Electric Avenues: Vermont Is Trying to Expand EV Charging Access for Renters | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Electric Avenues: Vermont Is Trying to Expand EV Charging Access for Renters


Published February 9, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 17, 2022 at 3:54 p.m.

Stephen Yurasits - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Stephen Yurasits

Stephen Yurasits adores the new electric Chevrolet Bolt.

It's quiet, cheap to operate and surprisingly powerful when the retired financial planner gets the urge to mash the accelerator.

"I'll tell you, that thing really has some guts to it," Yurasits said.

It also has a hefty price tag — more than $38,000 before rebates — putting the all-electric ride out of reach for the 75-year-old resident of Burlington's Old North End.

So he rents it, for just a few bucks per trip, whenever he needs to go shopping, visit friends or see a doctor.

The Bolt, nicknamed "Mo," is one of four new electric vehicles in the 21-vehicle fleet of CarShare Vermont, the Burlington-based nonprofit that provides wheels for short-term use to nearly 1,000 members.

The state helped pay for the car and charger, installed last fall, as part of a policy push to overcome two obstacles in widespread EV adoption: affordability for low-income residents and availability of chargers at apartment complexes.

Sales of EVs are surging, up by 51 percent since January 2021. The number of registered EVs in Vermont last month — both plug-in EVs, which run on nothing but electrons, and plug-in hybrids, which also have gas engines to boost range — reached 6,585 vehicles, including three buses, said Dave Roberts, head of Drive Electric Vermont, a program that advocates for broader EV adoption.

EVs now account for 5.4 percent of Vermont's passenger vehicle sales, an impressive boost given myriad pandemic-related shortages disrupting the auto industry, he said. But that's still far below Vermont's goal of having 47,000 EVs on the road by 2025 to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets. The goal for 2030 is 120,000 vehicles.

Transportation causes 40 percent of Vermont's climate pollution, one of the highest rates in the nation. Longer average driving distances combined with Vermonters' penchant for gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs fuel that unfortunate distinction.

Federal, state and utility incentives have made EVs more affordable to all Vermonters, generating brisk sales that state officials want to further accelerate. But there is also growing recognition that without more chargers at rental properties, low-income people will have a tougher time making the switch.

Homeowners can have a charger installed as part of their vehicle purchase, but renters rarely have that same freedom.

"We know from many conversations with people living in multifamily apartments and condos they often have significant barriers to installing charging infrastructure," Roberts said.

Charger costs vary widely, but a typical home unit costs about $600. Utilities such as Green Mountain Power give them away for free, but installation can run up to several thousand dollars, according to Drive Electric Vermont.

The most common chargers installed in residential settings are called Level 2. These use 240 volts and can add 10 to 20 miles of range per hour. More powerful Level 3 fast chargers, such as those designed for Teslas, can add more than 200 miles of range per hour for some models.

CarShare Vermont has made EVs more affordable and accessible for some apartment dwellers. Last year, the nonprofit used $185,000 in state grants, including one from the state Agency of Transportation, to buy three Chevy Bolts and a Toyota Prius and parked them at or near low-income housing complexes in the city.

To be convenient, cars have to be close to CarShare's members, said Annie Bourdon, the nonprofit's executive director. Buying the new cars was one thing, but installing EV chargers proved far more challenging, requiring close collaboration with willing landlords, she said.

CarShare has added chargers at three Burlington complexes: the 68-unit Cathedral Square Senior Living building downtown; the 25 Bus Barns apartments operated by the Champlain Housing Trust in the Old North End; and near the 51-unit Bobbin Mill Apartments on South Champlain Street, operated by the Burlington Housing Authority.

CarShare is still looking for the best place to park the Prius and install a charger. That vehicle didn't get as much use as anticipated at a Cathedral Square property off Shelburne Road.

"When we're investing in EV infrastructure, we need to make sure that we're really committing to a spot," Bourdon said.

Given the option, though, residents at multiunit properties are choosing to drive electric. So far, members in the subsidized MobilityShare program for low-income residents are using CarShare vehicles at double the rate of other members, Bourdon said.

Last month, state officials announced a $1 million pilot program to expand availability of chargers near apartment complexes. The funds were approved by the legislature in 2021, but if the program goes well, there's a lot more where that came from.

Gov. Phil Scott has proposed allocating nearly $20 million to expand the state's EV charging network, which today has 321 public locations, including at supermarkets and libraries. He wants $6.25 million for additional charging capacity along highway corridors, $3 million at recreation spots such as state parks, and $10 million at workplaces, community sites and housing. While the state is providing the chargers, drivers will still have to pay for their juice.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are working on something they call a Mobility and Transportation Innovation Grant Program that would earmark $11 million for new chargers at public properties, businesses, apartment complexes and schools.

Differences between the two proposals will be hashed out in the coming months, but it's clear that a major expansion of the state's charging network is imminent.

Legislators got a glimpse of some of the challenges at a recent hearing of the House Transportation Committee.

Bronwyn Cooke, a planner with the state Department of Housing and Community Development, explained that the apartment building pilot program is meant to reach a "particularly challenging corner of the EV charging market." Landlords are often reluctant to invest in EV chargers if they're not sure they'll be used. And tenants can be similarly hesitant to buy EVs if there's no charger near their unit.

This creates a kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma that makes it difficult for thousands of Vermonters to own an EV, she said.

The grant program is currently open to apartment complexes with at least 10 units. That's just 6 percent of the state's housing stock, but those 18,700 units represent an important demographic, she said.

"This is a really critical gap in the market to fill to make sure that all Vermonters have access to reliable, affordable and convenient charging in their homes," Cooke said.

Interest in the program is high. More than 60 people, mostly representing landlords, attended a recent public information session. Organizers explained that affordable housing providers and nonprofit housing owners will get first dibs. Applications are open, and grants are expected to be announced in late April. If there's money left over, market-rate apartment owners can apply.

Rep. Curt McCormack (D-Burlington) doubts that'll happen. "I think we're going to run out of money real fast with what I've seen so far," he said.

Landlords must put up a 10 percent match, but they can do so with in-kind contributions, such as agreeing to maintain the chargers with their own staff, Cooke said.

To ensure that the benefits are distributed as widely as possible, housing organizations can receive a maximum of $300,000. Grants will also be limited to $80,000 per location. No one county can receive more than half of the funding, Cooke said.

Landlords realize that EVs are "the wave of the future" and their residents deserve to have the same access to chargers as homeowners, Cooke said. At some point, it could also give them a competitive advantage.

"If you have a unit that provides EV charging, maybe you're able to charge a higher rate or attract tenants a little more easily," Cooke said.

About 25 percent of the state's housing stock, or 80,400 units, are rental properties. More than 74 percent of renters earn below median income, according to the 2020 Vermont Housing Needs Assessment. That means that even with generous subsidies, lots of renters wouldn't be able to afford a new EV.

The car that Yurasits favors has a sticker price of more than $38,000, but CarShare got Mo for closer to $22,000, thanks to a manufacturer's rebate of $13,750 and $3,000 from the Burlington Electric Department.

Despite these discounts, "somebody on a fixed or very low income is not going to be able to afford a $20,000 vehicle or a lease payment that exceeds the cost of their housing," Bourdon said.

That's why she'd like to see more subsidies not only for the chargers but also for organizations like hers that make it possible for people to get around without owning a car at all.

With the Bolt juiced up just steps away from his Bus Barns apartment, Yurasits doubts that he'll ever own another car again.

"It's a great deal for me," he said. "Just knowing it's out there means I don't have to worry about it."

Correction, February 10, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified where some EV chargers are located.

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