Capturing the Rhythm of
Downtown Santa Monica
Santa Monica Centric
Charting a course for charging electric vehicles
By Kevin Herrera


City unveils action plan to expand EV usage, cut down emissions


As an environmental activist focused on protecting the world’s oceans, lakes and streams, Santa Monican Ben Kay said he felt liberated back in 2011 when he was able to trade in his gas-powered vehicle in favor of an electrically-charged Nissan Leaf. He was trimming his carbon footprint and doing his part to curb greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming’s harmful effects on the environment.


“I barely looked at the lease price, let alone what I was putting down, I was so excited,” said Kay, who teaches biology at Santa Monica High School. “Then, of course, reality sets in.”


Kay, like many Santa Monicans, lived in an apartment and had no convenient way to charge his electric vehicle. Many older multi-family dwellings in the city do not come with parking spaces for each tenant, let alone electrical vehicle charging stations. A state law actually bars rent-controlled tenants from paying to install one, even if they have the permission of their landlord. For Santa Monica, the law impacts close to 27,594 units, according to 2016 figures provided by the Rent Control Board. (Tenants in units not under rent control can pay to have a charger installed if the landlord allows it.)


Luckily for Kay, his apartment was located on the second floor, directly above his building’s carport, allowing him to run a plug out of a window and down to his Leaf. Kay didn’t think his landlord would mind given the poor condition of the building. 


“Rapunzel, let down your extension cord,” Kay joked, referring to the German fairy tale in which a damsel locked in an impenetrable tower lowers her long blonde braids to her handsome prince so that he can climb up and woo her. “For the first year I charged off your regular …  outlet. That was enough to meet my driving needs.”


Kay’s story is familiar to many EV owners in Santa Monica, where roughly 67 percent of residents are renters without easy access to chargers, especially during evenings when most are home and their cars sitting idle. Those with EVs who are not fortunate enough to have charging stations at their jobs or in their garages often have to adjust their daily schedules around charging or get creative like Kay.


If fate is in their favor, they can plug into one of the 36 EV ports located in Downtown parking structures, hang out on the Third Street Promenade and shop, eat or see a movie to help pass the time while their car charges. But that’s also becoming more difficult as the popularity of EVs has increased.


The city has a total of 75 charging ports accessible to the general public, the majority of which are located in city-owned parking structures and surface lots. EVs and hybrid electric vehicles account for approximately 3 percent of all vehicles owned in the city, totaling 1,428 in 2016. The numbers are expected to climb by more than four times that amount in the next 10 years, according to city staff with the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, which crafts policy and programs that help fight climate change and promote eco-friendly living.


Then there are the EV owners who work or visit Santa Monica every day. With just 75 charging ports, there is, at times, a demand overload. (There are a little more than 13,600 charging outlets across the state of California and about 40,300 EVs registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, representing 1.9 percent of all vehicles on the roads, according to figures from 2016.)


Paul Scott, an EV advocate and early adopter of the technology, having purchased a Toyota RAV4 in 2002 after installing solar panels on his home, remembers the days when he could easily find a charger in Downtown.


“Now it’s a completely different story,” said Scott, a member of the Advisory Council for Plug-In America, an EV advocacy group. “Depending on the day and time, they’re all occupied. People just can’t find one available and a lot of people are not buying an electric car because of that. If they don’t have access to charging where they live or work, it becomes too much of a hassle.”



Planning for the future


City officials recognize there is demand for more plug-ins, particularly in multi-family neighborhoods, and have unveiled a five-year action plan to expand not only the public and private charging network, but the purchase or lease of electric vehicles. A map of the city showing EV ownership and the number of private chargers illustrates the challenge ahead. EV ownership is greatest in single-family neighborhoods the create a ring around Santa Monica. In the center, there is a gaping hole representing where most renters, and therefore residents, live.   


The City Council is expected in early November to provide feedback on the EV Action Plan, which if approved in its current form would quadruple the number of public EV charging ports for a total of 302 by 2022 at a cost of roughly $2 million for installation. Annual operating costs are estimated at $361,075 per year.

The ultimate goal is to get more people driving electric so that the city can better meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. The internal-combustion engine is the first and most crucial target given that 64 percent of Santa Monica’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is generated by vehicles burning conventional gasoline.


Not only do those emissions contribute to climate change, they also negatively impact people’s health. Small airborne particles like dust, soot and drops of toxic liquids are known to cause nasal and upper respiratory tract health problems, and can cause heart attacks, stokes, asthma and bronchitis, as well as premature death from heart ailments, lung disease and cancer, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.


The American Lung Association’s 2016 Clean Air Future report found that health and climate costs caused by engines burning gasoline totaled $37 billion across 10 states in 2015. The study estimates that combined health and climate benefits from a 100 percent EV scenario in California could reach $13.5 billion by 2050. The benefits include fewer health problems, resulting in fewer missed work days, premature deaths and emergency room visits.


There are also significant economic benefits for drivers going electric, including saving money on gas and lower maintenance costs due to fewer parts. Plug-in America estimates an average EV owner saving $3,500 on fuel over the lifetime of the vehicle, assuming prices were to stay at the generous level of $2.50 per gallon. If gas prices were to rise to $3.50 per gallon (the average in Los Angeles County was $3.06 in early October), EV owners could save close to $9,000.


That savings could then be reinvested back into the local economy in the form of increased spending power. A 2015 study by leading global financial services firm JP Morgan Chase found that American drivers were spending about 80 percent of the money they saved because of a dip in gas prices by going out to eat more and buying more at the grocery store. There was also a boost for retail and entertainment venues.


“Robust consumer spending could continue if gas prices remain low or continue to decrease over time,” JP Morgan Chase Institute President & CEO Diana Farrell said at the time of the study’s release.


