‘A long way to go’: How ConEd, Xcel and 4 other utilities are helping cities meet big EV goals

Electric vehicles (EVs) could finish 2021 as 5% of new car sales in the U.S., according to market observers, and are expected to make up a growing share in the years to come. Driven by city and state electrification goals, and now supported by federal infrastructure dollars, the years ahead will be a critical time for utilities working to drive beneficial electrification.

To get an idea of the challenges American cities will face with the rising numbers of EVs, Utility Dive is taking an in-depth look at how electric utilities in six cities are helping boost electric transportation adoption, through charging infrastructure and helping to support vehicle uptake.

Experts say EV adoption is poised to surge in the United States, potentially fueled by federal purchase credits now being debated on Capitol Hill. The proposal included in the Build Back Better legislation would knock up to $12,500  off the sticker price of a new electric car or truck, depending on where and how it is produced. Used EV buyers could get up to $4,000 back.

If lawmakers pass those credits, “you’ll see an immediate leap forward in demand for EVs,” Joel Levin, executive director of Plug in America, said.

President Joe Biden wants half of all new passenger vehicle sales in the United States to be EVs by 2030. That’s achievable, transportation experts say, but will require development of new supply chains, along with public charging infrastructure to support an equitable transition.

Are cities ready for the transition? Not yet, say experts. But some are heading that way, while others will face difficulties.

“It is kind of a real estate problem, because basically wherever you put in charging you’re taking a parking space,” said Levin. “As cities get denser, that becomes more of a challenge — New York City being the extreme example, where real estate is really at a premium.”

The Big Apple ranks 4th among U.S. cities in electric vehicle adoption, according to a Sept. 16 report from the New York Times, but lags on public charging infrastructure. The city’s utility, Consolidated Edison, launched a program last year that aims to help install thousands of charging ports by 2030.

Los Angeles has the most EVs on its roads and is widely considered a leader on EV infrastructure, though city leaders acknowledge there is much work to be done. EVs make up about 12% of new car sales in California, and “L.A. is probably above that,” said Levin.

Other major cities of varying size are also looking to electrify transportation. In Denver, Xcel is helping the city with its goal to reach 30% EV adoption by 2030. Eversource is helping Boston put an EV charger in every neighborhood by 2023.

In Miami, where 40% of the state’s EVs are registered, Florida Power & Light is looking beyond the city’s urban center and is installing chargers along the turnpike. Seattle City Council has a plan to “electrify everything that moves people, goods, or services in and around our city.”

“Utilities, obviously, are really a critical piece of this,” said Levin.

Los Angeles

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The city of Los Angeles has about 4 million people, and has developed a plan calling for 80% of all light-duty passenger vehicle sales to be EVs by 2028.

“We thought we were kind of ahead of the curve when it comes to EV infrastructure,” said Yamen Nanne, who has been the electric transportation program supervisor at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for the past two and a half years.

A state assessment indicated otherwise.

In the past three years, LADWP has helped to increase the number of commercial charging stations in the city by over seven-fold, said Nanne. Los Angeles went from about about 2,000 commercial charging stations to over 14,000 commercial charging stations, with about 2,700 of those publicly accessible.

“We’ve really been happy about what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last three years,” he said.

“We thought we were kind of ahead of the curve when it comes to EV infrastructure.”

Yamen Nanne

Electric transportation program supervisor, LADWP

But in May, the California Energy Commission completed an assessment at the direction of state lawmakers to determine how the state is going to meet EV adoption targets. New non-electric vehicles will stop being available for sale starting in 2035, and as a lead up to that, California wants to get to 7.5 million EVs in the state by 2030.

To accommodate those electric vehicles, the state will need about 1.2 million public and shared chargers, the CEC assessment found. Nanne said Los Angeles has about 10% of the state’s vehicles, meaning the city needs about 120,000 commercial chargers by 2030.

“We have a long way to go over over the next eight to nine years to get there,” he said.

The biggest challenge, said Nanne, is going to be finding the additional funding to help pay for some of the cost of installing the necessary infrastructure. So far, the city has installed about 15% of chargers available in Los Angeles by utilizing state funds through various market based programs like the Low Carbon Fuel Standard program, he said.

