The Works

San Francisco, Kansas City Aim to Get Smarter About Electric Vehicles

No, we don’t need an app for that.

EV charging station near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco (Photo by Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

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Electric vehicle infrastructure is famously difficult to access and navigate, so naturally, there’s now a peer-to-peer app for that.

Meshcrafts is a Norwegian startup attempting to “Airbnbify” city charging systems. As a WiredUK article recently outlined, its technology allows drivers and charge-point owners to swap services. And while you can go ahead and roll your eyes (and grit your teeth) at any new company that wants to be the Airbnb of XYZ, Meshcrafts is on to something. As a blogger covering the company elaborated last month, charging stations are too often “points of failure.”

“If you only have one electric charging station in your vicinity, that central point of failure suddenly becomes a huge risk,” the post reads.

According to the New York Times, that risk is a leading reason electric car sales remain low. Nationwide, only 9,000 publicly available EV chargers compete with about 114,000 gas stations. Some cities offer more than others. San Francisco consistently tops ChargePoint’s annual list of chargers-per-electric vehicles on the road. But range anxiety can still be a problem, even in the Musk-worshiping Bay Area. As a Wired writer detailed last year, even when chargers are common, they can still be difficult to find, hard to use, broken or unavailable. And that’s a problem when your options are A. charge, or B. stop moving.

But timely as a company like Meshcrafts may be, we shouldn’t need private startups to improve our citywide systems.

From Los Angeles to Seattle, West Coast cities are writing ambitious EV goals into their long-range climate action plans — and in the West, with its particular power mix, that tends to make good environmental sense. As more cities add chief data officer positions to their employee rosters and engineer innovative answers to the deregulated peer-to-peer systems pushing in on their turf (here’s one great example), the public sector ought to be able to come up with its own strategies for better charging.

And in some cities, notably San Francisco and Kansas City, the public sector is working to create smarter, fuller systems.

San Francisco may have been the backdrop of that damning Wired story, but the city is working hard to facilitate public charging — and, again, it boasts more EVs per capita of chargers-per-electric than any other city in the U.S. But, as Bob Hayden with SF Environment explains, just because a charger is publicly available doesn’t mean it’s publicly owned.

“The infrastructure — charging connectors, charging stations — is supplied and operated by private companies,” he says, listing ChargePoint, Blink and eVgo.

What’s more, while the city can place chargers on city-owned land, it doesn’t have any kind of zoning program to designate where else chargers go. Any business or retail property owner can choose to put a charger on his or her property, which doesn’t necessarily make for an ideal match-up between chargers and EVs.

Still, that’s how gas stations work.

“With gas stations, it’s not like they’re allowed in certain parts of the city and disallowed in others,” Hayden says. Like chargers, the infrastructure’s dispersal is largely dependent on property owners.

Of course, as the New York Times pointed out, there are just so many more gas stations. And in San Francisco, that’s one of the city’s main tactics: Facilitating chargers for the private sector, so that whoever wants to install them can do so without bureaucratic hurdles. According to Hayden, it tries to promote state-level grants and incentives and streamline the permitting process. Meanwhile, the state of California recently passed a building code mandating that a certain portion of new construction come pre-wired for chargers. The city is working on its own code, Hayden says, which will be more aggressive than the state’s.

In the Midwest, Kansas City Power & Light recently announced that it will deploy around 1,200 chargers throughout its service area. Though not a municipal utility, the IOU is publicly regulated, and according to spokesperson Chuck Caisley, it has actually been looking at how each charger can reach a maximum number of drivers.

“We worked with the Electric Power Research Institute and ChargePoint,” he says. “We want places where there are higher populations of people — malls, work places, places where a large number of people aggregate — and places where people dwell up to an hour or longer.”

The utility will use all ChargePoint infrastructure, which will be concentrated in Kansas City but also installed throughout the other municipalities in KCP&L’s service reach. And they’re not the only publicly regulated utility beginning to install chargers. California’s PG&E applied to build 25,000 chargers throughout its service area earlier this year. That application is still pending; according to Caisley, KCP&L already has about 300 chargers in the ground.

Bottom line: Charging infrastructure doesn’t need to be bettered by sharing economy startups. Points of failure still spook many drivers, but a handful of smart city- and utility-level tactics point the way for EV-loving regions.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: san franciscocarskansas cityutilities

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