Electric vehicles (EVs) could finish 2021 as 5% of new car sales in the U.S., according to market observers, and are expected to make up a growing share in the years to come. Driven by city and state electrification goals, and now supported by federal infrastructure dollars, the years ahead will be a critical time for utilities working to drive beneficial electrification.
To get an idea of the challenges American cities will face with the rising numbers of EVs, Utility Dive is taking an in-depth look at how electric utilities in six cities are helping boost electric transportation adoption, through charging infrastructure and helping to support vehicle uptake.
Experts say EV adoption is poised to surge in the United States, potentially fueled by federal purchase credits now being debated on Capitol Hill. The proposal included in the Build Back Better legislation would knock up to $12,500 off the sticker price of a new electric car or truck, depending on where and how it is produced. Used EV buyers could get up to $4,000 back.
If lawmakers pass those credits, "you'll see an immediate leap forward in demand for EVs," Joel Levin, executive director of Plug in America, said.
President Joe Biden wants half of all new passenger vehicle sales in the United States to be EVs by 2030. That's achievable, transportation experts say, but will require development of new supply chains, along with public charging infrastructure to support an equitable transition.
Are cities ready for the transition? Not yet, say experts. But some are heading that way, while others will face difficulties.
"It is kind of a real estate problem, because basically wherever you put in charging you're taking a parking space," said Levin. "As cities get denser, that becomes more of a challenge — New York City being the extreme example, where real estate is really at a premium."
The Big Apple ranks 4th among U.S. cities in electric vehicle adoption, according to a Sept. 16 report from the New York Times, but lags on public charging infrastructure. The city's utility, Consolidated Edison, launched a program last year that aims to help install thousands of charging ports by 2030.
Los Angeles has the most EVs on its roads and is widely considered a leader on EV infrastructure, though city leaders acknowledge there is much work to be done. EVs make up about 12% of new car sales in California, and "L.A. is probably above that," said Levin.
Other major cities of varying size are also looking to electrify transportation. In Denver, Xcel is helping the city with its goal to reach 30% EV adoption by 2030. Eversource is helping Boston put an EV charger in every neighborhood by 2023.
In Miami, where 40% of the state's EVs are registered, Florida Power & Light is looking beyond the city's urban center and is installing chargers along the turnpike. Seattle City Council has a plan to "electrify everything that moves people, goods, or services in and around our city."
"Utilities, obviously, are really a critical piece of this," said Levin.
The city of Los Angeles has about 4 million people, and has developed a plan calling for 80% of all light-duty passenger vehicle sales to be EVs by 2028.
"We thought we were kind of ahead of the curve when it comes to EV infrastructure," said Yamen Nanne, who has been the electric transportation program supervisor at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for the past two and a half years.
A state assessment indicated otherwise.
In the past three years, LADWP has helped to increase the number of commercial charging stations in the city by over seven-fold, said Nanne. Los Angeles went from about about 2,000 commercial charging stations to over 14,000 commercial charging stations, with about 2,700 of those publicly accessible.
"We've really been happy about what we've been able to accomplish in the last three years," he said.
But in May, the California Energy Commission completed an assessment at the direction of state lawmakers to determine how the state is going to meet EV adoption targets. New non-electric vehicles will stop being available for sale starting in 2035, and as a lead up to that, California wants to get to 7.5 million EVs in the state by 2030.
To accommodate those electric vehicles, the state will need about 1.2 million public and shared chargers, the CEC assessment found. Nanne said Los Angeles has about 10% of the state's vehicles, meaning the city needs about 120,000 commercial chargers by 2030.
"We have a long way to go over over the next eight to nine years to get there," he said.
The biggest challenge, said Nanne, is going to be finding the additional funding to help pay for some of the cost of installing the necessary infrastructure. So far, the city has installed about 15% of chargers available in Los Angeles by utilizing state funds through various market based programs like the Low Carbon Fuel Standard program, he said.
Ultimately, though, LADWP expects the private sector to play a major role. "Because we just simply don't have enough, you know, properties to accommodate 120,000 charging stations," Nanne said.
A second challenge, is scaling up LA's ability to interconnect the charging stations onto its distribution system, which Nanne said will require additional investment. Some of that could come from the federal infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden this month.
Another key issue is the utility's workforce, which may need to be expanded in order to complete the necessary grid upgrades. So far, said Nanne, 90-95% of EV-related work has not required power system upgrades. But the system was built in the 60s and 70s, and soon the additional load will become a challenge.
"As we start moving into a lot higher volumes and getting that infrastructure more spread out throughout the city, there are certain areas on our grid ... that are going to have to be upgraded in order to accommodate that additional load," he said.
LADWP is also one of a handful of utilities still using a lower-powered distribution system, Nanne said. While many utilities today run 12 kv or 18 kv systems, the Los Angeles municipal utility runs a 4.8 kv system.
