Electric Vehicles for Renters: Getting Landlords to Act – Energy Institute at Haas

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My experience managing a rental property illustrates barriers to electric vehicle charging and ways to overcome them.
Go for a walk in a dense urban area, like where I live in Oakland, and you come across extension cords winding across the sidewalk to vehicles. It shows the need for more access to effective vehicle charging. Renters are especially left out, and this could be hurting electric vehicle adoption.
Lucas Davis has found that In California, homeowners are three times more likely to own an electric vehicle than renters. Even comparing homeowners and renters with similar incomes, renters are much less likely to own electric vehicles. My own recent experience as a landlord trying to provide electric charging shows how hard closing this gap will be, but also suggests potential policy responses.
An Opportunity to Add Vehicle Charging
My partner and I own a duplex built in 1940 that we have rented out since our family outgrew the two-bedroom units. Each apartment has an assigned parking spot in a garage, something not available to many apartment dwellers in urban areas. Our tenants do not have electric vehicles, but if they did, they would need to make do with a common wall plug that provides two to four miles worth of charge per hour. This sort of outlet is better suited for an electric bicycle than an electric car.
We recently decided to update our duplex’s electric system. This led us to ask whether now is the time to add electric vehicle charging too. Would this be a wise investment?
None of our tenants drive an electric vehicle today. When asked, one said they might get one in the future, but this is not certain. Even if these tenants do not get an electric vehicle, perhaps offering electric vehicle charging would be attractive to future tenants and allow us to charge higher rents. More and more apartment ads in our area list electric vehicle charging as an amenity, suggesting other building owners see an opportunity.
We also looked at where policy is headed. California Governor Newsom wants to eliminate the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and the federal government plans to strengthen vehicle fuel economy standards. We could get our building ready for the influx of cars that will need charging.
However, after our initial conversations with electricians and the local electric utility, the plans started going off the rails.
We also looked at where policy is headed. California Governor Newsom wants to eliminate the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and the federal government plans to strengthen vehicle fuel economy standards. We could get our building ready for the influx of cars that will need charging.
However, after our initial conversations with electricians and the local electric utility, the plans started going off the rails.
How a Simple Project Becomes Complex
The first thing we learned was that the size of each apartment’s electrical panel, and the service to the property as a whole, was too small to accommodate electric vehicle charging. 
However, upgrading the electrical panels would trigger the latest electrical codes and utility rules. In our case, this would mean the electrical panels and meters would need to be moved to the opposite side of the building to be more accessible to workers, especially in an emergency. House wires would need to be rerouted to the new location, and the utility would need to move its point of connection closer to the new meter location. The costs are growing.
Then, the utility would need to study whether our street’s distribution circuit has capacity to accommodate our increase. If not, the utility would need to design and implement a project to increase grid capacity. There are a complicated set of rules in which it is possible we would have to pay for upgrades to the neighborhood’s electrical system. Substantially more costs, plus the potential for delay.
In other words, we are faced with a large, complex project that may not pay off for us as owners.
Maybe our property is an unusually challenging one, but there is a lot of older housing in the US. Nearly half of US housing units were built before 1980, much of it in cities with older infrastructure to start with. 
Getting Landlords to Invest
Our experience points to several possible approaches by government and utilities to better motivate landlords, and homeowners more generally, to invest in electric vehicle charging.
Of course, I could suggest throwing money at the problem by offering subsidies to landlords. However, the benefits may flow primarily to higher income property owners with higher income tenants, following the pattern of electric vehicle incentives, which raises equity concerns. The aggregate cost of a large-scale incentive policy could also be very high. As an analog, Erich Muehlegger and David Rapson found that incentives for electric vehicle purchases increase adoption, but that the aggregate cost of transforming the vehicle fleet with incentives is surprisingly high. Before racing down the path of incentives, I would want to see some randomized controlled trials to determine whether this is likely to be a sustainable approach.
There could be other levers though.
Bringing older properties up to the full set of modern codes and standards raises the costs of projects. Governments could allow building code holidays for electric vehicle-driven upgrades. Utilities and their regulators could do the same for the rules they administer. Older properties of all kinds, owner- or renter-occupied, would benefit.