The city’s EV Action Plan (read the draft here) identifies four priorities to increase EV usage. One priority, and possibly the most important, is to modernize and expand the public charging station network and to develop a fair pricing system to help cover costs while still encouraging people to adopt EV technology.


Another priority is to encourage private charging at apartment buildings and to allow for public charging on the street in multi-family neighborhoods. That could be done by retrofitting street lights with plug-ins and streamlining the permit process for apartment owners and business to install their own chargers.


A third priority is updating policy to reflect changing times. That would include changing building requirements so more EV chargers would be mandated in new construction, or allowing residents to have special permits so they could charge overnight at public parking facilities. A federal jury last year awarded $1.1 million to an African-American man who sued after Santa Monica police allegedly used excessive force while arresting him as he was charging his electric car at a city park after-hours.


Then there’s the community outreach portion to educate and build upon Santa Monica’s efforts so that neighboring communities can join in and further expand the charging network.


The plan’s phases could be funded through a multitude of sources, including a fee charged when plugging in, advertising at the stations, carbon credits and grants, and the elimination of free parking for EV owners. Santa Monica remains one of four cities in California that still offers free street parking for EVs. That’s approximately $588,000 in lost revenue a year.


Another source of funding will be made available from the Volkswagen settlement with the federal government over its diesel emissions fraud. Around $800 million over the next 10 years will be invested in California, including $120 million for charging infrastructure, according to the EV Action Plan draft.


Putting the pedal to the metal


So far those who have reviewed the action plan have been supportive of the overall goal, but there are those who want the 5-year timetable accelerated. Another complaint centers around the first major action item, replacing the 75 charging ports currently in service with new “smart” chargers. Critics say money should first be spent on expanding the charging network, not upgrading the current stations already in use.


City staff say that is necessary because the current charging ports are of various makes and models, inhibiting their ability to develop a robust network and more efficiently manage the system. New chargers would have remote monitoring and reporting to better track usage and adjust to demand in real-time. This would in turn help create a more equitable fee structure for charging. The chargers could also automatically assess additional fees if someone overstays their allotted time, ensuring more turnover for others.


“The problem is we all believe climate change is happening at an unprecedented pace throughout the world,” said Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon during the initial public review of the action plan in early October. “This is a plan that would have been appropriate five or 10 years ago, but not now. We need to encourage at an enormously quick pace the flip out of gas to electric vehicles. I see a very cautious, bureaucratic approach … that doesn’t get everyone to go, ‘I need to buy one of these [electric] vehicles.’”


Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy was concerned that by removing current chargers from the network and then replacing them, with the lag that naturally comes with installation, would create negative publicity for the city.


“Removing service coverage is a bad idea,” she said.


City staff recognizes the need to move towards electric and the urgency, said senior sustainability analyst Garrett Wong, however, there are regulatory realities to contend with along with infrastructure upgrades that need to be considered. Installing new chargers at one location can take as long as six months or more. Establishing a fare fee structure for charging could take at least a year or longer. 


“We want to go faster and further, always,” Wong said, “but we are looking at one of the most complicated projects and systems that a city has ever dealt with. It touches almost every city department or division, and we are dealing with utilities and existing infrastructure that is not just contained to the public realm.”


The thinking initially is to concentrate on where there are systems already in place and then expand, but Wong said the future is not set. City staff is listening closely to the public and gathering feedback so that the City Council can weigh all concerns.


Under the current draft, the EV plan would add 34 new charging ports in the next year. Another 41 would come online some time in 2018 or early 2019 for a total of 149. The rest of the 302 would be brought online by 2022.


Where it comes from


EV drivers can take pleasure in knowing that when they do plug into a charger connected to the city’s electricity grid they are getting power generated from 100 percent renewable sources, further limiting their impacts on the environment. After all, it’s one thing to purchase an EV, but the power to fuel it must come from somewhere, which could mean nuclear, natural gas, coal or other sources that are considered more harmful to the environment than renewables like solar, hydro and wind. (In California coal, one of the most environmentally damaging sources of power, represented just two-tenths of 1 percent of energy generation in 2015.)


The city purchases 100 percent renewables from one of two providers and then funnels that electricity through the local utility, Southern California Edison (SCE). Wong said the city’s energy is generated primarily by wind.


For private customers, there is the option to go greener. SCE offers a Green Rate program where businesses, homeowners and others can elect to pay more and get 100 percent of their energy from renewables. The program, was launched in February 2016. As of September 30, 2017, there were 755 residential and 23 non-residential customers enrolled in the program across Edison’s service area. In Santa Monica, there were 52 total customers, 45 choosing the 100 percent renewable option and 7 picking the 50 percent option, according to officials with SCE.


Overall, SCE gets more than 28 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and wants to get to 50 percent renewables by 2030.


“The Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), which is set by the state, includes eligible renewable sources such as solar and wind energy that SCE produces or purchases,” said Edison spokesperson Paul Griffo. “It excludes rooftop solar and largescale hydropower in this definition. When all is included, SCE is currently at 40 percent clean power today. Our commitment to clean, renewable energy sources has risen consistently over the years.”


Scott with Plug-In America said ultimately the goal is to not only get more people driving EVs, but to also transform the entire energy generation and distribution network so fewer emissions are released into the atmosphere.


“Electrify everything,” Scott said, “and clean the grid.”


But first things first, plugging in.

"We need to encourage at an enormously quick pace the flip out of gas to electric vehicles." — Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon

Kevin Herrera is a former journalist turned marketing and communication expert, beer enthusiast, cyclist, cultural observer/commentator and expert on all things Downtown Santa Monica. He is currently the sr. marketing & communication manager for Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.