EV Infrastructure Charges into California’s Public Spaces

Three California cities have explored locating chargers for electric vehicles in the public right of way. The changes promise to help normalize zero-emissions vehicles across the state.

by / April 14, 2020
The Curbside Charging Plaza in Sacramento, Calif., photographed in April 2020, launched in May 2019, and has now powered some 7,000 charging sessions, with more than 700 unique vehicles using the project. Skip Descant/ Government Technology

Installing electric vehicle charging curbside may be an expensive and complicated process, but more cities are exploring these infrastructure projects to keep opening up EV opportunities for more residents.

In Sacramento, Calif., city officials helped to develop the Curbside Charging Plaza, next to a public park, and also near a busy freeway and popular weekend farmers market.

In Los Angeles, a program has been underway for the last five years to attach EV charging ports to streetlights and utility poles. While officials in Berkeley, Calif., have made it easier for homeowners without access to a garage or driveway to install a car charger streetside in what is known as the Curbside Residential Pilot Charging Program.

“The right of way sends a very clear, visible signal that EVs are coming. They are the future. And showcases that infrastructure is available,” said Erin Galiger, program manager at Forth, an electric vehicle education and advocacy organization in Portland, Ore. Forth hosted a webinar earlier this month to discuss pilot projects dedicated to installing EV charging infrastructure in the public right-of-way.

“Many drivers currently still charge at home, but we know that at some point we’re going to start to get all the apartment dwellers and those who do not have a garage or a driveway to begin using EVs,” said Galiger during the webinar. “And they’re also going to need places to charge. And the right of way is one of those options.”

A project in Sacramento located six chargers with three 150-kilowatt chargers and three 50-kilowatt chargers in a public park. The chargers are owned and operated by EVgo, a nationwide charging network.

“The intent was to do the project, learn from it, create citywide guidance for future permitting,” said Jennifer Venema, sustainability manager for Sacramento Public Works during the webinar.

Early on, city officials realized that deploying a number of chargers on a number of curbsides across the city would have been overly costly and complicated. So, in partnership with EVgo, Sacramento provided the land in Southside Park. EVgo has a 10-year license to own and operate the infrastructure.

“However, as we were moving forward, we began to learn how hard it was just to get the first project done in the right of way, with an amazing partner, with everyone on the same page,” Venema reflected.

“What we did learn, going through this, even with some of the brightest minds, and with all of these key stakeholders involved throughout, is that this is hard work. And it’s expensive work,” she added. “The costs on this project ended up being much higher than anticipated.”

One hurdle ended up being an existing tree that made it difficult to design the plaza with the proper ADA accessibility — a key city priority. Sacramento also prides itself on the city’s generous tree canopy, making the removal of the tree a sore spot.

That tree “ended up being the culprit, really putting city goals up against one another,” said Venema.

By the time the city’s arborist determined that accessibility infrastructure could not go in without killing the tree, the electrical conduit had already been laid.  

“We had to learn the hard way, and the city had to bite the bullet, and essentially … remove the ramp and the accessible path in order to make this project happen within the deadline,” said Venema. “ADA for the city of Sacramento is very key. And for the next round of projects, they are being designed to include those accessible paths of travel.”

Sacramento’s Curbside Charging Plaza opened in May 2019, and has hosted some 7,000 charging sessions, with more than 700 unique vehicles using the site. Nearly 500,000 electric miles have been powered so far.

In Los Angeles, the Bureau of Street Lighting manages the bulk of the city’s curbside charging with a program that has been in place for about five years. It has installed roughly 340 chargers so far, with another 80 to be installed this year. The chargers are owned and operated by the city, said Michael Samulon, senior policy analyst for sustainability in Los Angeles, heading up transportation. To date, these chargers have supplied 577,000 kilowatt hours.

Another car-charging program is headed up by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the city-owned utility. About 45 car chargers have been attached to power poles. 

Los Angeles also operates BlueLA, a low-income EV car-share program, with about 180 charge points within 35 stations to serve roughly 100 cars, thought the service has been suspended due to COVID-19. The program is designed to serve low-income, disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“We’ve had over 900,000 miles driven to date,” said Samulon. “We’re very excited with how this is going and how it’s been working.” 

All of these projects are part of the city’s larger goal to drastically increase the use of zero-emission cars, with 25 percent of cars on the road being zero-emission by 2025 and 80 percent by 2035. There are about 1.6 million vehicles registered in the city of Los Angeles, and 7.5 million registered in Los Angeles County.

“So the amount of vehicles coming through at all times are a lot, and we need to do everything we can to help make it easier for folks to go electric,” said Samulon.

In Berkeley, the Curbside Residential Pilot Charging Program launched in 2014 with a mission to allow residents who lack off-street parking a way to charge at home. The drivers can apply to create a new space on their private property or install a curbside charging station. The property owner is charged with financing the project. Street parking remains available to all types of vehicles.

“It is not designated just for the property owner who installed the charging station, nor is it designated just for electric vehicles,” explained Sarah Moore, sustainability program manager for Berkeley. Moore works to implement climate action goals, with a specific focus on incorporating green, sustainable features into implementing electric mobility.

So far, the city has received 61 applications. Nine qualified for onsite charging, while 35 qualified for curbside charging.

“Much fewer of those have been installed,” said Moore, adding some of the concerns among drivers was whether they would always have access to the charger, which was not guaranteed.

“We also discovered a variety of issues related to placement,” said Moore, adding that in this case as well, street trees — existing or planned — sometimes got in the way. 

The curbside stations turned out to be fairly expensive ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 for the purchase and installation of the equipment. 

Moving forward, the city must decide by the end of the year whether to continue the pilot, alter it, or expand upon it.

“You want to put it in the ground and leave it in the ground,” said Galiger from Forth. “So making sure that when you’re looking at a space that you don’t have competing priorities that might come up in the future.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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