SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In the backyard of California’s Capitol sits Franklin Boulevard, a largely industrial area where many residents earn a living keeping old vehicles on the road. The state, which has been aggressively pushing toward an electric-car future, has made few such inroads in this working-class neighborhood.
“Electric vehicles are for the rich. It’s not for us,” said Mike Bokan, who owns an auto-repair shop on Franklin Boulevard, explaining a prevailing attitude. The median income here is $30,000.
One solution for making electric vehicles accessible to low-income Californians is coming from an unlikely ally: Volkswagen.
In 2016, after admitting to lying about excessive emissions from its diesel vehicles, Volkswagen agreed to pay $14.7 billion in penalties. The settlement also earmarked $2 billion to be invested by Electrify America, a Volkswagen subsidiary, in building a nationwide network of highway chargers that allow long-distance road trips in an electric vehicle. But California, which will receive $800 million from that pool, is requiring 35 percent of the funds to be spent on low-income and disadvantaged communities.
Among the first investments are three new all-electric, eight-seat shuttles that will be put into service along Franklin Boulevard — courtesy of Electrify America. Bokan, who is also president of the local business association, welcomes the shuttles, due by July. They will be a small relief from the exhaust coming from Highway 99, a diesel-choked trucking route that borders the area.
Across town, Sarah Quismondo, a retired nursing staff coordinator, lives in Riverview Plaza, a low-income senior apartment complex. In a neighboring parking lot are two Kia Soul electric cars that are part of a car-share program that began in May 2017. The program provides free access to the cars, and Quismondo signed up right away.
She was so enthused by the experience — “I love driving these cars, they’re very quiet,” she said — that she became an official representative of the program, Our Community CarShare. She signed up six other residents, and gives rides to fellow retirees at Riverview Plaza who no longer drive.
The program, run by the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, served as the blueprint for another Electrify America program in the city, just underway, to put 140 all-electric Volkswagen e-Golfs at 70 low-income apartment complexes for car-sharing.
The air district’s boss, Alberto Ayala, is a longtime leader in California’s clean-energy efforts. His previous work as chief enforcer of the state’s vehicle emissions regulations was instrumental in exposing Volkswagen’s diesel deceptions.
After the scandal fully came to light, the company agreed to pay huge financial penalties worldwide, two Volkswagen executives were sent to prison — and Ayala’s city is now teeming with EV experiments.
Outside the Edge Water affordable housing complex opposite the county jail, Ayala points proudly to two more shared electric cars. “We just don’t want more rebates for Tesla buyers, because they don’t need it.” (The first Tesla cars cost upward of $100,000, and the company is pressing to bring its Model 3 to the mass market.)
Ayala added that programs to democratize electric vehicles were “the only thing to keep people like me that were involved in the Volkswagen case going.”
He said that for many years, the state’s goal was to lift sales numbers of electric vehicles regardless of how wealthy the buyers might be. “But the thinking evolved,” he said. “Our political leaders said that’s not going to cut it anymore.”
For nearly a decade, California has offered consumer rebates, as much as $7,000 per car, to make EVs more affordable. Since 2011, 15 residents of the 95824 zip code that surrounds Franklin Boulevard used the rebates. In the dense 95814 zip code where Quismondo lives, 71 did.
The combined population of 40,000 in those two zip codes received $163,900 in state rebates. By contrast, in the affluent 94025 zip code, home to a similarly sized population — near Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California — buyers received $2.4 million in rebates.
Persuading people to use the e-Golfs stationed at low-income apartment buildings could be a challenge. They cost 15 cents a minute or $9 an hour to use. Ayala cited obstacles to adoption in his organization’s car-share program, which is free. He said many residents don’t have driver’s licenses or credit cards, which are needed to activate the service.
I paid three visits to the Whispering Pines apartments, which was included in the service by Electrify America on Nov. 1. Each time, I found leaves collecting in the charging ports of the two cars, as if they had not been moved for several days. Envoy Technologies, which operates the program, declined to share usage rates for the cars at Whispering Pines.
In yet another Sacramento-based experiment financed by Electrify America, a program called Gig this month started to put the first of 260 all-electric Chevrolet Bolts on city streets in a 13-square-mile zone between downtown and midtown. Seventy percent of residents in this zone are considered low income.
Users can locate a Bolt via a mobile app, unlock the door, start it up and drive for $2.50 a mile or $15 an hour. When the ride is completed, members can park the car in any legal spot in the designated zone, lock the door and move on.
These activities, which have turned Sacramento into a test bed for equitable access to EVs, are being conducted in the first $200 million cycle of the Electrify America investment. The company says these programs have taken about a year to develop and won’t bear fruit until later this year.
Even with few of those services fully in operation, Electrify America went back in December to the California Air Resources Board to get approval for the second $200 million cycle. The meeting became contentious when two board members, Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and former state Sen. Dean Florez, both hailing from rural districts, accused Electrify America of primarily focusing on profits, which it is entitled to earn under the Volkswagen settlement.
“They plan to invest $95 million to $115 million in places like San Francisco, Beverly Hills or La Jolla, where projected demand is high for electric vehicles, rather than building charging stations in lower-income communities where the market will take longer to grow,” they wrote in a Sacramento Bee editorial. “Comparatively, only $2 million would be spent for community charging in rural areas badly in need of investment and opportunity.”
Electrify America officials say the rural investment in the first two cycles is closer to $50 million, when considering the charging stations positioned at Target and Walmart stores and at other locations along highway routes, as well as urban charging hubs.
Encouraging adoption of electric vehicles in rural areas might be the toughest challenge. “Electrify America is not going to want to heavily invest in an area where they think the utilization of the chargers is going to be really low,” said Scott Shepard, a senior research analyst at Navigant Research, which focuses on clean-energy markets. “They’re going to need extra pushing from regulators.”
After four hours of testimony from the public and board members, the state approved the second phase of the project. Florez cast the only vote against moving forward. He cited insufficient investment in rural areas, a lack of data about progress to date, and a broken promise to quickly approve a second city to join Sacramento in becoming a test bed.
“I have a very serious issue with trust in the company,” Florez said in an interview. “People tend to forget why we got here in the first place,” he added, referring to Volkswagen’s emissions scandal.
Giovanni Palazzo, chief executive of Electrify America, defended the company’s progress and its commitment to equity. He said Electrify America needed to simultaneously serve regions where EVs were already popular and “invest, test and learn where there’s no adoption at all.”
Electrify America also faces criticism from competing charging infrastructure companies, like ChargePoint and EVgo. They are unhappy to see a new, well-financed rival — with the state’s imprimatur and Volkswagen’s funding — for coveted public charging locations.
Ayala, the former California regulator, is undaunted by the political friction in making electric vehicles accessible to all. “We know that not all projects are going to work,” he said. “But this city is now a laboratory where things happen. If we find something that works, we can scale it up to the state level, then the nation and eventually the world.”