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Missouri ranks 7th in electric vehicle use, but access to charging remains barrier

Beto Lugo-Martinez is a grassroots activist who advocates for clean air. A big part of his work is fighting the expansion of “gas guzzling” vehicles and making sure that historically underserved communities receive infrastructure updates, partly to encourage driving an electric vehicle.

Electric vehicles, known as EVs, are growing more popular nationwide. As more affordable models hit the market, Lugo-Martinez, the executive director of the nonprofit CleanAirNow based in Kansas CIty, is focused on ensuring equitable access to infrastructure, including charging stations.

“We can just invest and put charging stations everywhere, but if we’re not really worried about investing in communities that are most impacted, we’ll be missing that mark again,” he said.

Missouri was recently ranked seventh in the nation when it came to the number of registered electric vehicle drivers and charging locations, with 6,740 registered electric vehicles across the state and 985 electric vehicle charging stations available.

Census tracts with lower median income commonly lack public charging options, while high-income areas tend to provide multiple such options.

Waiting game ensues

Under the federal infrastructure law, Missouri can expect to receive $99 million over five years to support the expansion of EV charging in the state. Another $2.5 billion is set aside for states across the country to apply for grants for EV charging.

Electrification infrastructure created some controversy in the Missouri legislature this year. The House passed a bill that would have prevented local governments from requiring owners of buildings to install EV charging stations, unless the cities or counties were willing to foot the bill. Ultimately the bill didn’t progress to a Senate vote.

The Metropolitan Energy Center (MEC) in Kansas City, whose goals are to create “resource efficiency, environmental health and economic vitality,” is fielding some of the money (which will often require a 50% local match) to communities to expand their electrification infrastructure. Much of that work centers around helping cities electrify their vehicles or public buses, which emit pollutants when roving around cities all day. The MEC is also using a small grants program to help municipalities that may not have the funds to match federal dollars.

Miriam Bouallegue, the sustainable transportation manager at MEC, said the nonprofit is trying to assess the needs of the metro as the money flows in.

“How do we define who’s underserved? How do we measure that? How do we target those folks without relying on past definitions that were developed for other types of infrastructure that don’t really relate?” she said.

“Most people that drive an EV are charging their car overnight in their house,” Bouallegue added. “However, if you don’t have a garage, or maybe you do, but maybe your garage was built in the 1940s and has no electricity in it— it’s really more of a shed. Then you might not be able to charge your vehicle as easily or simply as someone who can just pull into their normal spot and plug in.”

Independence, whose utilities are not provided by Evergy like the rest of Kansas City’s, has fewer charging stations than other areas in the metro, but the demand appears to be lower.  Joe Hegendeffer, deputy director of Independence Power and Light, said that many of Independence’s charging stations go unused on a day-to-day basis.

Lugo-Martinez is working on getting community members specialized training on electrification, so the push can come from the ground up.

“One of the other things that we’ve been looking at is creating some pathways for local community members to get involved in green economy, green energy, and get specialized training around EVs, building infrastructure for it in homes because then that can create that pathway for it,” he said.

Lugo-Martinez said the group is also lobbying lawmakers to provide further rebates or incentives for drivers to switch to electric, so lower-income people aren’t left behind in the push toward electrification.

A changing electric vehicle landscape

Electric vehicles cost more to buy than gas-powered autos but can save consumers money in the long run. Charging is generally much cheaper than gasoline, and maintenance costs are usually lower compared with gas-powered vehicles.

Industry forecasts suggest electric vehicles will become more affordable and commonplace in the years to come, as production volume grows and technology improves.

American automakers have put down large investments in the transition to electric. Ford is aiming for up to half of its vehicle volume to be battery-powered by the end of the decade with a $30 billion investment. General Motors has promised 30 new EVs between 2020 and 2025 in a $35 billion investment.

Federal, state and local governments have also offered tax credits and other incentives to encourage the transition to electric.

In Kansas City, Evergy offers rebates for developers looking to install electric vehicle charging infrastructure on the Kansas side. The utility is awaiting regulator approval for similar incentives on the Missouri side.

Evergy’s Clean Charge Network has also played a key role in Kansas City’s initial build-out of charging infrastructure. By the time the bulk of that project was complete, about six years ago, the utility had placed about 1,000 chargers around the city.

Since then, Evergy has installed a few dozen more, but has largely taken on a supporting role as private developers take responsibility.

“The industry is turning toward private developers, and, more specifically, private developers that are recipients of grant funding,” Voris said. “Those folks are going to be doing the vast majority of public charging station build-outs for the foreseeable future.”

As the public utility for the Kansas City region, Evergy still helps developers in the planning process. Slight tweaks to infrastructure planning can make chargers more energy- and cost-efficient, and Evergy offers guidance in those decisions.

Low-income neighborhoods may be less likely to embrace the transition to electric — largely due to a price barrier. A lack of public charging infrastructure in those neighborhoods, where multifamily homes are common and garages are less so, adds further impediment.

A Blast Point study last year found that consumers “ready to buy” an electric vehicle landed in the middle- to higher-income brackets, with an average income of $150,000. That group also tends to be college-educated and living in single-family homes, which are more accommodating to private charging than multifamily dwellings like apartments.

Blast Point found that low-income consumers don’t regard electric vehicles as favorably as more affluent drivers do. This group is more likely to not own a vehicle at all, often relying on public transit or other more affordable means of transportation.

Lugo-Martinez said an equitable infrastructure for electric vehicles had to be part of the overall picture.

“We’re seeing that where there’s wealth, of course it’s easier for them to put these stations in,” he said. “This disinvestment is really still creating that inequitable distribution of infrastructure. Because again, we’re investing in the communities that are OK already and literally catering to them.”

He added: “I would just love to see the utilities step it up, and say, ‘Hey, let’s invest and see what happens.’ I think they just need to take that chance on a community, right? And see what we can do and start from there.”

This article is published through a Creative Commons lincense, from The Missouri Independent.

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