Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

10 September 2019

Palo Alto pushes EVs via apartment rebates, cities take note

In an age where air quality is becoming an increasing concern among residents, cities are becoming conscious that the cars that fill their streets are the quickest way to alleviate the problem. However, cities don’t have much sway over the purchasing decisions for EVs, and so on the whole would struggle to increase their usage. Palo Alto, already quite far ahead, has announced a new charger rebate scheme that could be the template that other cities need to follow.

Palo Alto already boasts a 15% adoption rate among households for EVs, but this is not enough it seems. It has announced a $9mn initiative to further boost EV usage, $5mn of which will be allocated for upgrading apartment buildings – a pain-point for potential EV owners, as the parking facilities mean charging at home is often unpractical or impossible.

Charging the EV at work would also be difficult, as the city’s population doubles during the working day as people commute in to work. The local population would have to compete against the working population for charging spaces. While the commuters will argue that they should get priority due to the longer travel distances, the locals should win that argument as the commuters are likely traveling from the suburbs where they have a higher chance of living in a house that could support a charger.

The city is aiming for between 200 and 400 new chargers, at apartment complexes and schools, which should be enough to support between 1,800 to 2,400 new EVs. The mid-term goal is to support 1,000 new EV registrations for apartments by 2020, and is hoping to fund it all via $8mn from the Low Carbon Fuel Standard program and $1mn from the California Energy Commission.

Palo Alto’s Utilities Department says that one in every three new vehicles in the city was electric (not clear on pure EV or hybrid), and that 60% of the electric car owners drive Teslas. Some 70% of electric car owners say they are likely to get a second one, and 70% of the survey respondents that don’t own an electric car said they would be ‘extremely interested’ in getting one if they knew that charging would be available.

From those survey results, the scale of the charging problem becomes clearer. Some 73% say they charge at home, and for apartments to become EV ownership opportunities, they are going to have to have chargers installed. But at the estimated cost of $10k-$13k per port, according to the Utilities Advisory Commission, that is going to be a big ask for most landlords.

The Commission stresses that most buildings don’t have enough space in their parking garages to accommodate new chargers, without removing existing parking spaces. In below-market-rate housing (cheap), this problem is worse, especially where zoning rules affect the number of parking spaces available, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was also cited as a problem, due to its requirements for an allocation of widened spaces.

Apparently, Palo Alto Housing, a nonprofit developer focused on below-market-rate housing, had already ordered charging infrastructure but has been unable to install it due to the ADA requirements. Compounding this issue is that below-market-value housing would presumably be occupied by households with less disposable income, and therefore households that are much less likely to be buying a new EV any time soon.

So, it’s a tricky balancing act, in terms of upgrading existing housing stock and striking the best ration between at-home and at-destination charging facilities. Palo Alto seems pretty hopeful, based on its meeting discussions and general tone of the councilor comments, but other cities are going to run into very similar problems, both in the US and abroad.

Of course, mass transit would be the ideal solution to this problem, but the paradigm shift needed to get everyone on buses and light rail would be next to impossible to achieve. Even a dedicated ride-sharing fleet and hordes of bikes and scooters wouldn’t be enough to convince most consumers to give up the car, and to that end, stronger deterrents are going to be needed. That or banning gas stations from city limits and making refueling more of an inconvenience than finding a spare EV plug …