This article originally appeared on Los Angeles Business Journal.
Electric vehicles are touted as the future, especially in Los Angeles where the city’s climate goals call for 80% of vehicles sold to be electric by 2028 — seven years ahead of the state’s 2035 cutoff for gasoline-powered auto sales.
But to achieve that zero-emissions future, Los Angeles will need charging stations within reach of more people. First and foremost, that means installing chargers at apartment and condo buildings.
“People who want to buy EVs, if they can’t charge at home, where else do they charge?” said Rajit Gadh, director of UCLA’s Smart Grid Energy Research Center.
A 2019 UC Davis study examining EV charging rates in California found that more than 50% of battery-electric vehicle drivers living in single-family residences were able to charge vehicles at home while most multifamily residents primarily relied on public chargers.
“If you just look around you as you drive through Santa Monica and neighborhoods where you used to have single-family homes, you have multifamily buildings going up,” Gadh said. “It is absolutely essential that we all work toward the problem of multiunit dwelling charging.”
Los Angeles has become a hub for the growing electric vehicle industry, and now multiple local companies are tackling the problem of EV charger access.
The power of rebates
Culver City-based Chargie works directly with property owners to install charging infrastructure at multifamily and commercial buildings. Formerly a division of solar panel installer PCS Energy, Chargie was spun out last year into a separate company.
Tracy Chou, the company’s design and marketing director, said PCS Energy and Chargie have already installed chargers at more than 700 properties with multifamily buildings comprising the vast majority of that total.
“The reason why we’ve had such a big impact is that our founders are people who have worked in multifamily for a very long time, so we really understand the priorities of multifamily property owners,” said Chou.
Building owners are looking not just to install equipment in a quick and cost-efficient manner, Chou said, but to ensure operations are being monitored and chargers are kept in working order.
PCS Energy was launched in 2014 by apartment industry veterans Joseph Fryzer, Paul Jennings and Joseph Pekarovic with the goal of using renewable energy to deliver cost savings to building owners. Chou said the establishment of Chargie as a separate entity has allowed the company to better serve property owners looking to install EV charging equipment.
“You’re really talking about a lot of moving parts when it comes to EV charging,” Chou said. “If something happens with your charging station, it becomes a very difficult thing to troubleshoot. Is it the electrical? Is it the software?”
Chou said Chargie’s team guides building owners through the entire installation process as well as any maintenance necessary after chargers are up and running.
The company is also able to provide these services at a low cost to building owners in the Los Angeles area thanks to temporary subsidies offered by local utility providers.
In 2016, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began offering a rebate for multifamily property owners that covers up to $4,000 per charger, plus $750 for an additional port. Southern California Edison offers similar rebates for building owners installing chargers on site and in July announced a $436 million investment in electric vehicle infrastructure.
According to Chou, most apartment building owners that work with Chargie install chargers at virtually no cost when using these rebates.
“A lot of the time, (building owners) are paying nothing to have EV charging stations installed,” Chou said. “We manage the whole process end to end and help them reap the benefits of these rebates, but it makes a huge difference when you’re talking about a project that won’t be free in five years.”
Addressing ‘range anxiety’
Rebate programs may be especially enticing to the owners of newly constructed buildings, which are required under California’s building code to include “EV capable” parking spaces with electrical panels and raceways to support EV charging equipment in at least 10% of parking spots.
The requirements are stricter in the city of Los Angeles where developers are required to actually install chargers in at least 10% of parking spaces while ensuring an additional 20% are EV capable.
Aric Ohana, chief executive of Culver City-based Envoy Technologies Inc., said even without incentives, it’s easy for multifamily property owners to see the appeal of electric vehicle infrastructure as an important amenity for residents.
“We’re now in 15 markets in 10 states,” Ohana said. “That includes small markets like Boise, Idaho, and Athens, Ohio. In those markets, you’re not going to find incentives. It’s more forward-thinking real estate operators and developers.”
Like Chargie, Envoy sometimes installs EV-charging equipment at multifamily properties, but the company is primarily focused on a car-sharing platform that allows users to rent electric vehicles that are parked and charged up at residential and commercial properties.
Ohana said shared mobility models like this one are ideal for apartment buildings where a single vehicle can serve dozens of residents making occasional short trips. The company also gives drivers considering purchasing an electric vehicle the chance to try one out and see how it functions for typical use.
“It’s a new technology, and people have what’s called ‘range anxiety,’” Ohana said.
Drivers considering switching to an electric vehicle are often concerned about the distance cars can travel before needing to be charged, he said, and how close or far the nearest charging station is. Being able to use a vehicle when running errands or taking a day trip allows drivers to familiarize themselves with EVs’ range and battery life.
“If they test drive a vehicle, they aren’t going to get a sense of how it interacts with their day-to-day life,” Ohana said. “People are living with this car at their doorstep. It enables them to really adopt EVs.”
The future is coming
Addressing the problem of so-called range anxiety is a primary goal for EVgo Inc., the Sawtelle-based electric vehicle charging company that went public earlier this year via a reverse merger with a special purpose acquisition company.
Established in 2010, the company has built an extensive network of public charging stations spread across more than 65 metropolitan areas.
Sara Rafalson, vice president of market development and public policy, said EVgo now primarily installs DC fast chargers capable of fully charging a vehicle’s battery in just 30 minutes (compared to several hours for a typical home charger).
Fast chargers are poorly suited for apartment buildings due to high power consumption, but Rafalson said they can be a good option for drivers who live in multiunit dwellings when they are placed nearby.
“Sometimes residents don’t even have access to on-site parking,” Rafalson said. “We see high demand in areas with a large proportion of multifamily housing.”
EVgo commissioned a UCLA study released in February analyzing user data and the charging habits of apartment and condo dwellers. It showed that chargers placed in high-density urban areas attracted a larger share of apartment users than others in the EVgo network. Nearly a quarter of users in these areas did not have a charger at home.
“We like to locate chargers in places where customers want to be and where there are sufficient amenities,” said Rafalson, adding that she herself did not have a charger at home when she purchased an electric vehicle.
“I would just charge at my grocery store once a week,” she said. “I was able to integrate charging into my daily life.”
But charging in public places isn’t always convenient, and the high electrical currents generated through fast charging can degrade a car’s battery, said UCLA’s Gadh. Plus, he said, the optimum time to plug in is between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. — when most people are home, and there’s less strain on the power grid.
“To charge easily and simply, you have to be able to charge at home,” Gadh said.
Ultimately, local EV charging companies agree that public, commercial and residential charging infrastructure will all play supplementary roles in the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.
Ohana said it’s becoming clear that property owners are starting to think that way as well.
“They realize they’re going to need this, and they are future-proofing their buildings,” he said. “We’re seeing that more and more. The writing is on the wall.”