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How California Is Making Electric Vehicles Unaffordable To Apartment Dwellers

How California Is Making Electric Vehicles Unaffordable To Apartment Dwellers

California, blessed with scenic Pacific coast drives but cursed with suffocating smog and drought-fueled wildfires, was destined to lead the transition away from the internal combustion engine, accounting for nearly half of all electric vehicles sold in the US each year.

However, if you are one of the millions of California residents who live in an apartment or condo complex, switching from a gas-powered vehicle to an electric vehicle can be difficult.

Because the state only requires 10% of parking spaces in multifamily garages to include the circuitry needed to set up an electric vehicle charger, and only a fraction have the outlet and equipment needed to plug a car in, a renter would need to hire an electrician to complete the setup if they wanted to use it.

Now, the state agency in charge of setting building codes wants to mandate that 40% of spaces have at least that basic infrastructure, and 5% of those have the full suite of equipment and wiring required to service an electric vehicle.

However, electric vehicle advocates argue that the state's proposal does not go far enough, as it would deny access to the vast majority of residents in multifamily units, the fastest-growing type of residence in a state whose population notoriously outstrips available housing. They also argue that it risks slowing the adoption of those vehicles in the next five years, when state and federal policing will be tightened.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development's advisory committee recommended that 100% of newly built housing complexes with parking include at least one space with charging equipment for an electric car per unit; however, the department rejected that proposal and instead moved forward with the 40% figure late last month.

California does not require additional parking, but any existing parking should be electrified.

EV Charging Access for All, Vanessa Warheit

Real estate developers pushed for the lower figure, claiming that charging demand is too low to justify the cost. Electric automakers and advocates also disagreed on how to best accommodate electric vehicle drivers' charging habits. Building industry groups demanded a looser mandate, while electric vehicle manufacturers prefer fewer spaces equipped with higher-voltage, faster charging.

The increase proposed by regulators is seen as significant progress.

However, the building codes designed today will not be in effect until 2023, and given the time it takes to build, inspect, and rent new apartment buildings, it will not affect real lives and car-buying decisions until at least 2025.

The International Energy Agency projected in a landmark report this month that the world needs to be just 10 years away from ending all sales of gas-powered automobiles by then, or else doom the planet to warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, an average that spells catastrophic changes. Housing that isn't designed for that electrified future will necessitate costly retrofits later on.

Tenants in multifamily units are disproportionately Black and Latino, two groups that struggle to buy homes in a state where single-family houses account for two-thirds of all residences, according to real estate industry data.

“Because more people of color live in multifamily housing, it’s quite frankly appalling that our state agencies charged with building better housing and ensuring we have clean air to breathe are propping up this structurally racist inequity,” said Vanessa Warheit, an El Cerrito resident who helped lead a statewide coalition of advocates called EV Charging Access for All.

A New Frontline in the Climate Conflict

According to Environmental Protection Agency data, automobiles account for 29% of emissions in the United States, with heating systems and cooking appliances accounting for another 15%. When electricity, gas, and other variables are considered, buildings consume approximately 40% of the energy consumed in the United States and produce a similar portion of greenhousing emissions.

Cities and townships are scrambling to rein in the problem with stricter energy-efficiency rules and more renewable electricity, but there is only so much they can do. Some building codes are governed locally, while others are governed at the state level. And a municipality can only go so far. If it becomes too expensive to build in one town, businesses and homebuyers may choose to relocate to a neighboring jurisdiction.

Municipalities across the country attempted to address the issue in 2019 through the International Code Council, or ICC, a nonprofit consortium of local governments and industry that creates model building codes used in all 50 states. Hundreds of counties, cities, and towns rallied that year to vote in favor of building codes that mandated circuitry for electric vehicles and appliances and that req

The vote, however, drew a fierce backlash from trade associations representing home builders and gas utilities, which accused city governments of making irresponsibly ambitious demands of the model energy code. In February, the ICC caved in and eliminated cities' right to vote on future codes entirely, despite opposition from environmentalists, local governments, and the Biden ad.

In response, cities vowed to create stricter codes regardless of the ICC's model codes, leaving them looking for a new national model. Requiring access to electric vehicle charging for every unit in a multifamily housing complex would make California that model.

“A win for 100% of dwelling units to be able to have an electric vehicle would be a gamechanger,” said Kim Cheslak, director of the New Buildings Institute, but aiming for 40% in California will “probably not impact the way we talk about this as we move across the other 49 states.”

Construction and real estate firms appear to be among the most vocal opponents of universal charging, as they were at the ICC.

At a public hearing last month, a landlord at a multifamily complex named Marshall stated that electric vehicles aren't widely used enough to justify the cost of universal charging, which would most likely be passed on to residents.

