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Where the Heck Are We Going to Charge All of the Electric Cars?

Pete Buttigieg speaks at a podium next to an electric vehicle charging station at Union Station in D.C.
Garages are the easy part. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On May 7, 2019, Lisa Lemble and Robert Gordon cut the ribbon on Ann Arbor, Michigan’s first curbside electric vehicle charger. It was an ordeal that required nearly a year of negotiation and permitting, and cost the couple about $15,000. “Mainly we want people to know that if they live in the city of Ann Arbor and don’t have a driveway and don’t have access to a garage, that it’s possible to put in a charging station curbside,” Lemble said at the time.

Possible, yes. Easy, no. More than two years after the Tesla-owning couple installed their dual-nozzle Level 2 charger on the curb in front of their condo, their example has not caught on. Missy Stults, the sustainability and innovations manager for Ann Arbor, said she does not know of another such project in this city of 120,000, home to the University of Michigan.

“It is so bedeviling,” Stults said. “Multifamily is a large portion of our housing stock and we start to have challenges.” The city estimates it needs as many as 10,000 electric vehicle chargers to prepare for full electric-vehicle adoption, and Stults is focused on getting them into publicly accessible parking lots—like the four “fast chargers” in the City Hall parking lot Ann Arbor put online just this Monday.

As for the streets, where residents like Lemble and Gordon park? “Trenching in the right of way gets complicated,” Stults said of the digging required for such a project. “And then what tends to happen is people park in a spot and don’t move.”

Ann Arbor is one of many cities confronting a vast challenge as Democrats pin their hopes to reduce U.S. emissions on the rapid, widespread adoption of electric vehicles: How do you get power to people who park on the street? Does electrifying cars mean changing the way we park?

One in three U.S. housing units does not have a garage, according to the 2019 American Housing Survey, and many of those households do not have their own parking spots. As gas stations slowly yield to electric chargers, the ratio of fueling nozzles to vehicles is plummeting, with some studies suggesting we’ll need as many as one charger for every two electric vehicles. The bipartisan infrastructure bill contains $7.5 billion to charge EVs, which President Joe Biden hopes will make up half of U.S. auto sales by 2030, up from around 2 percent today.

Where to charge them? Many cities are experimenting with EV charging at the curb, and extension cords have been spotted hanging from the windows of East Village tenements and Boston triple-deckers. Street parking has long been a lawless affair, and so far, electric vehicle charging at the curb is working much the same way: every driver for him or herself. By and large, experts fear that EV adoption will lag in places where curbside parking is dominant, such as New York City, which despite its liberal voters and enormous wealth counts just 15,000 electrics among its 2 million cars.

This raises the possibility that gas-powered cars will continue to dominate in neighborhoods with multifamily housing, and the promise of cleaner air will remain unfulfilled in exactly the places that have suffered the most from the many harms of automobile exhaust.

In Los Angeles County, a study by the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, or LACI, estimates the need for 84,000 public and workplace chargers as soon as 2028—about five times as many gas pumps as exist today, says Cole Roberts, who leads the North American energy business for the consultancy ARUP. Roberts worked with LACI on a tool, Charge4All, to identify good places to install curbside chargers. Why so many chargers? Because right now juicing up an electric vehicle is slow.

To understand the multidimensional infrastructural problem that is electric vehicle charging, it helps to recall that there are three types of EV chargers. The first, Level 1, is like plugging into a conventional household outlet and might replenish your battery by just a few miles each hour. The second, Level 2, can give a full charge overnight. The third, also known as “fast chargers,” can deliver a full charge in less than an hour. There’s a correlation between speed and cost. Each fast charger costs upward of $50,000 and, depending on the required utility work, can wind up being much more. Reliance on fast charging would put Los Angeles on the hook for billions of dollars in chargers just in the next decade. (Other factors to consider include charger utilization rates, durability, utility grids, variable energy costs … it’s complicated.)

