My experience managing a rental property illustrates barriers to electric vehicle charging and ways to overcome them.
Go for a walk in a dense urban area, like where I live in Oakland, and you come across extension cords winding across the sidewalk to vehicles. It shows the need for more access to effective vehicle charging. Renters are especially left out, and this could be hurting electric vehicle adoption.
Lucas Davis has found that In California, homeowners are three times more likely to own an electric vehicle than renters. Even comparing homeowners and renters with similar incomes, renters are much less likely to own electric vehicles. My own recent experience as a landlord trying to provide electric charging shows how hard closing this gap will be, but also suggests potential policy responses.
An Opportunity to Add Vehicle Charging
My partner and I own a duplex built in 1940 that we have rented out since our family outgrew the two-bedroom units. Each apartment has an assigned parking spot in a garage, something not available to many apartment dwellers in urban areas. Our tenants do not have electric vehicles, but if they did, they would need to make do with a common wall plug that provides two to four miles worth of charge per hour. This sort of outlet is better suited for an electric bicycle than an electric car.
We recently decided to update our duplex’s electric system. This led us to ask whether now is the time to add electric vehicle charging too. Would this be a wise investment?
None of our tenants drive an electric vehicle today. When asked, one said they might get one in the future, but this is not certain. Even if these tenants do not get an electric vehicle, perhaps offering electric vehicle charging would be attractive to future tenants and allow us to charge higher rents. More and more apartment ads in our area list electric vehicle charging as an amenity, suggesting other building owners see an opportunity.
We also looked at where policy is headed. California Governor Newsom wants to eliminate the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and the federal government plans to strengthen vehicle fuel economy standards. We could get our building ready for the influx of cars that will need charging.
However, after our initial conversations with electricians and the local electric utility, the plans started going off the rails.
How a Simple Project Becomes Complex
The first thing we learned was that the size of each apartment’s electrical panel, and the service to the property as a whole, was too small to accommodate electric vehicle charging.
However, upgrading the electrical panels would trigger the latest electrical codes and utility rules. In our case, this would mean the electrical panels and meters would need to be moved to the opposite side of the building to be more accessible to workers, especially in an emergency. House wires would need to be rerouted to the new location, and the utility would need to move its point of connection closer to the new meter location. The costs are growing.
Then, the utility would need to study whether our street’s distribution circuit has capacity to accommodate our increase. If not, the utility would need to design and implement a project to increase grid capacity. There are a complicated set of rules in which it is possible we would have to pay for upgrades to the neighborhood’s electrical system. Substantially more costs, plus the potential for delay.
In other words, we are faced with a large, complex project that may not pay off for us as owners.
Maybe our property is an unusually challenging one, but there is a lot of older housing in the US. Nearly half of US housing units were built before 1980, much of it in cities with older infrastructure to start with.
Getting Landlords to Invest
Our experience points to several possible approaches by government and utilities to better motivate landlords, and homeowners more generally, to invest in electric vehicle charging.
Of course, I could suggest throwing money at the problem by offering subsidies to landlords. However, the benefits may flow primarily to higher income property owners with higher income tenants, following the pattern of electric vehicle incentives, which raises equity concerns. The aggregate cost of a large-scale incentive policy could also be very high. As an analog, Erich Muehlegger and David Rapson found that incentives for electric vehicle purchases increase adoption, but that the aggregate cost of transforming the vehicle fleet with incentives is surprisingly high. Before racing down the path of incentives, I would want to see some randomized controlled trials to determine whether this is likely to be a sustainable approach.
There could be other levers though.
Bringing older properties up to the full set of modern codes and standards raises the costs of projects. Governments could allow building code holidays for electric vehicle-driven upgrades. Utilities and their regulators could do the same for the rules they administer. Older properties of all kinds, owner- or renter-occupied, would benefit.
Perhaps coordination between utilities, electricians and owners could be improved in ways that lower costs, risks and delays. Today, utilities perform one-off studies each time a building owner considers an upgrade. Instead, they could perform proactive analysis of excess capacity on circuits, and advertise the available capacity to homeowners on the circuit. When new capacity is added they could advertise this to households. It would be similar to how internet providers in my area have marketed the availability of faster internet speeds when they make local improvements. Owners might be motivated to take advantage of the accelerated approval process and greater certainty. Electricians could target their marketing too. A utility could even seek out interest in expanded capacity by inviting building owners to sign up in advance, similar to the open season process that natural gas pipeline companies use before building a new pipeline. This improved coordination would also benefit both owner- and renter-occupied housing.
Ultimately, I expect demand from tenants will be the most important motivator for landlords. Electric vehicles are still only two percent of the vehicle fleet in electric vehicle-happy California, so it is not surprising that property owners are taking their time. As electric vehicles become more common, more landlords will be driven to invest in vehicle charging.Keep up with Energy Institute blog posts, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas. Suggested citation: Campbell, Andrew. “Electric Vehicles for Renters: Getting Landlords to Act” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, January 18, 2022, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2022/01/18/electric-vehicles-for-renters-getting-landlords-to-act/
Andrew Campbell is the Executive Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. Andy has worked in the energy industry for his entire professional career. Prior to coming to the University of California, Andy worked for energy efficiency and demand response company, Tendril, and grid management technology provider, Sentient Energy. He helped both companies navigate the complex energy regulatory environment and tailor their sales and marketing approaches to meet the utility industry’s needs. Previously, he was Senior Energy Advisor to Commissioner Rachelle Chong and Commissioner Nancy Ryan at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). While at the CPUC Andy was the lead advisor in areas including demand response, rate design, grid modernization, and electric vehicles. Andy led successful efforts to develop and adopt policies on Smart Grid investment and data access, regulatory authority over electric vehicle charging, demand response, dynamic pricing for utilities and natural gas quality standards for liquefied natural gas. Andy has also worked in Citigroup’s Global Energy Group and as a reservoir engineer with ExxonMobil. Andy earned a Master in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and bachelors degrees in chemical engineering and economics from Rice University.