Ultimately, though, LADWP expects the private sector to play a major role. “Because we just simply don’t have enough, you know, properties to accommodate 120,000 charging stations,” Nanne said.

A second challenge, is scaling up LA’s ability to interconnect the charging stations onto its distribution system, which Nanne said will require additional investment. Some of that could come from the federal infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden this month.

Another key issue is the utility’s workforce, which may need to be expanded in order to complete the necessary grid upgrades. So far, said Nanne, 90-95% of EV-related work has not required power system upgrades. But the system was built in the 60s and 70s, and soon the additional load will become a challenge.

“As we start moving into a lot higher volumes and getting that infrastructure more spread out throughout the city, there are certain areas on our grid … that are going to have to be upgraded in order to accommodate that additional load,” he said.

LADWP is also one of a handful of utilities still using a lower-powered distribution system, Nanne said. While many utilities today run 12 kv or 18 kv systems, the Los Angeles municipal utility runs a 4.8 kv system.

“So that kind of limits us, in being able to host large loads, especially like when it comes to high powered charging stations, fast chargers that have a lot more draw onto the grid,” he said. Los Angeles is building out a 34.5 kV system, but it is limited.

“We’re going to have to find ways to extend those lines to reach where the EV charging stations are going to go,” said Nanne. “So that requires design, buying equipment, and then our workforce installing those circuits either, you know, underground or overhead throughout the city of L.A.”

If the task sounds daunting, Los Angeles has a key advantage in its municipally-owned utility. “We’re dealing with one authority having jurisdiction,” said Nanne.

“So when it comes to permitting … we’re essentially dealing with sister agencies, whether it’s the Los Angeles Department of Buildings safety, or Public Works,” said Nanne. “We have those relationships that help to make this process hopefully a lot shorter than it would be otherwise, when you have a private utility that has to deal with multiple authorities.”

“Cities find it a little bit easier when they have their own municipal utility,” said Levin. Los Angeles in particular has a strong commitment to EV adoption because it “has some of the worst air quality in the country,” he added.”

New York City

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Permitting is often discussed as a challenge for EV charging infrastructure, but some utilities say the speed at which permits are processed reflects how committed a city is to electrification. New York City has real estate challenges when it comes to installing chargers, along with ambitious electrification goals, but officials at the city’s utility, Consolidated Edison, say that — so far — permitting has been relatively simple.

“A lot of people in other service areas talk about specific permitting difficulties that they have experienced. We’ve actually seen New York City is really interested in bringing in as many chargers as possible, as is the Westchester municipality,” said Raghu Sudhakara, Consolidated Edison’s director of demonstration projects.

But he added that the largest city in the United States is only really getting started on electrification. It’s “a little early to make vast generalizations yet,” he said, regarding the ease of obtaining charging station permits.

New York City’s Department of Transportation released a plan in September to install thousands of chargers across the city, and expects 400,000 EVs on its roads by 2030. The plan calls for leveraging government resources to spur private investment, to install 40,000 public Level 2 chargers and 6,000 DC Fast Chargers (DCFC) by 2030.

The city, however, is starting from almost zero.

Through ConEd’s PowerReady program, Sudhakara said the utility will give incentives to customers to put in about 20,000 EV chargers by 2025. More than 19,000 will be Level 2 chargers, along with about 500 DCFC chargers. Until the program launched in July 2020, ConEd only had about 2,000 Level 2 chargers and 250 DCFCs on its system in New York City.

And “the vast majority of them are private, they’re not publicly accessible,” said Sudhakara.

With 8.5 million people living in a dense, urban environment, New York City faces a variety of challenges. “And so it’s really complex, to do any sort of major infrastructure work,” he said.

ChargePoint has been working with New York City to help electrify its fleet and the city “leads by example,” said Anthony Harrison, head of North American utility partnerships at the EV charging company. “They’ve been on the forefront of electrifying their own fleet, and they’ve been working very closely with Con Edison.”

As for New York’s lack of public charging infrastructure, Harrison said the city simply started later than others. While LADWP has had a customer-facing EV program for more than five years, New York launched its own “in the middle of a pandemic,” said Harrison.

“Not only was it much later to the game  … you’re trying to promote public charging when nobody’s leaving their house. There’s gonna be challenges with that,” he said.

