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Electric vehicle owners in Chicago are frustrated by the lack of public charging stations

Before Bernie Powell bought his blue Tesla Model Y, he cycled to electric vehicle chargers around Chicago.

He wanted to ask people about their experiences with EVs and see how accessible public chargers are from his River West condo, which doesn’t have EV chargers.

“I went to three or four garages and then said, ‘Hey, I can do this,’” says Powell.

Since buying his EV, Powell has relied on public stations but has tried to install chargers in his condo. However, he admits that so far he can still work.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Electric vehicles are registered in all 77 community areas in Chicago, but more than 40 of those areas have no public EV chargers, city officials said.

Often, potential buyers express concern over the reach of EVs in rural areas, where chargers may be few and far between. But the lack of public chargers means building a robust network of EV chargers in a densely populated urban area like Chicago comes with its own set of challenges.

Tesla Model Y owner Bernie Powell uses the Tesla app to find available charging stations for his car.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

EV adoption in Illinois and Chicago raises questions about charging networks

State and federal laws are driving the EV revolution in Illinois and across the country. In Illinois, there are over 70,000 EV on the road, a number are set to grow substantially. In September 2021, Governor JB Pritzker signed the Climate and Equal Employment Act, setting a goal of adopting 1 million EVs in Illinois by 2030.

The law also establishes rebates for EV buyers and incentives for public and private organizations to install chargers.

Chicago is home to 12,267 registered electric vehicles – about 5,000 more than were registered a year ago.

But with 70% of Chicago residents living in multi-unit buildings, access to chargers can present a challenge for EV drivers, said Samantha Bingham, director of the Clean Transportation Program at the Chicago Department of Transportation. Most EV charging happens in single-family homes with private garages and driveways, says Evan Carver, a University of Chicago assistant professor of environment, geography, and urbanization.

But city dwellers are prime candidates for EV adoption, because the average mileage they cover each day is relatively low, said Carver.

Because of that driving pattern, Danny Freeman, a senior partner in the energy and utilities division of consulting firm West Monroe, says that concern about EV reach is a bit “overblown” for most Chicagoans.

Some Chicagoans struggle to find consistent filling

Powell is working on installing a charger in his condo for his Tesla. He said this has brought “many complications,” including costs and working with existing infrastructure. If that failed, he planned to install it at his girlfriend’s house in Lake Bluff.

Ryan Freeland moved to Chicago from Los Angeles in a plug-in hybrid vehicle. When he and his wife lived in LA, they would charge the car in their driveway. But in Chicago, they use curbside parking near their home in Lincoln Park, where there are no EV chargers nearby.

The pair rely on common chargers, which Freeland says are often slow, broken, overcrowded or in inconvenient locations.

Their plug-in hybrid, can run on battery power for 25 to 30 miles; gasoline engine starts when the battery runs out. Freeland says the battery range will work for most city driving if they have access to a better charger.

“It looks like there is still a lot more that can be done to take Chicago a few steps further in the process,” said Freeland.

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Bernie Powell shows what apps are available for him to kill time while charging his Tesla Model Y at the Tesla charging station at Target located at 2656 N. Elston Ave., Friday, May 19, 2023. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Bingham bought an EV, but neither his apartment building nor his nearby community have EV chargers.

“Everything changed because I was driven to go places where there were chargers I could take advantage of,” says Bingham.

This affects where he will run errands, and using a public charger costs extra time and money. Bingham says charging at home costs about $2.50 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, but he pays about $4.50 with a regular charger. Even on the fastest EV charger available, Bingham would still wait 30 to 45 minutes for his car to reach 80% charge.

About 175 of Chicago’s 850 public EV charging stations belong to Tesla. For now, Tesla chargers only work for Tesla vehicles, but that will change soon.

in February, the White House announced Tesla will open at least 7,500 new and existing chargers for general use by the end of 2024.

The announcement is part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to encourage EV adoption. In November 2021, Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, which includes price cuts for EV buyers and federal dollars for building chargers along interstate highways.

Chargers in cities and chargers in residential buildings, however, are not eligible for funding for this National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure formula.

Startups, politicians looking for EV charging solutions

Diallo Powell, co-founder and CEO of Stak Mobility, hopes to open charging stations in residential, retail and multipurpose developments in Cook County.

Powell said Stak is trying to overcome the space constraints of charging in cities by building multi-level filling carousels. Motorists drive to a parking lot at ground level. Once the driver exits, the carousel – which is actually more like a ferris wheel – drives the car into an open charging bay up to 60 feet in the air.

Stak Mobility charging carousel.

The charging carousel, created by Stak Mobility, allows more electric cars to be charged in areas where free space is scarce.

Screenshot from the Stak Mobility video

He plans to have two carousels up and running in the next few months — one in Gainesville, Florida, and one in Pittsburgh. In Gainesville, Powell said the Stak carousel created 26 charging spaces over the traditional four parking spaces.

“People are still tied to their car as a primary mode of transportation, and I think in an area like that and a lot of secondary cities… we can really play a role in supporting the transition to electric vehicles,” said Powell.

State Senator Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) has looked at the challenge of charging urban EVs in the 6th District, which includes parts of Lincoln Park, Lake View, and the Near North Side, some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city. The district also includes some of the most EV ZIP codes anywhere in Chicago, according to state data.

Feigenholtz sponsored Senate Bill 40who authorized both houses on May 4. If signed into law, the bill would require all new single-family homes and all new and renovated multi-unit residential buildings in Illinois to include EV-enabled parking lots.

Bernie Powell plugs in his Tesla Model Y to charge at Target, 2656 N. Elston Ave., Friday, May 19, 2023.

Bernie Powell plugs in his Tesla Model Y for charging at Target, 2656 N. Elston Ave.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Access problems, transportation problems remain

Lack of access to chargers isn’t just a problem in the Feigenholtz district. In fact, the South and West sides of Chicago have fewer public charging stations, making EV adoption in these areas less feasible.

“If you look at where EV chargers are distributed, they tend to be in wealthier communities,” said Freeman, the consultant. “That’s still something that needs to be addressed,” he added, especially considering the savings that EVs can offer lower-income Chicagoans.

Carver said the reduction in emissions brought about by widespread EV adoption is something cities “should be fighting for”.

Still, he doesn’t think EVs are the ultimate solution to cities’ desires to fight climate change or increase mobility. Even if everyone in Chicago started driving EVs, the city would still have problems with congestion, traffic deaths and road maintenance.

“I really want cities to ask themselves if they want to fully embrace EVs,” said Carver, “Or do they want to have a more comprehensive mobility policy that covers transit, including walkability, including bikeability.”

Community electric vehicle charging station, along North Boulevard near the western suburbs in Oak Park.

Community charging station for electric vehicles, next to the CTA Green Line, along North Boulevard near the western suburbs in Oak Park.

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