Well over half the cars you see around town would be EVs in ten years. What does it take to support almost 40,000 EVs in Palo Alto? (2) All of San Mateo County had only 22,000 at the end of 2019. Can we get to 200,000 EVs in San Mateo County? 600,000 in Santa Clara County? And do it all in one decade?
I talked with our local power providers — Peninsula Clean Energy (PCE), Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE), and City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) — about the steps they are taking to support and accelerate EV adoption. (3) What struck me most is the cost of building out EV charging infrastructure and the speed at which a lot of difficult work needs to be done. This effort is not for the faint of heart but it is critical to hit our emissions goals. So, what is involved?
So. Many. Chargers.
There are about 10,000 gas stations in California, so maybe 50,000 pumps. There are over 5,000 publicly available fast EV chargers, and counting. (4) How many more do we need? While most EV owners fill up conveniently at their homes, public chargers are essential for drivers without a home charger and for those taking long trips.
There are a number of estimates floating around for how many chargers we need, where, and of which type. Palo Alto, for example, did an assessment this summer. The state has an EV Infrastructure Projection Tool. The California Electric Transportation Coalition (CalETC) issued the following guidance:
Source: City of Palo Alto Utilities
Based on these and other sources, I came up with a very rough rule of thumb for the number of public or shared-private chargers we need, namely 1 fast (level-3) charger and 10 level-2 chargers for every 100 EVs on the road. These are chargers you might find at a shopping center, a workplace, a multi-family residence, or a gas station, and does not include the many we will have in private homes and businesses. Here is what that might mean for our area, using the EV targets above and rounded numbers. (5)
Numbers for chargers today are taken from the California Energy Commission’s EV dashboard, while the others are from my very rough rule of thumb.
Those numbers may not seem huge, but costs are high because some of these sites are complicated to set up, particularly because of how much power they use. My second rough rule of thumb is that a Level-2 charger costs about $8000 and a Level-3 charger about $80,000. (6) We can add another column to this chart.
Priority 1: Find Money
That leads us to a top priority for all three power providers I spoke to, namely to help organizations find money to install chargers. This is especially important for multi-family residences, small and medium businesses, non-profits, and sites in poorer communities where the opportunity to charge at home may be scarce.
To meet this shared need, CPAU, PCE, and SVCE joined forces with two other local power providers to co-fund a program with the state to help some of these businesses. Applications can be submitted starting next month. SVCE also formed a working group a year ago, the Silicon Valley Transportation Electrification Clearinghouse (SVTEC), that helps members find additional funding and reduce costs.
Priority 2: Motivate
Money, however, is not enough without motivation, and that’s especially difficult during a pandemic.
Palo Alto made it a priority to focus on multi-family buildings a few years ago, having noticed that only 10% of residential EVs are registered in such buildings despite 42% of the city’s households living there. The utility offers education, assistance, and generous rebates for chargers. “We have spent quite a lot of time talking to managers and residents at lower-income multi-family properties,” says Hiromi Kelty, Program Manager at City of Palo Alto Utilities. “There are almost 2000 low-income households in these residences at 43 different locations. We have spoken to all of them, multiple times. Our top priority was to help them. We think it would be cheaper for people to drive an EV. Finally we thought two were ready to move, but COVID nixed that. There are a lot of grants available, but it’s hard to motivate the switch right now.”
SVCE also decided to “tackle the tough nuts” when it comes to charging, meaning multi-family and lower-income residences as well as small businesses. Justin Zagunis, a Senior Decarbonization and Grid Innovation Analyst for SVCE, says “We want to try to figure it out, find something scalable. We’re learning…. What we’ve learned so far is, well, it’s hard to engage. COVID really makes it hard, free support isn’t enough. We are trying to figure out how to inspire people to participate. We’ve targeted several hundred of these properties, and their tenants. I hope we’ll get there.”
Peninsula Clean Energy has a 1.5-year-old program to help low-income households buy a used EV. Rafael Reyes, the Director of Energy Programs for PCE, says “I’d say we’ve seen modest uptake so far. People who get a car are incredibly enthusiastic and love that they are saving so much money. But we are only at about 70 vehicles to date.” Next year they plan to augment this effort to continue their push.
