Tuesday, July 23, 2024

It’s Electric! How Businesses Are Bringing EVs To Underserved Communities

Kelvyn Lopez didn’t think an electric vehicle was in his future. But it was.

“My whole career has centered around cars,” says Lopez. “I’ve previously worked as a valet and Uber driver, and now I drive line haul routes for FedEx, so I see firsthand the pollution created by gas vehicles and the impact of rising gas prices.”

But then he found out about a new initiative designed to increase affordable access to electric vehicles for low-income drivers. The program is a collaboration of the nonprofit BlueHub Energy, vehicle-to-grid provider Fermata Energy, and Enterprise Holdings, which teamed up to offer qualified drivers access to a low-cost rental vehicle and to subsidize the cost of installing chargers.

It’s part of a broader trend worldwide in which manufacturers, vehicle-to-grid providers and rental companies collaborate to increase EV adoption in low-income communities.

The EV Pilot Program put Lopez behind the wheel of a new cyan-blue Nissan Leaf.

Why subsidize EVs in low-income areas?

“Wealthier people own most of the EVs simply because they’re more expensive, and wealthier people are able to install EV chargers in their own homes,” explains Edem Adukonu, the eMobility U.S. lead for Buro Happold, an engineering consultancy.

The solution for low-income EV adoption? Renting instead of buying. Local governments are designing rebate programs to subsidize EV charger installations in multifamily housing units and for lower-income owners of single-family homes.

“They’re also incorporating equity metrics in the deployment of public EV charging stations to enable renters to own EVs even if they can’t install chargers in their homes,” he adds.

Nick Zamanov, director of business development at Cyber Switching, a company that develops sustainable charging systems, says programs like these are necessary on the path to widespread EV adoption.

“One way to increase access to EVs in underserved communities is to install charging stations in those residential areas,” he says. There are many standalone programs that offset the cost by anywhere between 85% to 90%, but few that specifically target low-income areas.

A nationwide push to adopt EVs in underprivileged neighborhoods

Lopez, who found out about the program through his affordable housing complex in Dorchester, Mass., is renting the Leaf from Enterprise.

“In trying out the Nissan Leaf through this pilot program, I find it’s just as fast and easy to handle as any car I’ve driven,” he says. “Electric vehicles are the future, and I wish more people had the opportunity to switch, but the cost and lack of charging infrastructure remain a huge factor.”

A driver with strong credit can lease a new base model Nissan Leaf for $200 per month with a $4,000 down payment. Under the pilot program, Lopez rents the same car from Enterprise for just $100 a month.

BlueHub financed the installation of the charger at Lopez’ apartment complex. The vehicle-to-grid program earns revenue from local utility company Eversource through its Connected Solutions Demand Response program.

Lopez can use the car except during limited summer hours when it must be plugged in to support peak power demands of the grid.

“In the past few years, I’ve watched the price to fill up my tank go from about $18 to $38,” says Lopez, who previously drove a hybrid car. “Having a fully electric vehicle is going to allow me to save on gas, but also show my children how we are playing our part in the transitions to clean energy that our community, and the world, needs.”

A network of EV subsidies

The Enterprise program is not the only one of its kind:

It’s part of an effort to catch up to other developed countries, where EVs already rule the road. In Norway, for example, more than 80% of new vehicles are electric (the Norwegians love Teslas). You have to pay attention before crossing the street in Bergen because the cars make no noise.

Iceland, Sweden and the Netherlands also have high EV adoption rates.

Why are companies funding electric vehicles?

So why are businesses teaming up to offer access to EVs?

Matt Cloud, Enterprise Holdings’ strategy development director for power and utility market engagement, says the pilot is part of Enterprise’s broader EV strategy. The strategy is focused on advancing three key areas to support long-term EV viability: customer experience, power and charging viability, and equitable access.

“The best path to an electric future is one that maintains a long-term perspective and puts the customer at the center,” he says. “And this pilot fully aligns with our approach.”

There are three major barriers to accessing an EV in a low-income community. They are the upfront cost of the car, limited charging infrastructure, and limited incentives for multifamily properties to pay for installation and maintenance of EV chargers. The pilot program addresses all three through a series of grants and collaborative efforts with utility companies.

For example, part of BlueHub’s participation in the pilot program has been funded by a grant from the Opportunity Finance Network, which has worked in other communities to increase access to EVs. And Fermata’s participation is, in turn, a collaboration with utility company Eversource through its Connected Solutions Demand Response program.

“Our new pilot program will bring low-income communities into the electric vehicle transition by increasing access to EVs,” says DeWitt Jones, president of BlueHub Energy.

The program promises to lower the cost of EV charging and bring EV charging infrastructure into the community which is one of the biggest barriers to introducing EVs in low-income communities, says Jones.

It sounds complicated, but the result is simple: More people from low-income neighborhoods get to drive EVs — people who would otherwise be driving a gas-powered car, or not driving anything.

What is the future of EV programs for economically disadvantaged communities?

Does it even make sense to provide EVs to people in low-income communities?

At first glance, the answer may seem to be no. The cars are more expensive, and charging stations will have to be installed in the community. But experts say you need to look farther down the road. EVs cost less to operate over the long term, they are better for the environment, and with the right investment, the challenges of finding adequate charging can be overcome.

“The demand for electric rental cars has grown as consumers become more environmentally aware,” explains Elie Michaels’ vice president of operations at Advantage Rent A Car.

For rental companies, the challenge isn’t finding people who want EVs. It’s finding EVs.

“Rental car companies are struggling to keep up with this trend, as their electric vehicle fleets are not yet large enough to meet the demand,” explains Michaels. “One of the main challenges is the prohibitive cost of purchasing electric vehicles.”

These programs address the cost and infrastructure challenges while making EVs affordable to low-income drivers. Maybe that’s why experts say the pilot projects are urgently needed.

“Underserved communities must have a voice in the implementation, operations, and maintenance of local EV charging networks,” says Giuseppe Incitti, CEO of Sitetracker, a technology platform used by EV charging companies. “That includes creating plans for supporting EVs across larger areas with less available charging infrastructure. Deployments in these areas must be swift — and strategic.”

In America, the road to electric vehicles runs through every neighborhood, regardless of income. And that journey is just beginning.

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