EV chargers in Detroit go where ‘money is,’ leaving Black neighborhoods out
Last fall, Detroiter William McCoy drove his electric Chevrolet Bolt from Detroit to Washington D.C., to see what EV charging infrastructure looked like across the country. He wanted firsthand experience to inform his Detroit-based EV company, Vehya.
BridgeDetroit asked McCoy whether he felt unsafe at any of the charging stations along the more than 560-mile route.
“All of them,” he said.
“It’s nerve wracking to go electric,” said McCoy, noting it’s not uncommon to arrive at an EV charging station to find it’s not working and that the next station is miles away. “One charger I went through was literally in the woods and there was nothing around it except this park bench. You could see nothing outside.”
But it’s not just a rural issue, it’s an issue in cities across the country where charging stations are being installed in places Black motorists might not feel safe, replicating the conditions for a modern day Green Book, a yearly guidebook once published for Black motorists to safely stop, eat and sleep along their travels. With the placement of EV charging stations, some Black EV drivers find themselves once again unsure how to travel by car safely and being left out of the transition to EVs.
According to an investigation by the Washington Post, the cities with the most EV charging stations have them located primarily in majority white areas. A separate study from Humboldt State University also found that majority White and more affluent neighborhoods were more likely to have public chargers. Even in Detroit, a mostly Black city, the trend is similar.
“There are not very many chargers in the City of Detroit anyway, but they’re typically not in areas where you’ll have a large base of minorities,” McCoy said. “It’s typically tough finding charging stations in Detroit, outside of the small area around the Detroit Athletic Club.”
Charging stations in Detroit are mainly clustered downtown and in Midtown, areas with larger numbers of white residents.
There is also an EV charger at the University of Detroit Mercy, another at Luxury Auto Sales on Grand River as well as a station at the Roostertail Entertainment Complex and Ray Laethem Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram. An interactive map of all charging stations across the United States can be found at the U.S. Department of Energy’s online Alternative Fuels Data Center.
“Money goes where usually money is, and a lot of the infrastructure right now it’s going towards those more affluent communities,” said Kwabena “Q” Johnson, president of Plug Zen, a Detroit company that builds multi-vehicle charging stations, which are good for multifamily housing, workplace charging, or fleet operations.
One of the goals of Plug Zen, he said, “is making sure there’s equity in communities of color and disadvantaged and underserved communities, because we do see the disparity.”
According to Johnson, a lot of people are asking why they should put charging stations in communities that can’t afford EVs. But the price of EVs is coming down, he said, calling the argument “null and void.”
In June, Ford CEO Jim Farley said he expects EVs could be sold as low as $25,000 in the coming years. In the long run, electric vehicles are already cheaper than gas combustion vehicles, not including state tax breaks, a U.S. Department of Energy report found. But still, for the 30% of Detroiters that don’t own cars, who are mostly Black and low-income, $25,000 might be out of reach.
Across Michigan, EV charging infrastructure is distributed unevenly. In May, the state of Michigan announced a partnership to install 30 new electric vehicle charging stations in state parks, largely along Lake Michigan, to complete a tourism route. The goal of the partnership is to advance EV use while promoting the state’s parks, but none of the stations were put at Belle Isle, one of the most visited state parks in Michigan and in the country. With a visual scan of Belle Isle park it’s evident there are more visitors of color than most other Michigan state parks.
Chuck Allen, an analyst for the Parks and Recreation office of the DNR, told BridgeDetroit that the Lake Michigan chargers were part of a collaboration that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had with other states to create an EV charging loop around the whole of Lake Michigan.
“Basically to provide a stress free tour that someone in an electric vehicle could take around the Lake Michigan shoreline and not have to worry about having chargers along the way,” he said.
But the state does have plans to place charging stations at Belle Isle by the end of 2022, or in early 2023, he said. The chargers will be installed at the nature center.
In 2018, the state signed a five-year contract with Diatomic Energy to install two DC fast charging stations on Belle Isle.
“They’re running into issues with just the amount of electricity that is required to put in a charging station, especially a DC fast charging station, because it requires a lot of electricity,” Allen noted.