Priority 3: Make it Easy
Our local power providers recognize the importance of technical assistance when it comes to evaluating potential sites and generating options for larger installations. In fact, all share the same contractor, which helps to build expertise and best practices. In addition, most have also been streamlining permitting, and both SVCE and PCE are piloting technology that automatically shifts charging to less expensive times. (7) Unlike the City of Palo Alto Utilities, which has yet to roll out smart meters, both PCE and SVCE are able to offer EV rates that encourage cleaner and cheaper charging. Reyes estimates that about one-third of EV owners have opted in to date.
To simplify installations and reduce load on the grid, Peninsula Clean Energy advocates that EV owners adopt Level-1 charging when possible. This means using a standard outlet to charge an EV, which yields about 4.5 miles per hour of charging. These outlets are cheap and fast to install, they help the grid by spreading the charging load, and they are perfectly adequate in most cases. Reyes explains: “We see about half of EV owners using a standard outlet. The reality is that people drive 30 miles a day, and with a standard outlet you can get 40 miles overnight. You can charge up at a fast-charger when needed.” I did that for a while, shopping at Whole Foods in Los Altos so I could use one of their fast chargers. I often see EVs plugged in at the local library as well.
Priority 4: Future Proof
It is a lot of effort and expense to retrofit residences, workplaces, and parking garages with chargers. Fortunately SVCE and PCE have been successful in drafting and promoting a model building code that incorporates EV-readiness into new construction. Planners can choose what type of charging is provided and how many spaces share a charger. Palo Alto recently adopted an EV-readiness standard as well. Future generations will not have to go through all this work!
Why Invest So Much?
Our local power providers are investing a tremendous amount of time and money to support the electrification of vehicles. SVCE did a comprehensive study last year that launched numerous initiatives. (8) Palo Alto has made the switch to EVs a cornerstone of their 80x30 plan, with an update last year and another coming up this Wednesday at 7pm. PCE has a variety of efforts to encourage adoption along with some investigations into new technology. (9) All three are collaborating on regional initiatives as well.
I have heard people speculate that this is all being done out of self-interest, that these power providers stand to make a lot of money as we convert cars and buildings from gas to electricity. But that’s not the real story. While a strong balance sheet does help them get funding to make long-term investments in renewable energy, all involved cite their explicit charter to help achieve local and state emissions targets. Reyes’ answer is especially on point because it highlights the benefit of local power. “Why are we doing this? Well, it’s a strategic objective. Peninsula Clean Energy was formed by a unanimous vote of the cities in San Mateo County, with the goal of offering cleaner power at lower rates and advancing decarbonization in San Mateo County. It is our charter. We have no shareholders, we are not interested in profit. Any net margin we have is reinvested in the community. For example, we have issued $3 million in credits to low-income customers and small businesses during this past year in response to the current crisis. The real economic story is that, with gas, 80% of the money leaves the community. With electricity, one-third of the cost goes to power providers and the other two-thirds stays local. By 2025, we expect to see $50 million or so in power and infrastructure dedicated to EVs. That money will stay local.”
Will the Governor’s New Executive Order Help?
Each leader I spoke with wholeheartedly embraced Newsom’s order to prohibit sales of new gas cars by 2035. Zoe Elizabeth, a Senior Energy Consultant for SVCE, said “It’s huge. It will encourage public/private cooperation and help people see this buildout as an integral part of economic recovery. Transitioning to a zero emissions transportation system not only reduces air pollution and improves public health, it creates jobs, at every level.” Reyes called it a “fantastic step forward,” adding that “it’s incredibly reasonable with respect to market timing. Battery prices are dropping like a stone, and the price and benefit of these vehicles is so large. By 2035 there will be no reason why anyone would want to buy a gas car.” Kelty said simply “I am so relieved. And I am really excited. We’ve had aggressive goals for years, and this shows we aren’t crazy, we’re not off-base.”
Our local power providers are taking on a lot as we strive to reduce our transportation emissions. The state is providing some grants (e.g., from cap-and-trade) and co-funding. Market momentum is helping, with automakers moving ahead in earnest with many new models and meaningful sales goals. But charging infrastructure requires much planning and collaboration, even once the critical parties are sitting at the table. So it’s terrific to see our power providers focusing on the nuts and bolts of charger deployment, as well as testing out innovations like smart charging, vehicle-to-building technology, and more.