Perhaps coordination between utilities, electricians and owners could be improved in ways that lower costs, risks and delays. Today, utilities perform one-off studies each time a building owner considers an upgrade. Instead, they could perform proactive analysis of excess capacity on circuits, and advertise the available capacity to homeowners on the circuit. When new capacity is added they could advertise this to households. It would be similar to how internet providers in my area have marketed the availability of faster internet speeds when they make local improvements. Owners might be motivated to take advantage of the accelerated approval process and greater certainty. Electricians could target their marketing too. A utility could even seek out interest in expanded capacity by inviting building owners to sign up in advance, similar to the open season process that natural gas pipeline companies use before building a new pipeline. This improved coordination would also benefit both owner- and renter-occupied housing.
Ultimately, I expect demand from tenants will be the most important motivator for landlords. Electric vehicles are still only two percent of the vehicle fleet in electric vehicle-happy California, so it is not surprising that property owners are taking their time. As electric vehicles become more common, more landlords will be driven to invest in vehicle charging.
electricity, energy efficiency, transportation
Andrew Campbell is the Executive Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. Andy has worked in the energy industry for his entire professional career. Prior to coming to the University of California, Andy worked for energy efficiency and demand response company, Tendril, and grid management technology provider, Sentient Energy. He helped both companies navigate the complex energy regulatory environment and tailor their sales and marketing approaches to meet the utility industry’s needs. Previously, he was Senior Energy Advisor to Commissioner Rachelle Chong and Commissioner Nancy Ryan at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). While at the CPUC Andy was the lead advisor in areas including demand response, rate design, grid modernization, and electric vehicles. Andy led successful efforts to develop and adopt policies on Smart Grid investment and data access, regulatory authority over electric vehicle charging, demand response, dynamic pricing for utilities and natural gas quality standards for liquefied natural gas. Andy has also worked in Citigroup’s Global Energy Group and as a reservoir engineer with ExxonMobil. Andy earned a Master in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and bachelors degrees in chemical engineering and economics from Rice University.
The only reasonable solution is to have sufficient public charging stations at existing gas stations or other popular locations. Why do people need home charging when they have to go to a gas station for gasoline cars? The cost and complications for public charging station infrastructure and network upgrade is lower than upgrading distribution systems in most neighborhoods. Yes, even fast charging takes a little longer but there are already improvements to it with improved battery technologies, etc.
One of the benefits of EVs, not touted much, is the ability to “fuel” at both home and work independent of a trip to an inconvenient gas station. Note that almost all of the barriers listed in this post are institutional, not technological. If the constraints on the distribution grid still after exist after the easy electrical fixed listed by others, those likely will have to be addressed due to building electrification anyway. And the cheapest solutions likely will be distributed energy resources, but they won’t be owned by the utility–a fact that the utilities don’t like.
“Utilities …. could perform proactive analysis of excess capacity on circuits, and advertise the available capacity to homeowners on the circuit. When new capacity is added they could advertise this to households.” This is similar to many utilities already do in hosting capacity analyses for “distributed energy resources” (DERs) except perhaps at a finer level of geographic detail. And in reverse, since a hosting capacity analysis is more about the ability to deliver from a distributed location to a hub or load center. But a hosting capacity analysis only shows you where you CAN put a DER, not where you SHOULD. Your suggested delivery capability analysis would help show a DER could help relieve a local delivery crunch, and I believe the CPUC is trying to find just such ways to increase the use of Non-Wires Alternatives in utility planning. Or provide both justification and a customer source for hyper-local community generation.
Ditto all the comments above. Plus the new Rule 29 means that the utility is responsible for nearly all charges on the distribution system. That rule was just adopted so your post is just a month or two out of date.
I have a 240v charger and appreciate the convenience, but if I had to do it all over again I might not bother with the expense and just go with the trickle charger. Definitely if I had more range on my car I could get by with the 110v charger, the main issue is days when we want to take 2 significant trips (say, 40 mi RT in the car). That’s doable with the 240v charger but not with a 110v charger.