DC fast stations charge vehicles within a matter of 15 to 20 minutes, using between 2 and 6 times as much voltage as other EV chargers.
“Our state parks traditionally don’t have a lot of power because we mostly run just lights and small things like that,” Allen said. “So they’re working with DTE (Energy) as best they can to get the charging stations installed.”
The DNR is also looking to add charging stations at the Outdoor Adventure Center and Milliken State Park in Detroit.
Bobby Leddy, a Whitmer spokesman, told BridgeDetroit the governor continues to prioritize investments in electric vehicle charging across the state to make Michigan a leader in the space, grow the economy, create jobs and lower costs for drivers.
“This includes investing more than $45 million to build up Michigan’s electric vehicle infrastructure network and signing an executive directive to ensure that federal funding for electric vehicle infrastructure is spent effectively in our state,” he said.
The $45 million is for the Charge Up Michigan program. During Phase 1 of the program, the priorities are tourism and highways. Where the chargers are placed is determined in conjunction with an analysis conducted by Michigan State University to “strategically place chargers to maximize user convenience/use,” according to Whitmer’s office. To date, Charge Up Michigan has supported 179 DC fast chargers around the state, capable of charging EV batteries to 80% in 20 minutes. The state is also giving $156,000 in funding to four companies to test and refine EV solutions at the Detroit Smart Parking Lab in Corktown.
Last year, the Biden administration passed an infrastructure bill which included $7.5 billion for the installation of new EV chargers. The goal is to have 500,000 in place by 2030, quadrupling the number now. In the next five years, Michigan is expected to get $110 million of that money to expand the state’s EV charging network.
But the lack of charging stations in areas with more people of color is all part of a larger trend occurring in the transition to EVs where environmental injustice harms are reinforced.
Many people of color don’t have access to buy or charge EVs, but they also are often the ones that have to suffer from the manufacturing of gas powered vehicles, and from the pollution those vehicles emit as long as they continue to be on the road. The production and charging of EVs as well, can directly harm communities of color. Black and low-income people have the highest risk of death due to pollution from electricity generation.
In Detroit, the expansion of a Stellantis plant to produce hybrid vehicles has prompted environmental complaints from neighborhoods which are majority Black and low-income. In May, the plant racked up its fifth air quality violation since September.
Households of color already experience a much higher energy burden than white households, meaning that some EV owners of color are at the mercy of public charging infrastructure, which in many places is lacking.
For the public EV chargers already in Detroit, McCoy said they’re mostly Level 2 which are not the type that most people need in a public setting because they take hours to charge.
“Typically, when you see those chargers on that map, that is a political show of ‘oh, we’ve done something to the charging in the neighborhood,’ but they’re not a viable solution for actual charging infrastructure,” he said.
Price could play a role: A single DC fast charger runs from $30,000 to $100,000, while a Level 2 is typically less than $3,000.
To date, EV chargers installed in Detroit are mostly privately funded, or funded through a mix of private and public money.
“Outside of the city-owned parking assets, the city has not funded any EV charging infrastructure and does not have any current plans to do so,” said Tim Slusser, chief of mobility innovation for Detroit.
Slusser told BridgeDetroit that the city is focused on innovation for EV charging solutions and is partnering to build North America’s first wireless charging road in Corktown. But the wireless road, experts have said, is mostly for show and will not provide any real utility, due to the cost it would add to EVs for the consumer, the expense to deploy the technology at scale, and weather challenges.
With his business, McCoy is tackling the EV infrastructure problem from another angle: Train people of color to be able to install the chargers.
“Electricians get paid a lot of money,” he said. “A lot of people of color just don’t know that this is an opportunity, an up and coming opportunity.”
To get more Detroit residents into these roles, his company partners with Detroit at Work, a jobs initiative from the city, which recruits, trains, and connects Detroiters with job opportunities.
McCoy said he’ll pass for now on taking another cross country road trip in his Bolt.
“I’m gonna wait until the infrastructure is there,” he said.
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