“California is a leader on climate.” We hear this all the time, and it’s true. California has led the country on clean fuel standards, clean power standards, net-zero ambitions, and more. Just a few months ago, California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) approved a rule requiring 100% of new car and light truck sales in California to be zero-emission by 2035.
But it’s a big state with a big government, and it’s not clear to me that everyone has gotten the EV memo. Case in point: We continue to put up new multi-family buildings with very few EV chargers. Today’s building code doesn’t require any chargers at all. The only requirement is that 10% of spaces be “EV Capable”, which doesn’t even specify that wiring be installed. It can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention permitting, hiring, and manager or HOA approval, to go from “capable” to a functioning outlet or charger. (1)
Even in the new building code that goes into effect in January, just 30% of spaces will need to have some level of charging, with another 10% “capable”. How can this be? Buildings last 50+ years and people living in them will need to be able to charge their vehicles. If we omit this infrastructure now, it sets residents up for a needlessly complicated and expensive retrofit in the near future.
Palo Alto resident Sven Thesen and Acterra staff members Linda Hutchins-Knowles and Jared Johnson have been working with the EV Charging for All Coalition to encourage more EV-friendly building standards for multi-family housing. They started early in the most recent three-year building code cycle, but it hasn’t been easy. Johnson relates: “We started preparing in late 2020 for the 2023 revision. In April 2021 we provided a 26-page, peer-reviewed economic and environmental report to HCD (the Department of Housing and Community Development). We gave them lots of information during the specified public comment period, and still they said they didn’t have enough time to review it. They didn’t even look at it until the end of the code cycle. The process didn’t work for us.”
Hutchins-Knowles concurred. “We tried to do things the right way, through the building code process. While that did move the numbers some, they didn’t seem to hear what we were saying about equitable access and affordability.” So the group put together a bill, SB 1482, that advocated for 100% of units in new multi-family buildings to have a lower power (20-amp) EV outlet. By focusing on household units rather than parking spaces, the state could ensure that every household had access to home charging. And by focusing on 20-amp outlets rather than 40-amp EV charging stations, they could reduce building costs while still providing a substantial 16 miles per hour of charge. (2)
The bill attracted powerful sponsors including author State Senator Benjamin Allen and our own local State Senator Josh Becker. It sailed through the Senate in the spring of 2022 but then got hung up in the Assembly. “What happened?” reflected Thesen. “I think HCD didn’t want to be told what to do, so they pushed back. And the building industry pushed back. Having this in law instead of in the building code can make it harder to change.” Johnson agreed: “The Assembly didn’t want to do anything so prescriptive. So we turned it into a study bill. The amended bill required only that the state study how best to get EV charging for all units in new multi-family buildings, so the next building code cycle could take advantage of that.”
With that change, the bill cleared the Assembly in August and then passed in the Senate again with a whopping 78% vote. But surprisingly and disappointingly, Governor Newsom vetoed it a month later, deferring back to HCD.
California’s EV adoption targets. Source: CARB (2022)
What concerns me is that HCD seems to be dragging its feet on EV support while the rest of the state is setting aggressive targets. I wonder if the culture at HCD is just more conservative than that of agencies like CARB or the California Energy Commission. We need all departments to be on the same page if California is going to hit its ambitious goals.
Hutchins-Knowles is concerned about the lack of focus on universal access to at-home charging. “If you make it available to just some of the units, it turns charging into a discretionary amenity that builders or managers can then turn into a revenue stream. It’s like the cold-water flats that were common in the U.S. until the 1960’s. Many low-income buildings only had cold water because it saved builders money. Residents couldn’t afford to live in more expensive housing that provided hot water. So the municipal codes were changed to require all housing to provide hot water, as a basic right. The new codes didn’t say that 30% of bathtubs would get hot water; they ensured hot water for every apartment. This is a similar situation. All drivers will need access to EV charging. This can’t be something we do incrementally.”
Thesen emphasizes that charging also needs to be affordable. Using lower-powered charging helps with that. Equally important is that outlets allocated to a particular unit be separately metered and connected to the unit’s meter. Otherwise the building may need to hire companies to allocate charging costs, which will add an unregulated fee to residents’ bills. The separate metering also enables residents to access special EV charging rates. Thinking through the billing experience helps to keep charging affordable.
Hutchins-Knowles adds: “It’s important when you are designing these solutions to consider the residents’ lived experience. Charging must be accessible and affordable and universal, not a luxury amenity. Multi-family residents should be viewed as key stakeholders informing the code.” Echoing that, Johnson expressed frustration that HCD was reluctant to consider the equity implications of their charging specifications. “As a result, we inserted a provision into our bill to ensure that multi-family residents and EV equity advocates be consulted during the code development process.”
This team is not giving up, despite the governor’s veto. The building code cycle runs every three years but there is an intermediate update at the 1.5 year mark. The Coalition is pressing for changes in this newest version and seeing progress. The draft language calls for 50% of spaces to have chargers or outlets, and omits the “EV capable” designation that isn’t useful for multi-family housing. That is a nice improvement, but it still fails to provide universal access. The Coalition would like to see a focus on units and not spaces, on lower-powered charging to reduce costs for builders, and on unit-meter connected wiring to reduce costs for residents by eliminating billing middlemen.
Johnson says: “We are having collaborative discussions with the builders. We have suggested an alternative compliance pathway that costs about the same and is much more equitable. They are no longer pushing back on this.” Hutchins-Knowles adds: “The bill was vetoed, but it did get us more visibility and it demonstrated widespread support for our ideas. We have had several meetings with the governor’s advisors and they are listening. You know, our goal isn’t to pass legislation, but to achieve EV charging equity for residents of apartments and condos, while holding down costs for builders and spurring EV adoption.”
I hope these folks are successful. Californians are quickly adopting EVs, hitting 18% of new vehicle sales this past quarter, up sharply from 12% last year. EVs can save households a lot of money, but they are very inconvenient if they cannot be charged at home. With so much focus on developing multi-family housing, it is incumbent on us to make sure that each unit in those buildings has a space to charge an EV and to do so affordably.
If you are interested in supporting the effort to get more access to EV charging in multi-family housing, take a look at this form from the EV Charging for All Coalition.
Notes and References
1. “EV capable” means that there is sufficient electrical capacity at the service or panel and that there is conduit from the service to the parking space. However, there is no requirement for wiring, for outlets, for signage, etc.
2. A 20-amp 240-volt outlet can provide about 16 miles per hour,or about 130 miles for an 8-hour charge, which is plenty for most days for most people. It adds up to over 46,000 miles of charge per year.
Current Climate Data (September/October 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard
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