How to Accelerate Electric Vehicle Sales?
Getting low on gas in San Francisco is slightly terrifying. You’re scanning for a pump and trying not to rear-end someone and then, just to taunt you, mirages start shimmering on the street corners—abandoned gas stations like the one at Union and Van Ness, or 23rd and Valencia. They’re all over the city.
Now imagine you’re driving an electric vehicle with a low battery and the only sure power source you know of is the wall socket in your home garage. How nice would it be if those old gas stations were converted into charging docks? What if they were covered in solar canopies you could pull into for a light top off?
These are some of the things the non-profit Charge Across Town envisions. Maureen Blanc, the group’s founder and director, is trying to fulfill the promise that former Mayor Gavin Newsom made in 2006 (and which Mayor Ed Lee is now championing), that San Francisco would be the EV capital of America.
“As a city, we have not kept pace with that,” she says. “We have got to step it up.”
Blanc cites four major reasons that we haven’t seen more electric vehicles on the street: price, young technology, consumer misinformation, and lack of infrastructure. While pushing down price and improving technology are mostly in the hands of the car manufacturers, Charge Across Town is stepping in to educate the public about the realities of EV ownership, and to push for better charging infrastructure. Public education will be the fun part—look out for “EV Week”, starting September 17, and you may get to test drive a Leaf or a Volt and see all the latest electirc cars at the EV Expo in Justin Herman Plaza—but getting chargers installed will be more difficult.
Infrastructure change is tricky. Great ideas that seem easy to implement are often not: “Why can’t we take out a parking meter and put a charger in on California Street?” Blanc says. “San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority says, ‘No way, that’s a money making meter.’ We haven’t figured out how much we would charge for parking, and charge for charging.”
PG&E would also have to approve the plans because the chargers, of course, pull power from the grid. Any decision has to win approval from city government, power companies, real estate groups, and businesses who might want to install public chargers on private property.
“This is all being discussed and debated right now,” she says. “It’s very frustrating for the EV owner because while these authorities grapple with policy issues, the owner is still forced to charge at home.”
Home-charging infrastructure isn’t simple to install either. Our departing Director of Advanced Energy, Claire Tomkins, bought an electric vehicle before the Home Owner’s Association for her condo had figured out a plan for EVs, so she had to educate the building and get a temporary permit to plug into the wall socket while waiting for the communal charging infrastructure to arrive. “Buildings that aren’t designed with EVs in mind”—basically all buildings—“don’t have the designated space, and it’s costly to install charging equipment,” says Tomkins. “Adding a dedicated circuit to a parking space can cost thousands of dollars.” Which is why Charge Across Town has been working with San Francisco’s Department of the Environment to incentivize installations in multi-unit buildings through the MultiCharge SF Program.
Developing EV charging infrastructure is difficult but it’s also exciting. As a city we have the opportunity now to set precedents for the entire country. A recent Washington Post article about electric cabs in New York likened the debate over which charging standard to use to the debate between VHS and Beta. With support, electric car technologies can evolve as quickly as home entertainment technologies have, and we’ll all be able to look back and laugh about 2012, when we had to charge our EVs at home, or—imagine!—when we had to look for gas stations.