We residents have an important role to play as well. As Reyes points out: "It's important to keep in mind that there's a long way we can go without much additional charging infrastructure. Anyone with a private garage or parking space that has a plug can enjoy an EV today." Take a few minutes to learn more about EVs: their environmental and health benefits, their lower lifetime costs, and the breadth of models becoming available. If you are in San Mateo County, take a look at Peninsula Clean Energy’s EV site. You can try a free rental or talk with an EV expert. If you are a customer of Silicon Valley Clean Energy, try their EV Assistant. In Palo Alto? Check out the cost calculator along with other information.
Once you have an EV, it’s hard to go back. A Palo Alto survey reported that 7 in 10 EV owners say they are likely to get a 2nd EV, and the market’s only getting better. I love filling up at home, foregoing oil changes, and pre-heating the car in the garage. And when I charge midday, it's like I'm driving on sunshine. It's a wonderful feeling. Don’t wait until 2035 to say "no" to a new gas car.
Notes and References
0. Palo Alto residents can weigh in on the city’s updated plan to reduce transportation emissions this Wednesday at 7pm. Register for the interactive webinar here.
1. These goals for charging infrastructure were set by Jerry Brown in 2018. As California’s Air Resources Board figures out how best to implement Newsom’s recent executive order banning sales of new gas cars after 2035, these numbers will likely increase.
2. Palo Alto has a more aggressive goal of 80% penetration. The 60% value I am using is representative of other similar cities. Below is Palo Alto’s recent estimate of charging requirements needed to meet their 80% goal.
Source: Presentation to the Utilities Advisory Commission, July 2020
3. Peninsula Clean Energy (PCE), not to be confused with PG&E, is a Community Choice Energy provider that serves San Mateo County. Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE) is a Community Choice Energy provider that serves portions of Santa Clara County (the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara are not included). Palo Alto Utilities (PAU) is a municipal utility that covers only the city of Palo Alto.
4. By “fast charger” I mean a Level-3 charger. See the diagram below to understand the types of chargers. (Source: Palo Alto Utilities)
5. Charger data is from this California Energy Commission EV dashboard.
6. Prices vary a lot based on how many chargers a single site can accommodate, the capacity of the local grid, and more. These costs are just rough markers. Note that if you combine my two rough rules of thumb, each new EV on the road costs the public $1600 in chargers: 10% of an $8000 Level-2 charger, and 1% of an $80,000 Level-3 charger.
7. You can find out more about SVCE’s smart charging pilot here.
8. A year into SVCE’s initiatives, they are seeing some progress:
- Silicon Valley Transportation Electrification Clearinghouse (SVTEC) has well over 50 public and for-profit sector participants, including technology companies, large employers, local governments, and local utilities. They are working together to reduce the soft costs of EV charging infrastructure and to identify and attract funding.
- The small business and multi-unit dwelling technical assistance program, FutureFit Assist: EV Charging, has engaged over 125 customers. The program is currently assisting four customers to evaluate, design, and install chargers, with more in the pipeline.
- The Regional Recognition program will award its first cadre of winners in December.
- The Priority Zone DC-fast charging program launched in September to incentivize installation of DCFC near multi-unit dwellings. The first round of recipients will be announced in December.
9. Peninsula Clean Energy’s Reyes indicated they are launching a pilot for “vehicle to building”, in which a vehicle’s battery can be used to power a building, for example in case of a power outage. Few vehicles support this capability, but Reyes mentioned the Japanese Nissan Leaf can as a result of a mandate from the government following the Fukushima disaster. Fleets of school buses turn out to have a particularly appropriate operational profile for vehicle-to-building integration.
10. Palo Alto faces the unusual circumstance that about half of its vehicle emissions come from inbound traffic, people commuting into Palo Alto from other places. I asked Kelty what steps Palo Alto is taking, or can take, to reduce those emissions. “Well, it’s really hard, and there’s a whole range of ideas from voluntary to stricter, everything short of banning gas cars from entering, which isn’t realistic.” She mentioned as an extreme idea setting up large parking lots for gas cars at city limits, with electric shuttles to bring people in. More modest ideas include parking fees for gas cars and asking businesses to encourage employees to go electric.
11. EV adoption has not been a consistent ride up. Look at this graph of adoption in our two counties. You can see that 2019 hit a wall, perhaps because federal EV incentives started to run out. The first three quarters of 2020 have also been impacted by the pandemic, though EV sales have done better than sales of gas cars.
Data shown is from this California Energy Commission EV dashboard
Current Climate Data (October 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)
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