communities. Ensuring the transition to electric mobility does not create additional financial strain is critical. On-the-ground education and allowing time for follow-up with impacted residents provides opportunities to address concerns.

Driving this Challenge Forward

Achieving a zero-emission transportation fleet will deliver billions of dollars in climate, health, and economic benefits for California. But significant barriers remain in the way of a 100% zero-emission transportation future, especially a lack of access to EV charging for millions of MUD residents.

Because of the complex challenge, there’s no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all strategy. Instead, utilities, policymakers, and the private sector must work hand-in-hand with MUD residents to provide equitable and affordable charging solutions. By tackling the challenge of MUD charging access, especially those in disadvantaged communities, California can ensure equal climate action benefits for all its residents.