Delivering electrons like pizzas, offering rebates and rebates, donating devices — these are some of the steps that utilities and private companies are taking to create oases in so-called “charging deserts.” These are locations where electric vehicle charging stations are not commonly available. Many of these underserved areas are in low-income communities.
According to an April 2022 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, there are only about 41,000 publicly accessible non-Tesla charging stations across the 50 states, compared to more than 150,000 gas stations.
To address this disparity and encourage EV sales, the bipartisan infrastructure bill provides $5 billion to build a national EV charging network, consistent with the Biden administration’s goal of installing 500,000 chargers by 2030.
But while automakers are ramping up the launch of more than two dozen new battery-electric vehicle models, including several at lower prices. This will make electric vehicles accessible to consumers in a larger part of the economy who need places to charge their car’s batteries – especially those who live in these charging deserts.
This thirst for electrons is quenched in several novel ways.
Somerville, Mass.-based SparkCharge likes to describe itself as a sort of Doordash or Ubereats for electric vehicle charging. Through the current mobile app, an EV owner can order a charge and a SparkCharge van will be dispatched to the driver’s location, “the same way you and I get food and pizza delivered,” SparkCharge CEO Josh Aviv told Forbes .com
Its portable roadie hardware is basically a stack of batteries that can be wheeled right onto the vehicle. It is particularly useful for fleets, rental car companies or insurance breakdown services. A stack of four Roadies can provide about 60-70 miles of range in an hour.
Aviv said many of the communities’ SparkCharge services are underserved by what he calls “traditional charging companies,” so his company is making a difference.
“We serve 100% of the lowest income ZIP codes in San Francisco with EV charging. Areas like Los Angeles, 88% of the lowest zip codes, Dallas 80%. In San Francisco, only 25% of brick-and-mortar charging stations are in these lowest-income areas, Los Angeles 40%, Dallas 15%,” Aviv said. “It means there are huge disparities when it comes to minority communities having access to EV charging, but what goes deeper is the fact that these communities are essentially being left behind.”
San Francisco-based Volta is tackling the problem using both data analytics and a media/hardware combo.
The PredictEV platform uses artificial intelligence to analyze a mix of demographics, driver behavior and local mobility patterns to help communities better place Volta charging stations. PredictEV’s capabilities have recently been expanded to “analyze economic data related to underserved communities in our data-driven planning tool to help stakeholders and decision-makers gain a data-driven understanding of where these areas are and where we should build charging stations.” explained Volta Chief Commercial Officer Brandt Hastings.
At the same time, Volta is installing charging stations with 55-inch video screens showing advertising from brands like Netflix, Starbucks, Anheuser-Busch, Jeep and retailers like Albertsons and Kohl’s. They are usually placed near shops, malls or cinemas where customers, attracted by the advertisements they see while charging their electric vehicles, can easily make purchases.
“The dual model of media and charging allows us to reach underserved communities because we’re not just focused on monetizing the sale of electrons to a driver,” Hastings said. “We know when we build charging stations with lower EV adoption it actually accelerates EV adoption.”
According to Founder and CEO Michael Farkas, Blink Charging Co. has spent “millions” to meet EV charging needs in underserved communities.
Recently, the Miami Beach, Fla.-based company donated 10 of its Blink HQ 150 Level 2 chargers to Tennessee Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development (SEEED), a nonprofit organization that serves young adults and largely marginalized community members in the greater Knoxville area .
Farkas said it’s an opportunity that “makes sense” for the company but also resonates with its history of reaching out to support communities in need.
One example is Blink Charging’s acquisition of the BlueLA carsharing program in 2020 “on its own accord,” Farkas said, replacing the program’s EV fleet, including lower-priced models like the Chevrolet Bolt.
It was a typical Blink charging move.
“We are one of the few companies that has invested without own capital in building charging infrastructure at our own expense in disadvantaged communities, because no matter what happens, cars will be everywhere and these electric vehicles will ultimately serve all these communities of all types, and we believed that we should try to have a first mover advantage in those areas and work with those communities and cities and get those chargers on the ground, on the streets, where those people in those communities live and have access to charging ,” Farkas told Forbes.com.
Michigan utility Consumers Energy is making chargers more accessible through two rebate programs aimed at homeowners, fleets and those looking to install chargers in public places like gas stations.
Its PowerMiDrive programs offer homeowners a $500 rebate when they install a Consumers Energy-approved charger. For other chargers, a $10 credit will be applied to the monthly electric bill if the user charges their EV during off-peak periods. DC fast chargers installed for public use can achieve discounts of around $70,000.
To date, more than 2,000 residential customers have received rebates, and the company has installed 37 fast chargers and plans to add another 100 over the next two years, according to Sarah Nielsen, director of EV charging programs at Consumers Energy.
The utility has also installed 220 Tier 2 chargers over the past three years and plans to install an additional 100 in “overnight” locations such as campgrounds, state parks, retail stores, apartment buildings and hotels, primarily to serve those who don’t have access to them have a home charger, Nielsen said.
“Our DNA as a utility is to serve all customers. We’ve been tactical on all of these chargers, over 250 chargers in the last few months,” Nielsen said. “We didn’t just take the first 100 applicants. We have been very careful to spread ourselves geographically. There was a lot of focus on microcorridor charging, but we didn’t just take the hotspots. We wanted to make sure that the public infrastructure we discount is geographically distributed. We turned down applications and specifically targeted some communities and said we have a gap here.”
With all the efforts to expand the availability of charging options in underserved areas to encourage EV adoption, this may not necessarily be the key for high- or low-income consumers, claims Scott Painter, co-founder and CEO of electric vehicle subscription company Autonomy .
“I think a very good free market system that offers enough charging options for EV users, even at the low end – there’s enough high-spirited thinking about government incentives, rebates and credits on the EV charging side, where it’s going to be a good one.” Business idea for a lot of these charging infrastructure players to implement charging infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods and business parks…so I don’t think we’re going to have a real problem,” Painter said in an interview.
He believes subsidies for gig economy workers such as ride-sharing, meal or parcel delivery people who use electric vehicles would be helpful because, he says, they tend to be minimum-wage earners.
Building a national charging network that encompasses the charging deserts will take time, but SparkCharge’s Josh Aviv believes it’s a good start, saying, “What the Biden government is doing is wonderful. They really solve the pain point of owning an electric vehicle on a mass adoption scale. You started with the freeways, I think the next step is to focus on the communities and cities.”
Blink Charging’s Mark Farkas, meanwhile, says turning these deserts into farmland for EV adoption through donations and subsidies for chargers just seems like the right thing to do, stating: “We’re trying to do good.”