Clean air and climate advocates see President Joe Biden’s vow to build up massive electric vehicle infrastructure nationwide as a boon—as long as the electrification revolution makes ample space for fenceline communities most affected by vehicle pollution.
The Biden administration has pledged to build half a million new electric vehicle charging stations nationwide within the next decade along with electrifying the federal vehicle fleet. The equitable distribution of electric vehicle benefits must be part of discussions moving forward, advocates said.
That means rolling out electric vehicle infrastructure that’s affordable, accessible, and integrated responsibly to avoid leaving out low-income rural and urban communities who stand to benefit the most from plummeting emissions rates.
“Equity needs to be baked into transportation electrification decision-making right from the get-go,” said Shruti Vaidyanathan, transportation program director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
People of color and low-income neighborhoods are clustered around the nation’s most polluted air spaces, like freeways and transport hubs that belch greenhouse gases and fine particulate matter that embeds in the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems.
Plenty of unanswered logistical hurdles exist on electric vehicles, such as how to distribute stations across vast stretches of land and who will pay for the distribution.
The Department of Transportation didn’t immediately respond to questions about its charging station deployment plans.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, signaled that Democrats are expected to put the issue in the spotlight.
“Low-income families and people of color are frequently left behind—or left out—by our investments in infrastructure, blocking their access to jobs and educational opportunities,” he said at a Wednesday hearing.
The Energy Department also is expected to be involved. When Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s newly confirmed Energy secretary, was governor of Michigan, she worked to secure $1.35 billion in federal funding for companies to make EVs and batteries in her state.
Electric vehicle infrastructure will be the focus of a “whole-of-government” approach, Granholm told lawmakers at her Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing.
“I hope we can have a universal acceptance and deployment of EVs, obviously, the charging stations are a necessity,” she told lawmakers.
Electric vehicle mandates that guarantee a large supply of affordable, used EVs—supplemented by charging station infrastructure requirements—is the best policy to broaden access, according to Coltura, a Seattle-based nonprofit advocating for electric vehicle adoption in Washington’s state legislature.
“The more prevalent used EVs are in the marketplace, the more lower-income families will be able to access them and benefit from EV’s substantially lower fueling and maintenance costs,” said Coltura co-founder Matthew Metz in a statement.
To bring down costs and widen availability, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced a bill last year that would direct the Transportation Department to update residential and commercial building codes to encourage installation of electric-vehicle charging stations and orders states to consider measures to encourage charging stations.
Dingell will reintroduce the USA Electrify Forward Act in this Congress, though the current draft has no language about where stations should be installed, a spokesperson said.
Answering challenges is more complicated than simply finding someone to foot the bill for more chargers, said Khalil Shahyd, senior policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“When you upgrade and introduce new infrastructure, you’re threatening to increase costs to someone,” Shahyd said. “How that cost is shared could potentially impact those communities.”
Where those 500,000 chargers are built will send a message about who policymakers think should and will be driving electric cars.
A 2019 analysis by the National Association of Realtors revealed that homes near electric vehicle charging stations fetch top dollar. The report, published on realtor.com, showed that homes in ZIP codes with plenty of EV charging stations sold at prices 2.6 times higher than the rest of the country.
“The very essence of our infrastructure for electric vehicles is designed for people who can afford to have an attached garage to the house they own, which already has many implications for socioeconomic status and race,” Natalie Mebane, climate nonprofit 350.org’s associate director of U.S. policy, said.
Catering predominantly to people who currently can afford to drive EVs will widen historical gaps, said Julia Stein, an attorney at UCLA’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
Looking only at “demand-based” models of where most current EV users are living could result in infrastructure planning in predominately higher-income areas, she said.
Prioritizing the electrification of mass transit could mitigate those effects, NRDC’s Shahyd noted. In particular, buses are increasingly becoming electrified.
Cities like Chicago have already started experimenting with electrifying their multi-passenger transit fleet. The Chicago Transit Authority spent $32 million for its first 20 electric buses after a test run on just two vehicles saved $54,000 annually, according to a 2020 report from nonprofit utility advocacy group Citizens Utility Board.
But venture capitalists looking to turn a profit are likely to have more influence over shaping local transportation policy, Shahyd said.
“We have a responsibility to really lift up and to highlight advocates of public and mass transit, because those are the voices who are least heard and least effective at moving these discussions,” he said.
Who pays for community chargers—and who reaps the rewards—are among the items on the long list of environmental justice considerations.
Some state efforts, like tax credits for EV charging infrastructure, have been made to offer incentives to build charging stations for multi-family housing. But how landlords may carry out construction should add another layer of caution to the process, according to UCLA’s Stein.
“You have to be thinking about how costs might be passed on from a landlord of a multi-family property that’s installing that infrastructure, and whether tenants are going to be expected to bear part of the costs,” she said.
Questions such as whether charging stations are publicly or privately run—and who profits from the upkeep—remain unresolved.
“In whatever investment program a state or utility uses to target EV deployment or charging deployment, we should set aside a proportion of that money to go to marginalized communities,” Vaidyanathan said.
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