Advancing Equitable Electric Mobility
September 18, 2023 •Elizabeth Turnbull
The passenger electric vehicle (EV) market hit a tipping point in 2022 when electric vehicles climbed the ranks to make up 5.8% of new car sales. With this recent growth and broader industry trends, all signs point to a market that will continue to accelerate. And yet, EV ownership remains out of reach for many in the U.S. Increasingly, stakeholders are looking to utilities and the regulatory process to help ensure that investments in electric mobility center equity. Knowing this, how can utilities design their program portfolios to address equitable electric mobility to meet stakeholder expectations, regulatory requirements, and customer needs?
What is Electric Mobility?
First off, a note on terminology. Why talk about electric mobility instead of electric vehicles? Electric vehicles are just that—a vehicle, a means to an end. The true goal, when it comes to individuals, is mobility—the ability to move from one place to another, ideally in a way that is clean, affordable, convenient, safe, accessible, reliable, and inclusive.
Why Equity Matters in Electric Mobility
Many communities in the United States have a history of transportation policy that prioritized the needs of dominant groups and led to the displacement of, and disinvestment in, communities of color and other marginalized communities. Today’s transportation reality is inequitable, and not by accident. When utilities seek to collect revenue from all ratepayers to invest in transportation electrification programs, they should deploy these programs in a way that addresses equity, so that all members of the community can access the benefits of electric mobility.
Barriers to Equitable Electric Mobility
All communities face barriers of some form or another to electric mobility; unsurprisingly, the barriers to adopting EVs are often even higher among disadvantaged communities who could gain the most from their benefits.
Firsthand experience with an EV plays a critical role in considering EV adoption, and many communities lack this experience. For example, a 2022 J.D. Power study found that only 11% of respondents who had no personal experience with EVs reported being “very likely” to consider an EV. For those who have been a passenger in an EV, that percentage more than doubles to 24%; for those who’ve driven one, it rises to 34%. Consequently, for those who live in communities with low EV adoption, awareness and consideration may likewise be low.
Upfront Cost and Vehicle Ownership
EVs have long been more expensive to purchase than their gasoline counterparts, though that dynamic is shifting quickly as battery costs decrease and government incentives continue to accelerate the market—including income-qualified incentives and incentives for used vehicles. However, one of the biggest EV incentives currently on offer—the $7,500 federal tax credit—is only available to those who have at least $7,500 of tax liability. And while EV prices are starting to reach parity with gasoline vehicle prices, the new vehicle market overall is getting more expensive, reaching nearly $50,000 in December of 2022 as cars get bigger and more tech-powered, and supply chain limitations continue to drive sticker prices—putting new car purchasing well out of reach for many.
But more importantly, in many disadvantaged communities, vehicle ownership itself is less likely—and when individuals do own cars, they are likely to have purchased them used. Since mass-market EVs have only been on the roads for around 12 years, anyone driving a car older than that is almost certainly not driving an EV.
Access to Charging
The simplest, most affordable place to charge an EV tends to be where the car is parked when the driver isn’t using it (which is typically, but not always, at home overnight). But this option isn’t equally available to all and isn’t sufficient for many. Even for those who own single-family homes, installing a Level 2 EV charger may require costly wiring and an upgrade of the home’s electrical panel. For those who rent their homes or live in multifamily dwellings, or simply lack off-street parking, finding a place to charge can be even more complicated and expensive. Public charging is increasingly available but tends to be clustered in higher-income and urban settings—even though it’s rural drivers who may be traveling longer distances and in greater need of public charging options. Public charging can also be more costly per kWh than charging at home on a residential utility rate, and discounted income-qualified utility rates are not usually transferrable. Public charging can also be inconvenient and unreliable, and payment can require personal access to things like smartphones, credit cards, and bank accounts—none of which are universally accessible. Speaking of accessibility, many public charging sites are not designed with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines in mind. While the presence of public charging infrastructure is critical for drivers at all income levels, the cost and complexity of being entirely reliant on public charging degrade the ease and economic benefits of having an EV altogether.
Ways Utilities Can Advance Equitable Electric Mobility
Utility program design can help alleviate these barriers and provide equitable electric mobility for all.
Utilities can raise awareness of the benefits of EVs in underserved communities and help answer questions that customers may have about charging. To do so, utilities can consider sponsoring ride-and-drive events in coordination with trusted local organizations such as churches and community centers, potentially in partnership with used EV dealerships. Utilities can also promote EVs among rideshare (Uber/Lyft) drivers by offering special rates or rebates. Targeting rideshare vehicles for electrification is a force multiplier: they are high-mileage vehicles, so the GHG benefits are greater; drivers and riders are often members of underserved communities; and it increases the number of people who have the opportunity to ride in an EV. Utilities can partner with local community-based organizations to reach customers, targeting the information, messenger, and language to best meet community needs.
