Is Richmond ready for electric vehicles?

Electric vehicles are trendy, due to concerns over climate change, increases in oil prices and the attractions of cool technology. But what is it really like to drive an electric car in Richmond?

The underground parking is cool and dark, even on the sunniest day. Bulbs let off pale white light, and green exit signs emit a neon glow. Three electric chargers are located near the building entrance, surrounded by six electric cars. By the time Cesar Zepeda leaves his office in downtown Oakland, his white Ford Focus Electric is fully charged. The ring-shaped LED indicator of the charge port shines brightly. The screen reads “thank you” when he pulls the plug out of the vehicle and puts it back into the charging station.

Zepeda is an advocate for green energy and electric cars; he co-chairs the environmental justice committee of the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization. He starts the car, and a pleasant tone rings: The vehicle is ready to take Zepeda home to Richmond.

This 20-minute trip will take approximately 25 percent of the car’s electricity — and zero gasoline.

The car is Zepeda’s first electric vehicle, which he bought a few months ago, because “it’s for the betterment for our community and betterment for our environment,” he said.

Electric vehicles are trendy, due to concerns over climate change and increases in oil prices. And there’s the attraction of the cool technology. These are reasons that policymakers and auto companies picture a bright future for electric vehicles.

But is Richmond ready?

There are more than 900 electric vehicles registered in the city, but only six charging stations located in four sites are open to the public 24-seven. And most of the apartment buildings are not equipped with charging plug-ins, either.

“Right now, we don’t have the infrastructure,” said Zepeda, “and without the infrastructure people are more hesitant to purchase electric vehicles.”

There are options in Richmond, such as a project offered by the Community Housing Development Cooperation (CHDC) that helps lower-income families apply for grants and loans to buy electric cars. The program could end in 2018, but CHDC members are appealing for an extension, according to Vivian Rahwanji, the program manager.

Statewide, California is also offering financial incentives that residents could get up to $7,000 in rebates when they buy new electric or hybrid vehicles.

Earlier this year, the state tried to increase the rebate programs to boost sales of zero-emission cars. However, a $3 billion bill was scrapped at the Capitol by lawmakers, because its lack of details and vagueness of money sources.

The electric vehicle market is also boosted by federal incentives. Depending on qualified electric vehicle models, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers tax credit, from $2,500 to $7,500, for every new purchase. However, Republicans in the House of Representatives are proposing to eliminate this program.

Nevertheless, the sales of electric vehicles have been growing within the past 10 years. “There is no doubt that, based on the vehicle sales, we need to catch up a little bit on charging stations, especially in work places, grocery stores and apartment building,” said Timothy Lipman, co-director of UC-Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC).

“We want to make electric vehicles practical for people who live in an apartment building, who cannot install charging stations at home,” he added.

Richmond started participating in National Drive Electric Week in 2015, which Lori Reese-Brown, the transportation project manager in Richmond, considers as a chance for residents to learn about the benefits of electric vehicles — not only for the environment, but also for their own quality of life.

Besides the need of more charging stations, Reese-Brown clearly stated that the city needs to outreach to communities with lower-income and underserved families.

And “that’s the community we want to target,” she said.

The state of EV in Richmond

On September 9, Sierra Club held the National Drive Electric Week at Hilltop, where most of the electric car dealerships are located. Several auto makers showcased their electric car models, varying from a fancy Tesla Model S to a well-known Nissan LEAF.

People came with all sorts of questions: What is an electric vehicle? How do they work? Where can you buy one? What’s the cost? How do you maintain it? What’s infrastructure?

There’s one message Zepeda wanted to communicate during the event: It’s easy to get a car.

“You can just go up the hill to buy an [electric] car, which means that sales tax is going right back into Richmond,” he said.

The development of electric vehicles has been slow going in Richmond, however, especially in lower-income communities. This is not only because gas cars are more affordable, but also because they are “the only thing that they know,” said Zepeda.

Reese-Brown agreed with Zepeda. She said the reason for the city to participate in National Drive Electric Week is to help residents “become knowledgeable and understand what it is like to own and drive electric vehicles,” which could eventually “encourage people to purchase and to drive electric cars.”

Knowledge is not the only barrier for Richmond residents when it comes to owning electric cars. Many people are also concerned about infrastructure, namely the accessibility of charging stations.

Depending on models, electric cars require up to 15 hours of charging time every day. However, many Richmond residents live in apartments that lack stations on site or nearby, and they probably don’t have a garage to install charging stations.

Reese-Brown said city is aware that “there’s high demand and we don’t have enough charging stations,” and is planning to build more in the next few years. And although there’s no city budget designated for the transportation project, the electric-charging plan is funded in various ways.

In 2014, city council members signed an Environmental and Community Investment Agreement (ECIA) with Chevron, which included $20 million in funding for transportation and transit programs over 10 years.

Some of these funds would be used to install charging stations throughout the city, in addition to increasing electric vehicles usage and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But so far, “we have not yet utilized that money,” said Reese-Brown.

There was an additional $800 million injected into California’s charging network since July 2017, coming from Volkswagen’s settlement for its diesel-emission scandal. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) plans to distribute the money over the next 10 years to grow the zero-emission-vehicles market, install charging stations and educate people about green cars.

Besides public charging stations, drivers are also encouraged to install private charging ports at home. Contra Costa County is asking every new development to have charging stations, and Zepeda said they are working on getting all cities in the Bay Area to adopt a similar ordinance.

