When I was in the market for a new car two years ago, I was committed to buying an electric vehicle because I work every day as an attorney with Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign to fight pollution from vehicles and energy generation. But environmental concerns wouldn’t be enough to convince my husband, Joe, how we should make our family’s biggest-ever investment. Plus, as renters, our ability to charge an electric car at home is a bit precarious.
Luckily, I was able to get Joe comfortable purchasing our Chevrolet Volt because he works at a company that just installed vehicle chargers through a Southern California Edison pilot program.
We’re not alone—commuters with access to workplace chargers are six times more likely to drive electric vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The California Public Utilities Commission is now considering a proposal from Southern California Edison to deploy more charging infrastructure at workplaces, apartment buildings, and public places. Edison’s proposed additional investments could encourage more Californians to choose an electrified ride.
Joe works at HRL Laboratories, where 46 of the company’s 540 employees are now driving electric. To understand why so many HRL employees are taking advantage of EV chargers and glean lessons for other employers and policymakers, I interviewed three electric car drivers.
The Number Cruncher: Shanying
Shanying Cui is a research scientist at HRL whose decision to drive an electric car was primarily economic. But Shanying never would have done the math to discover how much money she could save on fuel and maintenance if it hadn’t been for HRL’s charging stations. “Seeing other people charging in the parking lot is what made me realize an electric car was a possibility for me,” Shanying explained. Her experience leasing a Volt has been so positive that she says, “I tell everyone how great EVs are, how much money you can save, and how convenient it is to never go to a gas station.” Shanying recently sat down with a colleague to show him how to calculate how much he could save on fuel with an electric vehicle. Now that the lease is ending on Shanying’s Volt, she intends to purchase an all-electric model.
The Super Commuter: Stephanie
Stephanie Tiffany, HRL’s senior librarian, bought her first electric vehicle in 2013, shortly after HRL installed its first chargers. She wanted to buy a plug-in hybrid for environmental reasons, but says HRL’s chargers are the reason she pulled the trigger on purchasing a Ford C-Max. Stephanie’s drive to work is 42 miles—farther than the car’s electric range. Charging at work was key because it doubled the number of miles she could drive on electricity. With Stephanie’s encouragement, a colleague in her carpool followed her lead and bought a C-Max too. Now, Stephanie is in the market to purchase her first all-electric car.
The Renter: Ari
Ari Weinstein, another HRL research scientist, says that “having dependable charging at work let me buy a plug-in hybrid car without hesitating.” To charge at the home Ari rents, he would need to negotiate a payment system with his landlord, and run a slow charging cord through a window. Ari wanted to buy an electric vehicle to reduce his carbon footprint, take advantage of lower repair costs and federal incentives, and have the fastest car he’s ever driven. Since purchasing a Volt, Ari frequently tells people that electric vehicles are “really, really great” and corrects misconceptions about electric cars being slow or bad for the environment. Ari explained that “the concept of where our electricity comes from is very muddy for most people,” so he points friends to the California Independent System Operator’s real-time data on our power supply and says “it blows their minds to see how much of our power comes from renewables when I’m charging at work.”
Lessons for Policymakers
While each person’s story is unique, there are several things the workers I spoke with had in common. Everyone credited the workplace charging stations with their decision to go electric. Also, when these workers got their first electric vehicles, their only acquaintances with electric vehicles were HRL colleagues. Once they began driving an electric vehicle, the HRL workers encouraged their colleagues to do the same, and any subsequent car purchases in their families were also electric.
These stories suggest that workplace chargers are spurring people to choose electric cars, and not just serving people who would have bought electric cars anyway. Our experiences illustrate the California Energy Commission’s findings that, “when residents of multifamily housing are unable to charge at home, having an available site to charge at work or access to other public locations can serve as an alternative. If located far from home, workplace and public charging can also help [battery electric vehicle] owners extend their range and [plug-in hybrid electric vehicle] owners increase their electric miles driven.”
As prices of electric vehicles decline—with analysts predicting electric cars will be cheaper than their gas-burning counterparts by the mid-2020s—it becomes imperative that all Californians have access to vehicle charging. The opportunity to drive an electric car shouldn’t be limited to people who own a home with a garage. Workplace charging is one key element of democratizing access to electric cars, and we need to move aggressively if we are going to meet this challenge.
Electric utilities have a big role to play. According to HRL, support from Southern California Edison is the “only reason” it ultimately increased its number of installed EV chargers to 21.
The California Public Utilities Commission should approve large-scale investments in charging infrastructure, accelerating the transition to electric vehicles to help meet California’s ambitious climate goals and cut pollution in a region with some of the nation’s worst air quality.
Rapid investments in workplace charging are critical to helping consumers ditch their gas guzzlers for vehicles that won’t cook the planet.