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Thinking in Systems

With bans on gas-powered vehicles, here are key steps to increase EV equity

Close up of a electric car charger with person in the background, locking a car

Photo by husjur02 on Shutterstock.

In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that, by 2035, sales of all new passenger vehicles will be zero-emission — significantly reducing demand for fossil fuels in California’s fight against climate change. Some Californians are thrilled: "Electric vehicles are great to drive, make neighborhoods cleaner and quieter, and help keep fossil fuels in the ground." Others resist the change: "Don’t limit our choices or our range." Views differ, but there’s a common concern: How will everyone be able to afford EVs?

Electric vehicle equity defined 

Ariane Erickson, who manages the Karl Knapp GoEV Program at Palo Alto-based environmental nonprofit Acterra, defines EV equity as low-income residents’ ability to find and take advantage of the many EV rebate and grant programs available to them. Acterra runs English- and Spanish-language clinics to help low-income people apply for rebates and grants best suited to their incomes, needs and preferences.

Startup EV Life looks at EV equity as making it easier for anyone to find and finance an electric car. "It's particularly exciting to make it more affordable for drivers in lower-income and disadvantaged communities to switch to EVs," said EV Life Founder and Presidio Graduate School alumnus Peter Glenn, "because they have been disproportionately affected by higher rates of air pollution."

We also believe EV equity includes the ability for everyone to have access to charging, regardless of where they live or work.

ChargePoint, an EV charging technology company, defines EV equity as "the ability for any person of any income level to drive or ride in a vehicle fueled by electricity." 

"We also believe EV equity includes the ability for everyone to have access to charging, regardless of where they live or work," Anne Smart, VP of public policy at the company, added.

At Presidio Graduate School, we see affordability of EVs as being both an equity and a diversity factor. Some of our professors reserve an empty seat in their classroom representing those who are not able to join the discussion. Although most new product and service adoptions are at first expensive before becoming more affordable, it's time to buck the old way of targeting markets that inherently exclude those not usually in the room.

Strategies to achieve EV equity 

Social media — featuring people of color standing by their EVs obtained through the trade-in program — has been effective in pulling in applications. "We are changing perceptions," said Rebecca Fisher at Clean Cars for All (CCFA). "We see and are glad about the social push toward equity in society, and hope to see this push also in transportation." 

CCFA is funded by California’s billions of cap-and-trade dollars through California Climate Investments (see Moving California), which strives to curb greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen the economy and improve public health and the environment — particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Educating people with diverse levels of income and backgrounds about affordable ways to switch to electric transportation is the most common strategy to achieve EV equity. EV Life’s Glenn pointed to the EV Climate Loan, which saves most people $200 per month on financing, and emphasized that "EVs save each driver more than $1,117 annually on fuel and maintenance, which can be reinvested in people's families and communities, too." 

It's important to educate people about EV assistance programs that are not widely known or understood. For example, CCFA enables low-income applicants to retire their older, higher-polluting vehicle and upgrade to a cleaner vehicle.

"We take the old car and replace it with an EV, electric bike or public transportation voucher," Fisher explained.

Not a car in every garage

"Pushing people into cars — whether electric or not — and car loans is not a prescription to alleviating economic disparities," said Maureen Marshall, Midwest regional director at CALSTART, a nonprofit organization working nationally and internationally with businesses and governments to develop clean, efficient transportation solutions. "We need to give people options for accessible and convenient zero-emissions transit beyond personally owned cars."

Electric vehicle charging station on the roof of parking garage with a view of the Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California.

Electric vehicle charging station on the roof of parking garage with a view of the Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California. Photo by Michael Vi on Shutterstock.

She pointed to shared-use community mobility services such as electric carshare and carpooling, demand-responsive vehicles and micro-mobility options including e-bikes — with safe places to ride them. 

"We also need to reverse the subsidies that give the monopoly reign to personally owned cars: zoning that encourages sprawl; socialization of the cost of highways and vast parking (rather than putting it on drivers); and the freedom to pollute," Marshall said.

Plus, not everyone has a garage. 

"The ability to access charging at home, within a community, or at a workplace is essential. We also need to consider the significant portion of the population which travels on public transit," said ChargePoint’s Smart. "Not every person will purchase an EV, which makes bus and other transit electrification necessary to expand access." 

ChargePoint says that part of its role is to create solutions "that help enable the expansion of electric mobility for everyone when and where they need to charge." 

Additionally, Glenn advocates an expansion of public DC Fast Chargers for drivers who live in apartments.

Environmental equity

Replacing gas cars with electric cars in disadvantaged communities helps directly reduce the climate change and air pollution that disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities. Glenn cites a Union of Concerned Scientists study, which reports that Black and Latino communities in California breathe, respectively, 43 percent and 39 percent more deadly PM2.5 air pollution than white Californians.

"Air pollution causes more chronic illnesses and premature deaths in communities of color, and also partially explains why COVID-19 mortality rates are disproportionately high among African Americans," Glenn explained. 

CALSTART’s Marshall noted that California’s cultural priority on environmental justice inspires many government and non-profit organizations to expand EV ownership beyond traditional income boundaries through offering multiple, varied and substantial financial assistance programs.

Price equity

New EV prices should equal internal-combustion vehicles by 2024, according to Nick Albanese, head of BNEF’s intelligent mobility team. In the past 10 years, lithium-ion battery prices have fallen by 87 percent, according to BNEF’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2020, and will continue to decrease — drawing EV price equity near. Some new-EV leases are surprisingly affordable.

As an industry, we need to focus on the second-life purchase to bring down the cost and maximize availability to lower-income drivers.

Getting into a new EV, however, is not the whole story — neither economically nor for the sake of the circular economy. Prices of used EVs are already a bargain.

Marshall, based in the Detroit area, encourages car manufacturers to make zero-emission alternatives more accessible.

"As an industry, we need to focus on the second-life purchase to bring down the cost and maximize availability to lower-income drivers," she said. "[Original equipment manufacturers] need to ensure that the vehicles have stable batteries that can go another 5 to 10 years, avoiding placing a burden on the second owner."

On EV Life's website, an EV-incentives calculator generates a quote of low-income EV incentives in seconds, based on income, ZIP code and desired vehicle. Operating an EV is about half the cost of operating a vehicle with an internal combustion engine, as demonstrated by the U.S. Department of Energy’s EV Drive Cost Calculator

EV equity, sooner rather than later

Based on the rising number of innovative programs with which people with low incomes can own EVs, the lower operating cost of EVs compared to ICE vehicles and the proliferation of clean and safe electric transportation options outside of car ownership, it’s clear that equal access to EVs is on its way. 

What can be done to accelerate EV equity? CALSTART wants employers to incentivize their EV-driving employees to carpool. At LinkedIn, for example, employees who carpool to work are guaranteed access to EV charging there. 

EV Life emphasizes the importance of supporting more low-income drivers through helping states to adopt clean-vehicle grants, such as those offered in California. At a national level, the U.S. House of Representatives passed The Moving Forward Act, which would triple the $7,500 federal tax credits available for EVs, add a tax credit for use EV purchases of $2,500 (or up to 30 percent of the sale price) and invest $1.4 billion in expanding EV charging sites across the U.S. All of these investments will be critical to addressing the upfront cost barriers associated with EV adoption.

Coming back to education, much progress toward EV equity will be made when people of all income levels and backgrounds learn that they, too, can enjoy using EV transportation, benefit from cleaner and quieter neighborhoods and help to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

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