He’s hopeful. “We’re working on getting Richmond to be the first city to adopt this new ordinance,” Zepeda said, “and looks like Richmond might be adopting something early in 2018.”

Cheaper, cleaner

There are probably a thousand screws stored in red cabinets, lying on dark wooden tables and hanging on the beige tile wall, inside Nate’s Green Garage. Owner Nathan Hutchison filled a green cart with all sizes of sockets and two bulky electric wrenches. He pulled the cart to the outdoor carport to put a headlight on a Toyota hybrid.

The maintenance of electric cars is usually simpler and cheaper, and not only because of the designs, but also there are fewer parts to take care of, said Hutchison, who has been working on EV and hybrid cars for 10 years. “In the long term, electric cars could be cheaper than gas cars,” he added.

Electric cars can be charged with a variety of plug-ins, or electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE). But the time for a charge varies depending on the wire voltages.

Most electric cars can be charged at home with an AC Level 1 EVSE, which provides 120-volt electricity. It’s the same voltage we often use as part of daily tasks, but it takes a long time to fully charge a car.

An AC Level 2 EVSE offers 240-volt or 208-volt. It charges faster, but usually needs additional installation at home. It’s also the type that most charging stations offer.

Some charging stations also offer Direct-current (DC) Level 2, which is the most rapid charging equipment, but is only available for specific models of electric vehicles, like a Kia Soul.

Planning to buy an electric car, Lipman installed a 220-volt wire while renovating his garage. “People would pay $2,000 for accessories like leather seats and better sound system, so for electric cars, the faster charger just become a $500 accessory,” he said.

For Lipman, electric cars are not just for people who care about the environment, but also for people who care about their money — or even just to have fun driving.

Although the entry-level prices of an electric car are generally higher than a gas one, EVs cost less in fuel and maintenances, which means the total price of ownership is lower, said Lipman.

In the United States, the price of a new electric car starts at $20,000. A used one could be less than $6,000.

Currently, California offers many incentives to encourage the purchase of electric cars. Starting from 2010, the state has spent millions of dollars in the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, which offers up to $7,000 for purchases of eligible electric and hybrid vehicles.

Locally, the CHDC is working with CARB to offer grants and loans to lower-income families in the Bay Area for purchasing hybrid or electric vehicles. The pilot program has supported 27 families with up to $5,000 for an electric or a hybrid car since 2016.

But this project is not for everyone. Recipient families must meet the criteria of “low-income,” which varies among cities and counties. And the application could take more than two weeks, because “the money is just for specific ZIP codes,” Rahwanji explained.

She said that charging stations have been the biggest challenge when it comes to getting people to purchase electric vehicles. Even though the project also provides up to $2,000 for installing charging stations at home, only one family was able to apply for the money, because “most participants do not own their own homes” and “charging could be a problem for these people.”

To cope with this challenge, CHDC just received an amendment to implement a charging station in their office, and they are hoping to complete the installation by next year.

“California is probably not the most progressive state in terms of green energy — Hawaii is trying to get 100 percent of renewable power — but we are definitely one of the leaders,” Lipman said.

California also has the largest population in the country, so it is harder to encourage people of various communities to adopt to green energy.

The United States has one of the largest electric vehicle markets, and California reportedly owns the most electric cars and public charging stations. According to Lipman, about 40 percent of the state’s electric cars are in the Bay Area.

Despite the population challenges, traffic and greenhouse gas emissions have been California’s top concerns in recent years. Even in a traffic jam, gas cars continue burning gasoline and emitting carbon dioxide, while electric cars are quiet and gasless. As usage of cars increases, electric vehicles seem to promise a cleaner future.

Driving electric cars in some states like Ohio or Kentucky could be more polluting than gasoline cars because they run on electricity generated by burning coal, said Lipman. In fact, according to U.S. Department of Energy, most domestic electricity production contributes to air pollution, and electric cars are considered as zero-emission vehicles because they don’t exhaust or emissions directly.

But California has many renewable electric sources, like wind, solar and hydro, which means, despite zero emission of greenhouse gases, driving electric cars in California is more environmentally beneficial than in other states, said Lipman.

Zepeda also pointed out that, with multiple solar power programs going on in Richmond, driving electric in the city definitely minimizes pollution to the environment.

Thinking about tomorrow

On the back of Zepeda’s new Ford Focus Electric, there are two white stickers saying “Access OK” with a diamond symbol, which allows him to drive on carpool lanes freely.

The High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, or diamond lane, because of the white diamond symbols on the pavement, is a state strategy to manage highway traffic and reward eco-friendly commuters. Depending on routes, only cars with no less than two or three occupants are allowed to use these lanes during busy hours. This state law aims at encouraging ridesharing during peak hours to reduce traffic pressure and improve air quality.

While driving his electric car, Zepeda is able to use these diamond lanes without any fine, which is at least $460.

“Not only I’m saving money, but I’m also trying to save the world, trying to save our environment, by not using non-renewable sources,” Zepeda said.

EVs have come a long way. The development of electric cars started more than 100 years ago, according to Lipman. But the vehicle was not widely known or accepted until its battery could hold a charge during longer trips.

The rapid development of battery technology, and the strong national and local incentives, are offering a bright future for the electric vehicle market. Zepeda pointed out that a lot of auto manufacturers are ensuring that cars in future fleets are electric, or have some kind of hybrid capacity.

“Thinking long-term,” he said. “We are gonna all go electric.”

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