Arthur Burton founded his renewable energy company, AMB Renewable, three years ago in Chicago to help ensure that disadvantaged communities are part of the transition to clean energy. For him, the injection of $7.5 billion in federal funds into electric vehicle infrastructure nationwide marks the start of a clean energy future that truly includes everyone.
“Underserved areas mean underserved,” said Burton. “There’s no service or opportunities of service available, but if there were, people would take advantage of them. I see people looking at some of these incentives that they get for purchasing an electric vehicle, but their first question is, ‘OK, where can I go charge that?’”
With an influx of federal investments into electric transportation nationwide, electric vehicles, or EVs, are growing dramatically in popularity. Still, many Americans, especially in low-income communities and communities of color that bear the brunt of transportation pollution, are holding back on purchasing EVs because of cost concerns and a lack of easy access to charging.
Charging stations are largely concentrated in affluent areas, while “charging deserts,” areas without public access to charge plug-in vehicles, are generally located in rural and low-income areas. Now, clean energy advocates are urging states to invest their federal money in charging stations equitably—though how exactly that will be done is still in flux. Three states in the Midwest will be key to watch.
Democrats in Michigan and Minnesota swept the midterm elections in November, joining Illinois in having full power over the state government. The Democratic wins for governorships and both legislative chambers position them to advance clean transportation more smoothly as they gear up to deploy the influx of federal funds for EV infrastructure and implement landmark state climate legislation.
Last month, the federal government approved all state plans for using the federal funds they’ll receive under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Formula Program over the next five years, with a goal of building a nationwide network of 500,000 fast EV chargers by 2030. There are currently about 115,000 individual public charging ports nationally, but only 23,000 of them are fast chargers.
Illinois is set to receive more than $148 million over the next five years. Michigan will receive about $110 million, and Minnesota will get more than $68 million to build out its EV charging network.
The NEVI program falls under Biden’s Justice40 pledge, which aims to direct 40 percent of federal benefits toward disadvantaged communities. States must use 40 percent of “benefits,” not funds, from the federal government to flow into these communities.
What constitutes a “benefit” varies by program, and specific guidelines on measuring those benefits are pending from the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation. The new joint office was formed through last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and is led by Gabe Klein, former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation and director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation.
Some examples of benefits for or within disadvantaged communities include improving access to charging stations, increased participation in clean energy job training programs that target participation from disadvantaged communities and reduction of exposure to harmful transportation-related emissions.
The first $5 billion wave of federal money is designated to build out charging stations along major highways, with few exceptions. The funds come with restrictions, including that stations must be installed every 50 miles and within a mile of an interstate exit or highway intersection. States are awaiting details on how an additional $2.5 billion in discretionary funds will be dispersed.
States are taking a variety of approaches in preparing for the buildout and ensuring it meets the Justice40 requirements.
In Illinois, the Illinois Department of Transportation is partnering with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to conduct a technical geospatial analysis to help identify gaps in EV charging accessibility. The state is receiving $148 million in federal funds from NEVI over the next five years.
Charging equity does not mean simply placing chargers in disadvantaged communities, said transportation electrification advocates. Equity in EV charging can also mean making pumps accessible for people with disabilities, ensuring all stations have multiple forms of payment and having an easy way to request maintenance on malfunctioning pumps.
Until the charging stations are up and running and owning an EV is normalized across all income levels, members of disadvantaged communities don’t have to, and should not be, left behind, said Elizabeth Irvin, deputy director of planning and programming with the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Irvin said the state is aiming to create a diverse workforce pipeline. The hundreds of thousands of planned stations are a great opportunity for disadvantaged communities to tap into new employment opportunities, said Irvin.
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However, she is still waiting on specific requirements and guidelines as they come up with specific equity goals. States could risk losing future NEVI funds if they don’t meet federal Justice40 requirements.
States were required to seek input from diverse agencies and community groups as they put their plans together, and throughout the buildout.
In Michigan, the state transportation department communicated with 200 stakeholders, including community organizations, tribal governments and members of the general public.
And in Minnesota, tribes had a seat at the table, said Robert Blake, founder of Native Sun Community Power Development, a native-led nonprofit that promotes renewable energy. One way in which states can spend their grants equitably is by using them to address old electric infrastructure, he said.
“There’s going to have to be some upgrades, especially in rural areas, where tribal nations are located,” said Blake.
His concern with EV charging infrastructure in Red Lake Nation is the unreliability of its electric grid, though states can use NEVI formula funds for electric grid upgrades. The Minnesota Department of Transportation listed addressing electrical grid capacity limitations as a key goal in its NEVI plans.
Irvin said she expects specific requirements for how the state is expected to use the funds equitably to become available within months.
After states roll out charging stations along major highways, they may use their funds to install stations elsewhere. Every year, they will submit updated plans with progress updates and detailed plans for the coming year.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” said Blake. “Let’s roll it up really quick and get this out there.”