“The broader challenges that some of our customers face is the availability of land where there is already sufficient electric capacity to interconnect these chargers.”

Raghu Sudhakara

Director of demonstration projects, ConEd

More than half of New York City and Westchester customers are tenants, as opposed to owning their own home, said Sudhakara. That means public charging will be key to EV adoption, because fewer residents are charging at home in their garage. The city must also provide charging to a large number of taxis and ride share vehicles.

There are signs of progress. In June, electric transportation company Revel opened a charging depot in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with 25 publicly accessible DCFC chargers. ConEdison’s PowerReady program provided incentives to help make it happen.

“The broader challenges that some of our customers face is the availability of land where there is already sufficient electric capacity to interconnect these chargers,” said Sudhakara. 

Supplying electricity to a DCFC hub is similar to providing service to a 300 unit apartment building, he said.

The utility offers a hosting capacity map for electric vehicle charger customers, “so they could see areas of the system where … we believe there’s enough headroom” to power a charging station, Sudhakara said.

The PowerReady program also has “certain preferences built into it through pricing signals” meant to incentivize publicly accessible chargers, stations where the charger is universal, and for chargers “in the vicinity of a disadvantaged community.”

“We think these are good price signals,” said Sudhakara. “But then you do have a little more of a challenge in finding the right locations, where you’re able to serve the public and the market can make a business case for the chargers.”

While initial charging rollouts have been smooth so far, Sudhakara said the utility knows it “will likely run into the situation where we’ll have more and more upgrades” as the city electrifies.

“The early projects have actually proceeded pretty smoothly on the permitting side, and also on the utility side,” Sudhakara said. But as more projects come in, the utility is prepared to pursue larger grid upgrades that could include transformers.

“That’s not a trivial undertaking. And that can be up to like 18 months,” he said. “There will be cases like that.”

The challenges faced by New York City and Los Angeles — the two most populous cities in the United States — will be similar to those in other metropolitan areas, though the scale may differ. Denver, Boston, Miami and Seattle all have ambitious goals (and unique challenges), with innovative utilities working to achieve them.

Denver

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The city of Denver, with a population of around 750,000, published an EV Action Plan in 2020 calling for all light duty vehicles in the city to be electric by 2050. En route, the city wants to see 15% of vehicle registrations electric in 2025, and 30% in 2030.

Getting there will require a rapid buildout of chargers, and the plan calls for the city and county to continue growing its partnership with Xcel Energy and charging providers, “to ensure there is a supportive environment for deploying charging infrastructure.”

To help customers consider the potential grid upgrades necessary for charging projects, Xcel has begun offering a “concierge” service among its other EV offerings to help meet electrification plans in Denver and the rest of its eight-state territory. 

As of October 2019, the city’s plan identified about 400 public charging ports, with most of those being Level 2. About 4% are DCFC and 10% are Level 1 chargers.

“Denver will need 10 times the current number of charging ports over the next 10 years,” the action plan concluded, including nearly 750 DCFC ports and 3,300 Level 2 charging ports.

“These charging port estimates will require approximately 360 L2 and 75 DCFC charging port installations per year — much higher than the current rate of installation,” the report noted.

These plans fit within Xcel’s strategy to serve 1.5 million electric vehicles across its eight state territory by 2030. That amounts to an anticipated 30-fold increase in plug-in vehicles across its service regions, said Nadia El Mallakh, area vice president of strategic partnerships and ventures at Xcel.

“This fall, we rolled out a suite of programs in Colorado, a very holistic package that really puts us on the road to reaching this very ambitious goal,” El Mallakh said. “We really want to make EVs accessible for all of our customers at all income levels.”

The utility is working with our regulators to get programs approved “to develop charging infrastructure solutions for single family homes, multifamily homes, retailers, businesses, ride sharing services … all of these different segments of our customers,” El Mallakh said. “And we have some additional support for income qualified customers.”

The utility is allowed to own some chargers in Colorado, and for commercial customers offers a make ready program to help offset infrastructure costs, including improvements to the distribution system up to the point of the charger hub.

“We have rebates, particularly for high emission communities,” El Mallakh said. In Colorado, the largest is Denver, according to a data visualization from Xcel.