Upfront Cost and Vehicle Ownership
Knowing that target populations are unlikely to own a personal EV, utilities can support electric mobility in other ways—for example, by ensuring that utility EV charging programs include charging for public transit and school buses as well as micromobility options such as electric bikes and shared scooters. Electrifying heavy-duty road users like public transit and school buses not only creates electric mobility options for underserved communities, but also reduces diesel pollution and improves public health. Electric micromobility offers a key “last mile” transportation option for residents that lack adjacency to public transit, or who live in neighborhoods without safe pedestrian infrastructure. By focusing efforts outside of the personal vehicle space and embracing mobility options at the larger and smaller ends of the spectrum, utilities can help ensure that whatever form of mobility an individual uses, there is an electric option for them—improving public health and increasing communities’ mobility options at the same time.
For those who can afford to buy an EV, utilities can help by offering tools and resources to assess driving behavior and help a customer find the right car for them; next, they can direct customers to used EV dealerships and promote (or offer!) used EV rebates. To best address cost barriers, these rebates should be offered “on the hood,” or instantly at the dealership, so that the customer’s out-of-pocket costs are reduced.
Access to Charging
To reduce barriers to home charging, utilities’ informational materials should promote Level 1 charging as an option. Level 1 charging can be done from a standard wall outlet, is sufficient for many driving use cases, and can be a great option for those who lack the resources or authority to install Level 2 charging at home. Utilities can also offer incentives to help customers upgrade their home electrical panels or financing options for home electrical work and Level 2 charger installation. And utility programs should always include incentives and creative business models to support EV charging at multifamily dwellings. Installing multifamily charging can be economically and logistically challenging, making it a good candidate for utility programmatic support.
Away from home, utilities can still impact charging access. Incentives for smaller workplaces to install charging are key, as is support for private operators in siting public DC fast charging. Utilities can also do a great deal to support public Level 2 charging, including working with cities and municipalities to encourage and allow curbside charging in the public right-of-way where many vehicles park overnight. Some of this curbside charging could be mounted on utility or light poles, drawing energy directly from the grid without costly parking lot construction. Utilities can partner to help fund workforce development programs to provide a diverse, qualified workforce that can install and maintain EV chargers, increasing public charging reliability. And lastly, utilities that seek approval to own and operate EV charging themselves should always carefully consider location, focusing first on meeting the needs of communities who are underserved by the competitive EV charging industry today.
To increase accessibility of public chargers, utilities should consider setting ADA design requirements for public chargers installed by customers as part of a utility program, referring to the U.S. Access Board’s Design Recommendations for Accessible Electric Vehicle Charging Stations as a starting point.
Program Design Considerations
Regardless of the program model, a few design considerations can be applied to help ensure that electric mobility is more equitably distributed. First, hands-on support and technical assistance is key for customers who are transitioning to EVs—especially underserved customers and the organizations who work with them. Second, program design can include targets or direct set-asides for the percentage of program funds or other measurables that are directed to underserved communities, following the guidance and leadership of the federal government’s Justice40 Initiative. Third, higher incentive levels can be offered to qualified communities—up to 100% of costs. And fourth, marketing or education and outreach funding can be targeted within specific communities.
How to Begin
If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be: don’t just listen to this article. Quality utility program design begins with a utility identifying the communities it is trying to target, engaging with them openly and authentically, listening to what they have to say, and building trust along the way. The Greenlining Institute’s Mobility Equity Framework is a seminal tool that utilities can leverage, providing a step-by-step process for how to engage communities in designing equitable mobility.
To identify the underserved communities in a service area, utilities can leverage tools such as the U.S. EPA’s EJScreen, a publicly available tool which maps environmental and demographic socioeconomic indicators. Utilities should overlay this information with in-house data about areas with higher density of renters, master meters (indicative of multifamily dwellings), or customers on an income-qualified residential rate—all of which may be available in the utility’s customer billing database.
Utilities can work with community-based organizations or hire qualified consultants to help develop a community needs assessment for electric mobility. Some results may be surprising—for example, community members may resist utility efforts because they are concerned that public transit electrification will come at the cost of bus service reductions, or that more EV charging in their neighborhoods will lead to gentrification. Resolving those challenges may be beyond the scope of what a utility can do—but it’s important to understand the concerns a community has, be sensitive to them in program portfolio development, and consider what role the utility can play in mitigating them.
Equitable electric mobility is possible, but it is not a given. Utilities, their regulators, and their stakeholders can—and must—help ensure more equitable outcomes by understanding barriers to adoption, reaching out to communities early, listening to the needs of community members, and designing intentionally equitable transportation electrification programs. Need help getting started? Reach out to Franklin Energy today—we have the experience, innovation, and knowledge to deliver results.