"So that kind of limits us, in being able to host large loads, especially like when it comes to high powered charging stations, fast chargers that have a lot more draw onto the grid," he said. Los Angeles is building out a 34.5 kV system, but it is limited.
"We're going to have to find ways to extend those lines to reach where the EV charging stations are going to go," said Nanne. "So that requires design, buying equipment, and then our workforce installing those circuits either, you know, underground or overhead throughout the city of L.A."
If the task sounds daunting, Los Angeles has a key advantage in its municipally-owned utility. "We're dealing with one authority having jurisdiction," said Nanne.
"So when it comes to permitting ... we're essentially dealing with sister agencies, whether it's the Los Angeles Department of Buildings safety, or Public Works," said Nanne. "We have those relationships that help to make this process hopefully a lot shorter than it would be otherwise, when you have a private utility that has to deal with multiple authorities."
"Cities find it a little bit easier when they have their own municipal utility," said Levin. Los Angeles in particular has a strong commitment to EV adoption because it "has some of the worst air quality in the country," he added."
New York City
Permitting is often discussed as a challenge for EV charging infrastructure, but some utilities say the speed at which permits are processed reflects how committed a city is to electrification. New York City has real estate challenges when it comes to installing chargers, along with ambitious electrification goals, but officials at the city's utility, Consolidated Edison, say that — so far — permitting has been relatively simple.
"A lot of people in other service areas talk about specific permitting difficulties that they have experienced. We've actually seen New York City is really interested in bringing in as many chargers as possible, as is the Westchester municipality," said Raghu Sudhakara, Consolidated Edison's director of demonstration projects.
But he added that the largest city in the United States is only really getting started on electrification. It's "a little early to make vast generalizations yet," he said, regarding the ease of obtaining charging station permits.
New York City's Department of Transportation released a plan in September to install thousands of chargers across the city, and expects 400,000 EVs on its roads by 2030. The plan calls for leveraging government resources to spur private investment, to install 40,000 public Level 2 chargers and 6,000 DC Fast Chargers (DCFC) by 2030.
The city, however, is starting from almost zero.
Through ConEd's PowerReady program, Sudhakara said the utility will give incentives to customers to put in about 20,000 EV chargers by 2025. More than 19,000 will be Level 2 chargers, along with about 500 DCFC chargers. Until the program launched in July 2020, ConEd only had about 2,000 Level 2 chargers and 250 DCFCs on its system in New York City.
And "the vast majority of them are private, they're not publicly accessible," said Sudhakara.
With 8.5 million people living in a dense, urban environment, New York City faces a variety of challenges. "And so it's really complex, to do any sort of major infrastructure work," he said.
ChargePoint has been working with New York City to help electrify its fleet and the city "leads by example," said Anthony Harrison, head of North American utility partnerships at the EV charging company. "They've been on the forefront of electrifying their own fleet, and they've been working very closely with Con Edison."
As for New York's lack of public charging infrastructure, Harrison said the city simply started later than others. While LADWP has had a customer-facing EV program for more than five years, New York launched its own "in the middle of a pandemic," said Harrison.
"Not only was it much later to the game ... you're trying to promote public charging when nobody's leaving their house. There's gonna be challenges with that," he said.
More than half of New York City and Westchester customers are tenants, as opposed to owning their own home, said Sudhakara. That means public charging will be key to EV adoption, because fewer residents are charging at home in their garage. The city must also provide charging to a large number of taxis and ride share vehicles.
There are signs of progress. In June, electric transportation company Revel opened a charging depot in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with 25 publicly accessible DCFC chargers. ConEdison's PowerReady program provided incentives to help make it happen.
"The broader challenges that some of our customers face is the availability of land where there is already sufficient electric capacity to interconnect these chargers," said Sudhakara.
Supplying electricity to a DCFC hub is similar to providing service to a 300 unit apartment building, he said.
The utility offers a hosting capacity map for electric vehicle charger customers, "so they could see areas of the system where ... we believe there's enough headroom" to power a charging station, Sudhakara said.
The PowerReady program also has "certain preferences built into it through pricing signals" meant to incentivize publicly accessible chargers, stations where the charger is universal, and for chargers "in the vicinity of a disadvantaged community."
"We think these are good price signals," said Sudhakara. "But then you do have a little more of a challenge in finding the right locations, where you're able to serve the public and the market can make a business case for the chargers."
While initial charging rollouts have been smooth so far, Sudhakara said the utility knows it "will likely run into the situation where we'll have more and more upgrades" as the city electrifies.
"The early projects have actually proceeded pretty smoothly on the permitting side, and also on the utility side," Sudhakara said. But as more projects come in, the utility is prepared to pursue larger grid upgrades that could include transformers.
"That's not a trivial undertaking. And that can be up to like 18 months," he said. "There will be cases like that."
The challenges faced by New York City and Los Angeles — the two most populous cities in the United States — will be similar to those in other metropolitan areas, though the scale may differ. Denver, Boston, Miami and Seattle all have ambitious goals (and unique challenges), with innovative utilities working to achieve them.