“We can help install not only that infrastructure, but even provide rebates for the chargers themselves,” she said. For a Level 2 charger, that could mean more than $2,000. A DCFC station could receive up to $45,000 per charging port.

So far, Xcel has not had issues in finding space for charging infrastructure. And it works with customers through an EV “concierge program” where it assigns an advisor to commercial customers looking to adopt electric transportation solutions, El Mallakh said.

“They might have a lot of information or they might just be exploring. We assign an EV advisor to meet with them and walk them through the process, tell them what programs of ours they would be eligible for,” El Mallakh said. The utility also helps the customer consider specific site logistics, including what grid upgrades might be needed and how much they might cost.

“While there is going to be the need for upgrades over time … it’s nothing that we can’t handle in the due course of business,” she said.

The utility also offers a rebate for for vehicle purchases, for income qualified customers, that can be combined with federal incentives. That can mean up to $5,500 back from Xcel for the purchase of a new vehicle, and $3,000 for a used vehicle.

Xcel is aiming for carbon-free electricity by the middle of the century, with an 80% renewable energy goal for 2030, and electrification of vehicles is a big part of that plan.

“We do see electric transportation as the next chapter in our clean energy leadership,” El Mallakh said. “And being able to do that in a way that we can help all of our customers and communities make that transition easier and help address the barriers, and focus on the access.”

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Boston

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In Boston, city officials have teamed up with Eversource, the local utility, in a rollout of hundreds of new EV plugs in neighborhoods across the city.

After a slow start, city transportation officials and Eversource are pushing ahead with plans to install 198 Level 2 charging plugs by 2025 in municipal parking lots and other locations in Boston neighborhoods beyond the downtown, including Dorchester, Roxbury, Hyde Park and Mattapan.

The installation of another, roughly 200 EV plugs will be left to the private sector, a system that has worked so far in downtown Boston.

To date, developers and commercial property owners have installed 658 EV plugs in affluent downtown neighborhoods like Back Bay, the South End and Beacon Hill, heavily concentrated in commercial parking garages as well as condo buildings, hotels and shopping centers, according to the city’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Roadmap.

That, however, has left a gap in coverage in several other neighborhoods where the bulk of Bostonians live.

The city of Boston’s overarching goal is to have either an EV car share facility or an EV charging station within a 10-minute walk of all city residents by 2030, according to city plans. By 2023, the city hopes to have at least one EV charger in every neighborhood.

“The goal is to expand that access to public EV charging to areas that didn’t have it,” said Matt Warfield, a “new mobility” planner in the Boston Transportation Department.

While the city’s EV buildout was kicked off two years ago, progress initially was slow, Warfield said. However, the effort is starting to accelerate after some early learning curves, he added.

One of the issues that came to the forefront was the cumbersome process of lining up the various construction and work permits needed to start construction, Warfield said.

Separate permits are currently needed to first do the excavation work needed to install the necessary infrastructure, followed by a second permit for doing the electrical hookups, he said.

A working group convened by city officials is now looking at ways of streamlining the process, such as lining up the necessary permits at roughly the same time instead of sequentially, according to Warfield. “It is the same type of construction everywhere – we should be able to build out a standard process,” he said.

Still, running out of municipal parking lots to install chargers in, city officials are also looking to new locations, such as community centers and local library branches, he said.

In addition, city officials are now requiring all large new real estate development projects in “parking freeze zones” to install EV charging stations in 25% of their parking, while making the remaining spaces ready for EV charger wiring, Warfield said. Parking freeze zones are sections of the city where the creation of new, additional parking spaces beyond a pre-set limit is prohibited under city regulations.

Eversource is working with the city on the effort through the utility’s make ready program, undertaking all the excavation, infrastructure and electrical work needed for the chargers to be deployed, according to James Cater, the program lead for the EV infrastructure buildout in Boston. 

“We are looking at a significant escalation of EV charging in the city,” Cater said.

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Miami

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According to the Department of Energy, Florida, with more than 65,000 electric vehicles (EVs) registered in the state, trails only California in new registrations. An analysis by Elektrek using federal data determined the state had the third highest amount of charging infrastructure in the U.S., with most of that in Miami and the broader south Florida area.

