San Jose pushes electric vehicle use in low-income areas
A charging station at a city-owned parking garage in downtown San Jose. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose wants to boost electric car adoption in low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods by eliminating “charging deserts” and adding incentives to make juicing up more attractive for residents.

    As part of a pilot program unanimously approved by the San Jose City Council Tuesday, the city will work with vendors to install banks of electric vehicle (EV) chargers over the next two years at one to three city-owned or private locations.

    While residents in wealthier parts of the city are purchasing new electric vehicles at high rates, lower income residents face multiple barriers to EV adoption. In addition to the high cost, there’s a lack of charging stations in public places and apartment complexes.

    “Low-income residents also typically lack the financial resources to install (chargers) at home,” Kate Ziemba, a senior program manager with San Jose Clean Energy, told San José Spotlight. “We want to make sure these communities are not left behind in the transition to EVs.”

    In East San Jose ZIP code 95122, which covers neighborhoods like Kennedy, Overfelt and Little Saigon, 729 new zero-emissions vehicles have been registered there through mid-October, according to data from the California Energy Commission.

    Meanwhile, in the wealthy West San Jose ZIP code 95124, covering the Cambrian Park area, 4,937 zero-emissions vehicles have been purchased in the same time frame.

    Along with the installation of charging stations, the city is planning to enlist the help of community organizations to run an extensive multilingual outreach and education program, Ziemba said.

    The program will aim to raise awareness of the chargers, and try to get more people comfortable with electric cars by bringing some to neighborhoods for “ride and drive” events.

    The city would also use the events to assist residents one-on-one in navigating all the various federal, state and local tax credits, rebates or incentives available that could bring down the cost of a new or used EV as much as $20,000. For example, new base models of the Chevy Bolt are listed for about $26,000.

    District 7 Councilmember Maya Esparza, who represents portions of East San Jose, said there are often fears or uncertainty around the idea of switching to an electric car.

    “I love the idea of having events where people can come and learn about them outside of the auto mall or something,” Esparza said at the meeting.

    San Jose officials say the effort to significantly accelerate electric vehicle adoption is part of the city’s multi-pronged plan to become a carbon-neutral city by 2030.

    The city would pay a monthly fixed fee totaling roughly $245,000 annually to a charging station vendor to use the equipment, as well as to cover operation and maintenance costs, said Lori Mitchell, director of San Jose Clean Energy.

    The vendor will pay for the equipment, installation, operation and maintenance of the charging stations. The city, through its in-house electricity company San Jose Clean Energy, will supply the juice to power them and collect the revenue.

    Officials said the city is considering a monthly flat-rate for customers that allow unlimited charging, discounted rates for low-income residents and pricing to incentivize charging in the middle of the day, instead of during peak hours after work or overnight, to ease power grid demands.

    Some councilmembers and Mayor Sam Liccardo noted there is a bit of “tension” between the goals of wanting to put chargers in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and wanting people to charge during the day when they are likely working in another area.

    Mitchell said the city hopes to achieve both goals by considering private spaces in addition to city-owned spots.

    “We may have to concede a bit on the geography if the end result is we want to serve the greatest number of residents who are modest or low income,” Liccardo said. “But let’s find out where the data takes us, I look forward to learning more.”

    The project costs could range from a maximum of $4.35 million over a 10-year span to break even, or netting a small profit. The outcome depends on how many hubs are opened, how much they are used and how much grant funding the city can secure for the program.

    Mitchell said the use of the chargers at first could be “a bit of a chicken and egg scenario” as residents learn about them and consider buying electric vehicles.

    “We are hopeful that over the long term these are profitable,” Mitchell told the council. “But in the worst case, we see this as a very, very cost effective program to accelerate EV charging infrastructure in our community.”

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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