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How to charge an EV if you’re a renter » Yale Climate Connections

In July 2023, my trusty Prius drove its last mile. I’d hoped the hybrid would hold on a few more years until electric car charging infrastructure was more built up or I had a home where I could charge an electric vehicle. As a renter without access to home charging, I worried that I wasn’t ready for an EV. But it became clear that a low-cost EV with the federal tax credit tacked on was about the cheapest car I was going to be able to find. And paying more money for a polluting car didn’t align with my values or needs. So I bought a used Chevrolet Bolt and jumped into the world of EV ownership and public charging.

The landscape for electric vehicles is changing rapidly in the U.S. due, in part, to two federal laws passed recently: the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. EV sales are rising, charging infrastructure is booming, and advocates are working to make sure that renters and low-income communities are not forgotten in this transition. 

Charles Hua, a policy analyst at the electrification advocacy organization Rewiring America, said there are about 160,000 public EV chargers in the U.S. The country will need 1.2 million public chargers by 2030 to meet climate goals, according to an analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratories.

If you’re looking for information about how to make an EV work as a renter, or if you want to advocate for accessible charging in your community, this article is for you.

Types of EV charging

One thing has made my life without a home charger infinitely easier: I live three blocks from a public charging lot in Madison, Wisconsin, with the fastest chargers out there  — DC fast chargers. 

There are three categories of EV chargers. Level 1 charging is done in the standard, everyday outlet you have in your home (a 120-volt AC outlet). It’s slow going, but if you have a place where you can plug in your car overnight, it’s also typically the most affordable option. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that it takes 40-50 hours or longer to charge an electric vehicle from empty to 80% on a level 1 charger. 

Level 2 charging is much faster: It takes only four to 10 hours to charge an EV from empty to 80%. Level 2 chargers can be installed in the home, but they’re also common public chargers. I’ve found them at grocery stores and shopping centers in Madison. At least three of the grocery stores in my area have Level 2 chargers, so I prioritize shopping there.

The DC fast chargers are the fastest option but also the most expensive. These chargers are typically found in specialized lots with several DC chargers in one place, but I’ve also found them outside of retail businesses. There’s a DC fast charger near a Home Depot in my town, and once when traveling, I found a bank of DC fast chargers in a Sam’s Club parking lot. The Department of Transportation estimates that an electric car can go from empty to 80% charged in 20 minutes to an hour at a DC charger. 

One thing to note is that some of an EV’s charging speed is determined by the car itself and the size of its battery. My Bolt, for example, limits the amount of power it can take at a time to prevent the battery from overheating. At the DC lot near me, I typically plan for my car to be plugged in for an hour and a half to get 100% charged. Since the weather has gotten cold, it’s been taking about two hours, because cold temperatures slow down the chemical process that charges the battery.

Most of the public charging in Madison is managed by the electric utility. Chargers managed by other private entities — like retail businesses, workplaces, or car dealerships — are often publicly accessible but their prices vary and can require a subscription. 

The cost of the public charging managed by my utility is determined by the time it takes to charge a car. The Level 1 and Level 2 stations are $2 per hour, while the DC lot where I charge costs $5 per hour. In practice, this means I’m typically spending between $7 and $10 to charge my car every two to three weeks. On a full charge, my car can go about 250 miles. I work from home, so I’ll often drop my car off in the morning, walk home, and then walk back to the lot when I get the notification that charging has stopped. This would be much more inconvenient if I didn’t work from home.

How to find EV charging if you’re a renter

If you drive to work, investigate whether you can charge an EV at your workplace. If your office doesn’t have a charger, see if you can change that.

“We’re actually seeing companies realize that to attract a modern workforce, part of that is having EV charging stations at the parking lot,” Hua said. “And that’s partially because employees are demanding that.”

Here are some resources and incentives you can tell your employer about:

Similarly, see if you can push your landlord to allow home charging: 

  • Ask if there is an outdoor or garage outlet you can use to charge your car. This would be level 1 charging.
  • There are federal tax credits (and likely rebates coming in the next few years) for property owners who install chargers at home. The challenge may be convincing your landlord to use the credit to install it in your rental property rather than in their own home. 
  • Again, search your state’s incentives to see if there are state tax credits or rebates for landlords installing chargers (Example: California apartment EV charger incentive).

If you can’t charge at home or work, it’s time to scope out the public charging options in your area. I use the app PlugShare to find chargers. It’s a community-sourced map of EV chargers all across the U.S. You can filter the map by the charger speed, so it’s easy to find a fast charger. The map also shows you if chargers are in use by another car. If there are chargers near your home, workplace, grocery store, or favorite coffee shop, it’ll be easier to make charging work for you.

It’s worth noting that public chargers are much easier to find in cities. In Madison, there are several public DC fast chargers I could use. In the smaller Wisconsin city where my grandparents live, there’s only one and it’s owned by a car dealership. In the farm town where my childhood best friend lives, there aren’t any public chargers, much less DC fast chargers.

Making the future of EV public charging more equitable

Currently, public chargers are not equitably distributed in communities. Low-income communities of color that have experienced a lack of investment are often “charging deserts” at the same time as they experience disproportionate traffic pollution. With EVs becoming more affordable, groups like GRID Alternatives are trying to make sure that charging infrastructure investment takes equity into account.

Rachael Aptowitz is GRID Alternatives’ equitable EV charging program strategist. She said that her organization thinks about EV chargers from a “people over place” framework.

“How can we ensure that we don’t just get chargers into communities, but communities actually have access to that infrastructure so we see actual benefits delivered?” she said. 

GRID Alternatives advocates for and leads programs that make public charging more affordable and accessible. For example, if low-income residents can’t charge their car at home, they miss out on the savings of switching to electric. 

“Our long-term vision for this work is creating those benefits frameworks at this tipping point for public charging,” Aptowitz said. “What does it look like to create a program like what SNAP did for food assistance for EV charging?”

In one project, GRID Alternatives partnered with EVgo, a public charging network, to create a charge card program to subsidize charging for low-income renters. Aptowitz said that the program serves over 2,000 people and has provided $2 million in public charging subsidies. GRID Alternatives is working with the state of California to scale this program up and make the charge cards work at all EV chargers.

Aptowitz said that thinking about renters and equity as the U.S. builds out EV infrastructure and policy is critical in meeting the nation’s climate goals. 

Charles Hua from Rewiring America said much the same. “To paint a picture of what the future of mobility in this country can look like,” he said, “the goal is ultimately for you to have flexibility. So if you want to use an electric bike or an electric scooter, you can do that. If you want to walk or bike, that’s fine. If you want to use public transit, that’s fine. But for the many Americans who can’t live without a car, the critical thing is, it’s gotta be electric. In other words: We can’t keep polluting.”

It feels good to drive an electric car. I think about it every time I’m stuck at a stoplight breathing in exhaust from other cars, every time I drive past the oil change drive-thru I’ll never have to visit again, and every time I charge up my car at the renewable-powered public lot. I am making a small but meaningful change in my own community by polluting less. It takes a little planning to make it work as a renter, but I’m glad I made the switch. 

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