Some drivers without home chargers get by on this kind of high-tech, publicly available infrastructure now. Companies like EVgo and ChargePoint have set up shop in public parking lots and grocery store garages. Tesla has its Supercharger network. This works well enough for Nitesh Donti, a YouTube engineer in San Francisco who recently bought a long-range Tesla Model 3. There are no chargers in the garage of Donti’s apartment building, but no matter. “It’s not as annoying as it might seem,” he said. “When I drive in the city, everything is two to three miles away.” His battery holds a 300-mile charge, so he finds Superchargers on the highway or makes use of workplace chargers at his office in San Mateo County, south of the city. Kind of like going to a gas station.

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Most people who study EVs think that approach isn’t going to work for everyone. “We think there needs to be a mix,” Roberts says. “Level 1 is a big question. It’s the cheapest, it’s the weakest. It might be something we could distribute more broadly. But it won’t be provided by individual homeowners at scale.” A Level 1 charge is treacle-slow, but it could easily cover a 20-mile range overnight, he said, which is more miles than 90 percent of U.S. vehicles cover each day.

Peninsula Clean Energy, the electric utility in San Mateo County, is trying to push widespread acceptance of lower-voltage chargers, which could be run out of existing curbside infrastructure like streetlights. These Level 1s might take days to give a car a full charge, but they are one-third the price to install compared with fast chargers, and don’t require additional utility infrastructure.

“The way that traditional EV charging has been done is you put a 40 amp charger, and an old building may be able to support one of those,” says Phillip Kobernick, the programs manager at Peninsula. “We think that’s incredible overkill when it comes to plugging in overnight after averaging 30 miles a day. That’s an hour of charging on one of those chargers.”

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Or as two Peninsula board members put it in a recent op-ed criticizing California’s green building code: “This would be a dramatic improvement over CalGreen’s current approach of providing excess capacity … to a small percentage of spaces.” Those spaces fill up quick, the cars charge quick, and everyone else is left out in the cold. Better to have slower chargers for more cars and save the money.

Even at low voltages, however, curbside charging is a challenge. “You’d think they’d be simple projects—pole-mounted, streetlight-mounted—but the way it’s looking right now is they’re all kind of one-off, and you don’t get a cost reduction from scaling. It’s going to be cheaper to put it in a garage in almost any scenario. Curbside will be a niche.”

Still, in cities where cars mostly sit on the street, curbside will be a necessity. In June, New York City installed its first curbside Level 2 chargers, with plans to complete 100 publicly available chargers by this month. The electric utility ConEd, which is a partner on the project, plans to invest $310 million in more than 21,000 such chargers (and 525 fast chargers) in the city by 2025. It works out to about $15,000 per charger.

That kind of limited, high-powered, high-cost infrastructure implies we’ll have to change the way we park cars in cities, with EVs shuffling in and out of prized charging areas and police punishing lingering cars with parking tickets. It’s a very different idea than the one Peninsula is advocating for on the West Coast, with its focus on lots of lower-cost, lower-powered chargers where plugged-in cars might sit in the same spot for days—just as they do now.

Then there’s the question of where to put all these power stations. Some analysts suggest commercial destinations, where parking stays are shorter. Customers can charge as they shop, just as they would in the parking lot of a Target or a Whole Foods. Others, like San Francisco MTA parking manager Hank Wilson, wanted to avoid that outcome. “It’s a very expensive thing that requires a lot of infrastructure and locks in that curb space for one specific use for decades, and because our commercial curbs are so dynamic and changing so much, we’re reticent to lock that in,” he said at a panel this week.

From that perspective, the real downside of electrifying the curb in densely populated neighborhoods becomes clear: It would cement the purpose of the curb for car storage for decades to come, just as activists are beginning to convince cities to explore alternate uses, including bike lanes, bus lanes, greenways, public space, and restaurant terraces.

Paul Barter, the founder of Reinventing Parking and a longtime advocate for better parking policy, told me he had mixed feelings. “On the one hand, it would be a great pity if EV penetration gets slowed by a failure to have EV charging for on-street residential car storage. On the other hand, it would be sad if charging infrastructure locks in existing on-street parking configurations and inhibits changes such as protected bike lanes, parking-protected bike lanes, bus lanes, and so on.”

Last year, a viral photo showed a car charging in downtown Los Angeles with a black power cord hung waist-high across a freshly painted bike lane. At $15,000 a pop, that’s not a mistake you want to make every day.