(TNS) - As a renter, Bruce Wolfe knows the struggles many people face driving an electric car when they lack access to a charging outlet at home.
He parks on the street outside his Haight-Ashbury flat in San Francisco, which doesn’t have a garage. There aren’t any public charging stations in the neighborhood, so he charges in a parking lot outside the nonprofit where he works in Marin County.
Wolfe said he can’t afford to rent an apartment that has a garage, at least not in San Francisco. Twice in the seven years he has driven electric cars, he’s run out of juice on the road and had to be towed to a charging station.
“It becomes an economic justice issue and an equity issue,” Wolfe said of renters and their lack of access to car chargers. “People can’t run cables across the sidewalk.”
His predicament illustrates gaps in California’s electric-vehicle charging infrastructure that clean-car advocates say could limit the state’s ability to transition from gas guzzlers — and hit its ambitious goals for limiting emissions that contribute to climate change.
Californians are switching to electric cars in record numbers, putting the state on track to surpass its goal of having 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025. But the plug-in infrastructure needed to support that switch is patchy.
If nothing changes, the California Energy Commission projects the state could have about 81,600 fewer public and shared charging ports than it needs in five years.
And that could be a low estimate: Electric-car sales could exceed the 2025 goal.
There are an estimated 600,000 plug-in electric vehicles in California today, and
were up 84% last year
, according to Veloz, a nonprofit that advocates for electric transportation.
Clean-car advocates say the potential infrastructure gaps could harm consumer attitudes about electric cars at a pivotal moment. Range anxiety — the fear of finding oneself by the side of the road, like Wolfe, out of juice and far from a charger — has always been an issue for the electric vehicle market.
Without easy access to abundant chargers, “there may be a backlash, or it may just slow down the adoption,” said Abdellah Cherkaoui, president of the Electric Vehicle Charging Association, a trade group. “The government has been good at funding pieces of this, but not good enough.”
The number of charging stations statewide has grown rapidly, but it hasn’t kept pace with vehicle sales, according to the Energy Commission.
California needs about 250,000 public and shared charging ports to support 1.5 million vehicles, the commission said in a July report. The state has about 40,300 such ports today, and current funding for public agencies and utilities that help fund charging stations will pay for only another 128,100.
That means the state could have about 33% fewer charging outlets than it needs in five years.
“We’re walking on new, uncharted territory,” said Energy Commissioner Patty Monahan, who lives in Berkeley and leads the body’s transportation efforts.
“If we navigate these waters correctly, we reach nirvana on clean transportation,” she said. “If we fail, we maintain reliance on gas-guzzling conventional cars. Then, we will put our climate at risk.”
If electric cars don’t become far more common, California cannot reach its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by the end of the next decade. Transportation — mostly passenger cars — accounts for about 40% of such emissions.
But the problem isn’t just the total number of chargers — there are geographic and economic gaps in the network.
Motorists can drive for many miles on major roads such as Interstate 5, Highway 101 and state Highway 99 without seeing a charging station. Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, said he hears about it from electric-car drivers all the time.
“Imagine if you only had three gas stations on I-5,” said Ting, who drives an all-electric Chevy Bolt. “It’s kind of comical. Can you imagine what the lines might look like?”
Driving north on I-5 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the longest gap without easy access to a charging station is a 75-mile stretch ending in Gustine, a dusty outpost east of the freeway. There, Tesla drivers can plug in outside Pea Soup Andersen’s restaurant.
Rose Aguirre, the longtime manager, said drivers often vent their frustration over a bowl of soup. She’ll see cars lined up to use the chargers even when she gets off shift at midnight, sometimes as many as 10.
“It’s bad for them, but it’s good for us,” Aguirre said of the steady stream of customers waiting to use a charger. “I’ve had several of them say, ‘I should have just purchased something else.’”
The growing popularity of electric cars comes as vehicle prices drop and battery ranges increase. Tesla’s popular Model 3 has a standard range of 240 miles and sells for about $39,000, before various rebates and tax incentives.
Despite technological improvements, clean-car advocates say more fast-charging stations are needed along freeways. Fast stations are capable of recharging about 80% of a battery in 30 minutes, compared with several hours for stations typically installed in homes and public parking lots.
Lawmakers approved a bill by Ting last year requiring the state to study its charging infrastructure needs every two years. Electric-car advocates hope the reports will pry money from the Legislature for more roadside stations.
Still, some advocates say the emphasis on public stations can overshadow an important reality: For commuting, most people only need to charge at home, provided they have a garage or car port
“I think we’re spending an awful lot of time and money on overly sophisticated solutions that aren’t really accelerating adoption,” said Marc Geller, who lives in San Francisco and founded Plug In America, a national advocacy group for electric-car drivers.
“Public access is much less important than we are led to believe. It’s just not rocket science. It’s plugging a device into the wall.”
Many electric-car owners say they’ve never faced issues, given that they can get a full charge at home overnight.
Amy Sinclair, a communications worker from San Rafael, was among the first Californians to go electric when she bought a Nissan Leaf in 2011.
Sinclair carries an extra-long extension cord, so she can recharge anywhere using a basic 120-volt wall outlet.
“You just have to plan ahead, like you do with gasoline,” said Sinclair, who is now on her third electric car, a Honda Clarity with an 89-mile range. “I’ve not been stuck on the side of the road. It just hasn’t happened.”
Gil Tal, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis, said the state might not need 250,000 public charging ports right away. But that will quickly change, he said. California has a longer-term goal of 5 million emissions-free vehicles by 2030.
Tal said the state will need to more aggressively build public chargers to eliminate disparities in charging infrastructure for people who live in apartment buildings, low-income communities and rural areas.
“It’s really hard to overbuild, to build too much infrastructure now,” he said.
Data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, which tracks the location of public chargers, show that many of the state’s ports are concentrated in affluent pockets of the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
The highest concentration of public chargers in the Bay Area — 59 in one ZIP code — is found in Menlo Park, where the median household income is nearly $140,000.
Public agencies, such as the Energy Commission, and utilities have incentive programs to encourage charging companies to install stations in disadvantaged communities. Some cities, including San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, require charging outlets in new apartment and commercial buildings.
Clean-car advocates say expanding access in less-affluent areas is critical because electric cars, once seen as a symbol of wealth, are becoming more affordable as the used electric market grows.
The Energy Commission is required to spend a quarter of its charging-infrastructure funding in disadvantaged areas for many projects. So far, the agency has allocated more than $12.8 million for projects in those areas.
State regulators are also experimenting with a pilot car-sharing program for residents of Bay Area affordable and senior-housing complexes. The state will spend $750,000 on the program, including vehicles and charging stations.
Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California, said that the benefits of electric cars should be shared by low-income communities that already face a “whole range of air quality assaults.”
“We need a society that is equitable and where environmental benefits are not just felt by a few, but felt across the board,” she said.
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