That has Florida Power and Light, the state’s largest utility, taking a lead role in the vehicle transition. “We know that rapid adoption is inevitable,” said Anuj Chokshi, director of development at FPL in charge of EV programs. “The infrastructure to support adoption isn’t quite there, but we at FPL are in a unique position to make it easier for folks to go electric.”

The FPL Evolution pilot, announced in 2019, set a goal to increase available chargers by 50%, installing more than 1,000 across the state. FPL says it currently has 518 charging ports in operation across 100 locations and 569 charging ports across 101 locations under construction. The charging ports under construction are expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2022.

A bulk of deployment is in South Florida, with an estimated 40% of EVs in the state registered in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to Miami-Dade County. That will only rise with county Mayor Daniella Levin Cava’s goal to make 10% of the region’s new car purchases electric this year, with the benchmark rising 10% each year. The county also wants to fully transition its municipal fleet to electric by 2030.

In September, Cava partnered with charging company OBE Power to launch four smart chargers at Miami-Dade parking facilities that will be free to residents, with plans to deploy more.

FPL is looking beyond that urban core. Chokshi said FPL has installed 15 chargers along the Florida turnpike and other highways to make sure drivers can charge up on long trips (they are also along hurricane evacuation routes). The utility relies on statewide data to determine the best charging sites based on demand, transmission and protection from extreme storms.

“We want every driver to have the confidence to know they can drive an EV, especially by providing equitable access in underserved and rural areas,” he said.

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Seattle

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In 2016, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution aiming to see 30% of residents driving EVs by 2030. But the world has changed since then.

Earlier this year, Seattle revealed a new roadmap for transportation electrification with several notable changes, including a new target: for zero-emission transportation to account for 90% of all personal trips within the city by 2030.

Combating climate change remains a central issue for the city’s electrification ambitions, according to Andrea Pratt, climate and transportation program manager for Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. But since the launch of its initial EV goal in 2016, the city has become increasingly focused on equity as well.

Public input since the creation of the 30% goal revealed that while city residents generally want to see more electrification, many felt that EVs were financially inaccessible and contributed to gentrification, according to the city’s final Transportation Electrification Blueprint, released in March. This led to an increased focus on mode shifting — policies and improvements that encourage residents to switch from single occupancy vehicles to other forms of transportation such as walking, biking and public transit.

“Our ‘North Star’ is to electrify everything that moves people, goods, or services in and around our city in order to reduce climate emissions and air pollution, increase electric mobility options, and create a pipeline of green jobs and workforce diversity,” Pratt said in an email.

Over the development of the electrification blueprint, the city learned the importance of casting a wide net with stakeholders in order to gain multiple perspectives and also “because transportation electrification is so intersectional,” said Pratt.

“You can’t always see all the various connections of this work so having a big tent from various sectors will foster big ideas and valuable collaboration,” she said.

In addition to the 90% carbon-free transportation goal, Seattle also aims to ensure shared mobility services like bikes, scooters, taxis, carshare and delivery services are 100% electric, and will restrict cars from some roads to promote walking, biking and other forms of transportation.

The city also wants to expand its electric grid to ensure that power service remains reliable amid increased demand for charging and other electric transportation. This, according to the electrification blueprint, remains one of the city’s unsolved challenges. Success in achieving the original 30% electrification goal would consume 10% of Seattle City Light’s average daily generation, according to a study released earlier this year. 

This level of infrastructure deployment will require a realistic look at barriers to infrastructure deployment including lease agreements, permitting processes, and other agreements,” David Logsdon, director of electrification and strategic technology for Seattle City Light, said in an email.

“It will also require sustained education and outreach to ensure that when people see electrification infrastructure they are thinking about the substantial environmental, public health, and rate benefits that these investments bring,” he said.

However, Pratt said she sees a potential solution in the federal infrastructure bill. 

“Not only will this historic piece of legislation provide funding for corridor charging, grid upgrades and port electrification, it could also provide opportunities to get chargers in hard to reach places like public housing and apartments,” Pratt said. “There is a tremendous amount of infrastructure that must be installed and operational in order to meet the growing EV demand, tackle the climate crisis and ensure an equitable transition.”

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