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3 ways to help EV charging bloom in ​‘charging deserts’

For EV chargers to take off in disadvantaged communities, we’ll need public-sector support — and private-sector innovation to make the economics work.

It’s hard to get EV chargers to bloom in ​“charging deserts.”

More than seven in 10 EV chargers in the U.S. are in the country’s wealthiest counties, according to recent research, while many rural, low-income and disadvantaged communities have few if any places for EV drivers to plug in.

There’s a reason that EV chargers are concentrated in the richest, and whitest, parts of the country: That’s where most EV owners live today. Without enough EV drivers to pull up and plug in, charging companies can’t make enough money to justify the cost of installing and maintaining EV infrastructure.

State and federal EV charging programs have set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to install chargers in disadvantaged communities, but those programs haven’t necessarily tackled the biggest challenge for charging deserts: finding ways for charging sites to thrive in locations that currently have low EV ownership.

Building chargers in underserved communities is a vital part of making sure that EVs are a practical option for everyone, not just the rich. And while EV ownership in these communities is low today, experts say it’s crucial to build reliable infrastructure now so that people living in these areas can confidently switch to an electric vehicle when they’re ready.

Though they are still costlier upfront, EVs are cheaper than gasoline-fueled cars to fuel and maintain over the long run. Tax credits and other incentives can help defray some initial costs for lower-income car buyers, but the long-term benefits of owning an EV depend on easy and reliable access to charging. EV owners typically do most of their charging at home, but many people in lower-income communities live in rental housing or lack home garages for convenient at-home charging, making public charging even more important for them.

But building chargers in places with low EV adoption isn’t viable without a strategy to keep the stations financially healthy until utilization rises. Doing so is a recipe for under-maintained or broken-down charging stations, an outcome that would add insult to injury for communities already burdened by underinvestment and pollution.

Canary Media talked to companies working on strategies to overcome these gaps. Each of them relies on public funding and community engagement to get off the ground — but they’re also bringing private-sector innovation to try to solve problems that policymakers can’t solve on their own.