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DEP pushes to expand electric vehicle infrastructure, but challenges lie ahead

Pa. eyes improving access in communities of color, as well as rural and low-income areas

  • Madison Goldberg
Rush-hour traffic heads west, right, and east, left, along the Schuylkill Expressway Wednesday, April 10, 2019 in Philadelphia.

Jacqueline Larma / AP Photo

Rush-hour traffic heads west, right, and east, left, along the Schuylkill Expressway Wednesday, April 10, 2019 in Philadelphia.

Almost from the outset, 2021 has been a big year for electric vehicles.

In January, General Motors said it aims to sell only zero-emission light-duty cars and trucks by 2035. Ford unveiled the electric version of its F-150 pickup truck, a member of the best-selling series of trucks in the country. Honda declared a target of all-electric vehicle sales in North America by 2040.

With the transportation sector accounting for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., EVs are widely seen as part of the answer to the climate crisis. Research makes it clear that warming will continue in coming decades even if the world adopts stringent mitigation measures, but the severity of that warming depends on greenhouse gas emissions.

Just how beneficial an EV is for the climate depends on the local power grid: charging one using electricity generated by wind turbines is cleaner than using electricity generated by coal. But research has shown that in virtually all scenarios, EVs produce less in greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetimes than conventional vehicles.

Against this backdrop, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is updating transportation infrastructure to keep pace with the transition.

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, believes investment in EV infrastructure by the state is critical.

“The market is moving so fast,” he said. “If municipalities and counties and the Commonwealth really don’t start planning for this future, we could be in a bind, because you don’t want it to move faster than we’re ready for.”

On the federal level, the New York Times has reported that funding for EV charging stations made it into the bipartisan infrastructure deal announced last week.

Pennsylvania is touting its own efforts, with the DEP saying last week that it has installed 1,000 of what are known as “Level 2” vehicle charging plugs with funding from a state program.

“I think it’s indicative of how state dollars are really helping to increase transportation electrification and help spur it along,” said Ngani Ndimbie, an executive policy specialist at the state Department of Transportation, which collaborates with the DEP on EV projects.

The DEP created the funding program, called Driving PA Forward, in 2018. It uses money from a settlement reached by Volkswagen Group of America and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over allegations that the auto manufacturer had cheated on emissions tests.

The program funds a number of projects, including grants and rebates for EV charging infrastructure, designed to target nitrogen oxides. Emitted from the tailpipes of gasoline and especially diesel vehicles, nitrogen oxides combine with other pollutants to form ground-level ozone and particulate matter, both of which can harm people’s lungs.

“Level 2,” typical of public charging stations, is one of three main categories of EV charging plugs. According to a 2019 DEP report, Level 2 chargers replenish 10 to 20 miles of range for every hour of charging. The next level up is the DC fast charger, which is also funded by the Driving PA Forward program and can provide 60 to 80 miles of range in 20 minutes.

As of the DEP’s news conference Thursday, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center lists 1,629 public Level 2 charging outlets and 141 public DC fast chargers statewide that are compatible with any EV.

Elizabeth Traut, who studies sustainable transportation at Penn State, said some evidence suggests setting up charging infrastructure around the state could help potential buyers feel more confident in their switch to an EV.

“It’s all about that visibility,” she said, “just to give you that extra little bit of reassurance that you can finish your day’s trip.”

Ndimbie agreed. “Range anxiety is one of the things most commonly cited by consumers” who are hesitant about switching to an electric vehicle, she said. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the median range for EV models offered in 2020 was about 250 miles.

As Pennsylvania continues to build charging infrastructure, some challenges remain.

In its 2019 report, the DEP cites research suggesting that areas in the U.S. with high EV ownership have around 275 public charging plugs per million residents. Using data from 2017, the report states that Pennsylvania “is far below this benchmark across all regions at 43 public plugs per 1M residents overall.” Based on data included in the report’s 2021 update, the statewide average is now about 115 public plugs per million residents.

However, Traut said that predicting how much charging infrastructure Pennsylvania will need is difficult, partly because it’s hard to estimate from current numbers how many Pennsylvanians will buy EVs in the future.

What is clear, said Traut, Ndimbie, and Masur, is that equity considerations should be top-of-mind as Pennsylvania responds to such a fast-moving market.

“After 2035, if it’s not going to be nearly as possible to buy a gas vehicle, then it’s not only important to encourage people to buy electric vehicles,” Traut said. “It’s important to enable them to buy electric vehicles if that is becoming one of the only options they have.”

That means increasing access to EVs and EV chargers, particularly in communities of color, rural areas, and low-income communities, she said.

Research has also shown that low-income communities and communities of color in the U.S. face greater average exposure to ground-level ozone and particulate matter, and that rural areas are often outside the range of air quality monitoring systems.

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said that improving access is one of the DEP’s priorities. The DC fast charger grant’s guidelines say that environmental justice areas — defined by the DEP as census tracts where at least 20 percent of residents live at or below the federal poverty line, and/or at least 30 percent of residents identify as a non-white minority — receive higher consideration.

Ndimbie said the Department of Transportation is working to improve equity in EV infrastructure in a number of ways, including reaching out to small and diverse businesses and increasing accessibility for drivers with physical disabilities.

She said that the department aims to ensure “that as ownership normalizes, we also are able to literally meet our residents where they are, be it in their multi-unit dwellings, be it as wheelchair users, and so forth.”

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