I think the posts I’ve seen so far have offered insightful solutions to the problem illustrated here. Sounds like an additional solution is better education about these available solutions. The question is how best to get the word out.
An additional thought though is that alternative is to put the power source on the roof of the building. Building electrification is going to push the need for either distribution system upgrades or a means of relieving that demand at the source. I calculated that installing microgrids are likely more cost effective than undergrounding. We can undertake a similar exercise to look at whether solar+storage is a cost effective solution to avoiding distribution upgrades in the face of electrification.
I would add that shortage of skilled trade workers represents, at least for now, a real limitation. I’m attempting a similar project at a house in WA. Of the many electricians I’ve emailed or left voice messages for, only one has called me back, mostly to interrogate me on how I got his cell number. The local population trends elderly, and my lone electrician source says young people quickly leave once fully trained. Logic tells me that aging electricians bulking up for their imminent retirement would seize an opportunity like this to squeeze out all the market will bear, but it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Rather each latches on to a favorite contractor or two and limit themselves to new construction. I’ll have to attempt the job myself, so this may be my last post to the E.I. blog.
I get the sense that people who don’t have electric cars overestimate the need for fast charging. I am going on nine years with my Nissan LEAF BEV and I am still waiting for the need to get a level 2 (220v) charger for my home. It’s true that I don’t drive a lot, but I use just a 110v (level 1) outlet in my driveway. It charges at one kW which gives me 4.5 miles of range per hour (I don’t know what EV gets 2 miles per kWh; maybe an electric Hummer?). Let’s say I commuted to a 9-5 office job every day. My car would be in my driveway from roughly 6 pm to 8 am, or 14 hours. Charging at one kW it would gain 63 miles of range overnight. Is that enough for a tenant? Depends on their lifestyle, but I suspect it’s enough for a lot of people.
Does a level 2 charger really require a panel upgrade? True, a lot of older homes have small panels, 100 amps or less. But there is a lot of potential for a “Watt diet” approach to optimize the use of a small panel. This webinar from the PG&E education center gives some strategies: One trick is to put two different appliances on the same 220v circuit, like an EV charger and an electric dryer. A circuit switch would allow only one to run at a time, to avoid overload. Another is to consolidate lighting circuits built for incandescent bulbs but now using LED lights, which cut load by 87%.
And up the hill at Berkeley Lab the residential buildings group has been digging in on low-cost electrification strategies. See some recent presentations here:
I totally agree that we are going to need to find low-cost strategies to electrify our homes and vehicles. But they can be pretty mundane and pragmatic, they don’t require gold-plating our copper.
This is a valuable article and case study. I’d like to offer 3 thoughts: (1) The assumption that a single 110 V (presumably 15 amp) circuit isn’t enough to provide most or all of the charging for 2 EVs isn’t necessarily correct. Assuming the circuit is used 12 hours/night and delivers 4 miles of range per hour that’s 17,520 miles/year, which may be more than enough for two vehicles in an urban setting. Occasional visits to a level 2 or 3 charger, or daytime charging on weekends and holidays, would almost certainly provide all the needed electricity for 2 EVs. (2) In cities with rent control the landlord would need to understand how much, if any, of the cost of an electrical upgrade could be passed along to EV driving tenants, and I expect that the answer would be “not much of it.” (3) Given that California’s path to net zero is probably going to rely heavily on cheap solar plus batteries for nighttime power it would sure be nice if we were charging cars during the daytime, using that PV-provided juice directly rather than sending it to big batteries which would then charge car batteries at night, thereby avoiding two levels of energy conversion and their associated inefficiencies.
“The first thing we learned was that the size of each apartment’s electrical panel, and the service to the property as a whole, was too small to accommodate electric vehicle charging.” – the panel shown has 100amp main and room for at least one double breaker for 240v service; I don’t understand what’s stopping you from installing a 40amp 240 circuit to a charger. I did a quick look but didn’t find anything in the NEC prohibiting the additional breaker.
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