“I don’t want us to get too far out on our skis,” he said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “The number of total cars on the road that require plug-in by the time 2035 rolls around will increase, but it will still not be a one-to-one, or even close,” he added.

A Debate Over Choosing Between Volts and Cars

Electric automakers opposed a proposal that would make charging available to all but only require Level 1 outlets, the kind of three-pronged receptacles into which you'd plug a mobile phone or a toaster.

At 120 volts, those outlets charge an electric vehicle at a rate of about four miles per hour, implying that a vehicle plugged in overnight can charge enough for the daily commute but not enough to charge a completely depleted battery.

Carmakers instead advocated for universal access to Level 2 charging, which, at 240 volts, charges an electric vehicle six times faster than a standard outlet and is commonly seen powering cars in parking lots of libraries and Whole Foods.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group whose members include Ford, General Motors, and Ferrari, urged regulators in a letter to the Department of Housing and Community Development to “adopt codes that require 100% of total parking spaces in new multi-unit dwellings” to be ready to plug in electric vehicles, but recommended that the code mandate Level 2 charging.

Level 2 charging, according to proponents of universal charging, would be nice but significantly more expensive, and would largely serve an unmet need.

“The number one concern is increased access, and the number two concern is the cost of deploying EV charging,” said Rafael Reyes, the director of energy programs at Peninsula Clean Energy, a publicly owned nonprofit that provides electricity to San Mateo County, the more rural stretch of Bay Area coast south of San Francisco.

The agency's 40% proposal represented "the worst of all possible worlds," he said, because it included a mishmash of Level 1 and Level 2 devices while offering so few units with ready-to-go charging.

“It’s a lot more complicated and expensive to build than our proposal, which gives everyone access,” Reyes explained.

A victory that allows all dwelling units to have an electric vehicle would be a game changer.

Director of the New Buildings Institute, Kim Cheslak

What irritates Reyes and other electric vehicle owners is what they see as a misunderstanding of the natural habits that form once you own a plug-in car. Charging an electric vehicle is much more similar to powering an iPhone than refueling a traditional automobile. Instead of filling up the gas tank once a week or so, drivers typically plug an electric vehicle in each night and top off, rarely filling up.

Electric cars are very efficient, and most new models have enough range to satisfy the needs of a typical driver for multiple days without charging,” Consumer Reports concluded in its December 2020 electric car buying guide. “For most drivers, this means daily energy usage can be replenished from a simple 110-volt outlet, without the need to purchase and install a 240-volt Level 2 charger.”

Reducing charging access for all in order to allow faster charging for some represents “incrementalism at a time when we need a huge leap forward,” according to state Sen. Josh Becker, a Democrat representing the Silicon Valley area.

“Nobody is going to buy an electric vehicle unless they have consistent access to charging at home,” he says.

Despite this, the Department of Housing and Community Development stated that the "many stakeholders who participated in" its focus group meetings "preferred more powerful Level 2 chargers."

“This is better for people with longer commutes and [who] own EVs with larger batteries, or those who don’t have 12 or more hours to charge their vehicle and get where they need to go,” said Kyle Krause, the agency’s deputy director of codes and standards, in an emailed statement sent through a spokesperson.

According to Department of Energy statistics, approximately 80% of electric vehicle charging occurs at home; however, some in the industry appear to be betting on a future in which electric vehicle charging resembles refueling an internal combustion engine. The fast-charging stations operated by companies such as Tesla and EV Go represent a third type of charging that can fill an electric vehicle battery.

Tesla stated in an email that it "doesn't speak with press for stories," but forwarded a letter it sent to the California Building Standards Commission, the agency that sets nonresidential codes, advocating for the expansion of "publicly accessible, easy-to-use charging stations."

Will Michigan be able to take the lead where California has failed?

The disparate demands shaping the future of electric vehicle infrastructure highlight the “patchwork” that is taking place across the country, according to Cheslak.

“Even though you'd think they'd be fairly standard as you move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, there's a patchwork even across California right now,” she explained.

In the absence of a jolt from California's code, Cheslak believes Michigan's own building codes on electric vehicles, which are set to be debated later this year, could provide advocates and policy experts with another opportunity to establish a new national model.

With hopes dwindling that the ICC's code, now more firmly in the hands of industry groups, can dictate changes at the speed required to keep global warming under control, some advocates say they may turn to the federal government for help with new regulations.

“California is failing to be a leader,” said Sven Thesen, a chemical engineer and electric vehicle policy consultant who advocated for the 100% charging code in multifamily housing. “The federal government has an opportunity here to change building codes to reflect the actual behavior of EV drivers,” he added.

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