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A surge in electric vehicle ownership is coming. But is the local charging network ready?

Sue Julien and Beth Hasebe try and connect Julien's Nissan Leaf to one of the newly installed electric car fast charging station at the Pittsford Wegmans. But the Leaf and Tesla vehicles are not able to connect to most standard public charging stations without an adapter.
Max Schulte
Sue Julien and Beth Hasebe try and connect Julien's Nissan Leaf  to one of the newly installed electric car fast charging station at the Pittsford Wegmans. But the Leaf and Tesla vehicles are not able to connect to most standard public charging stations without an adapter.

Neely Kelley first put a deposit down on a Volkswagen ID.4 in March. She expected a call back in a few weeks to order the fully electric, compact SUV in Glacier White Metallic.

But that call didn’t come until July.

Neely Kelley, portrait
Neely Kelley
A photo of Neely Kelley

“We still don't know when we'll get the car,” she said. “I'm hopeful maybe by mid-fall. … And there are lots of people behind us – dozens, if not more, waiting for an EV.”

EV is short for electric vehicle. And if you haven’t been to a car lot lately, there aren’t a lot of cars to be had, not even to test drive. Especially not EVs. Waitlists are long.

“Production levels are way down,” said Brad McAreavy, president of the Rochester Automobile Dealers Association.

Blame the pandemic and supply chain issues for depleting the supply, just as demand for electric vehicles was peaking.

The slowdown has provided catch-up time – both for automakers pivoting to a more EV-centric product lineup, and for the planning, if not installation, of public charging stations.

Congress and the Biden administration recently directed billions of dollars toward building a national EV charging network, focused on fast chargers every 50 miles along major highways. New York state continues refining its efforts. And real estate developers increasingly are adding chargers into new construction.

Map shows much of the Thruway and other major Upstate New York travel corridors coded in black, meaning there are not currently fast chargers every 50 miles
Screenshot from New York state's NEVI plan
New York state's submitted plan as part of the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program shows which of the identified major traffic corridors meet the goal of a fast charger every 50 miles (pink) and which do not (black).

But disparities are emerging in access, not just in the pricing of EVs but also in the placement and design of public charging stations. The need to address the underlying infrastructure is critical.

“When things do start to come back,” McAreavy said, “and we start to see production levels increase, you're going to see a lot more electric vehicles come into the market from all manufacturers.”

That is going to require a lot more charging stations.

"Infrastructure is a big part of this,” McAreavy said, “this whole electric vehicle future that we keep talking about.”

To keep up, the U.S. would need to install more than 200,000 chargers annually nationwide, according to researchers at The International Council on Clean Transportation. The nonprofit provides independent research and analysis to environmental regulators.

That pace would match what was happening pre-pandemic but is more demanding than targets set by the Biden administration. And California, which has the nation’s highest rate of EV ownership – far outpacing New York – estimates that state alone will need 1.2 million public and shared charging spots by 2030. Its current station total is measured in the tens of thousands.

Charging access

There are about 5,600 EVs on the road in Monroe County, split between battery-powered and plug-in hybrids.

The plug-in Toyota Prius Prime dominates the local market, followed by the all-electric Tesla Model 3.

New registrations boomed last year but have slowed this year, records show, likely due to the lack of cars available.

In the nine-county Finger Lakes region, more than a third of all EVs are registered in Monroe County.

Most EV owners nationally are commuters living in single-family houses, studies show. Homeowners outnumber renters 2-to-1 in Monroe County; the opposite is true in the city. And across the United States, the share of EV owners in apartment buildings, townhouses and duplexes is growing.

Renters like Catherine Martin. The 37-year-old and her husband own a 2021 blue Prius Prime.

“When we bought it, we had a driveway, we had a garage,” she said of their last house in Granville, Ohio, outside of Columbus. “Everything was great.”

They relocated to Rochester’s Park Avenue neighborhood in June. Her husband is from here, and they moved back to be close to family. But the rental market is tight, and the townhouse they were able to get had no driveway.

Their solution? A daisy chain of extension cords running from a living room plug, out the front door, and across the yard to the curb.

A daisy chain network of extension cords connects this electric car to a power source in an apartment.
David Streever
A daisy chain network of extension cords connects this electric car to a power source in an apartment.

“It’s a little annoying when I am not able to get a spot out front of my house,” Martin said. “I’m waiting on a much longer (100-foot) extension cord.”

The nearest public charging station is a half-mile away. In parts of northeast Rochester, it’s easily three miles, or an hour’s walk, to a station.

“We need to figure out – since we have so many renters in the city – making sure that renters have access,” said Abigail McHugh-Grifa, executive director for the Climate Solutions Accelerator of the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region.

It's not just Rochester.

Nationally, nearly one of every three new chargers installed would need to be placed in lower-income neighborhoods to ensure equitable access, according to The International Council on Clean Transportation. Apartment buildings have to be a focus.

And the buildout has to go faster in rural areas, particularly in the South and Midwest.

Cost and need

Estimated costs to build out an adequate national charging network are projected at several times the $7.5 billion included in the recent federal infrastructure bill.

Changing approaches to placement and design, ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and accounting for the rising cost of materials and labor all will drive up expenses, experts say.

But it’s unclear just what our existing infrastructure can support. The power grid wasn’t built with the idea that we’d be charging our cars on it.

“If there was a mass adoption of electric vehicles today, the electric grid could not sustain it,” said McAreavy with the Rochester Automobile Dealers Association.

Rochester Gas & Electric anticipates there will be 20,000 EVs on the road in its service area by the end of 2025, and 72,000 by the end of 2030. In new electricity demand, that translates to 22 megawatts and nearly 79 megawatts, respectively.

For context, RG&E’s peak summer demand is just over 1,500 megawatts.

RG&E insists capacity hasn’t really constrained charger development to date. Placement thus far has focused on highest use.

But the underlying power grid has limited capacity throughout much of the city’s neighborhoods. And while there appears adequate supply downtown and in the suburbs, auto dealers – and most recently, Wegmans in Pittsford Plaza -- have found that installing any more than a couple of fast chargers exceeds existing electrical supply on site.

A map shows NYSEG and RG&E load capacity for EVs with downtown and the suburbs fairing best.
Screenshot of NYSEG load capacity mapping tool for EV fast charging stations
NYSEG-RGE EV Load Capacity map shows the greatest capacity in downtown Rochester and the suburbs (green) with limited (yellow) and severely limited (red) capacity across much of the rest of the city. This impacts cost of installation.

Fast chargers can refuel an EV in less than an hour, but they cost more to install and operate and put more strain on the grid. Mid-level or L2 charging stations are more plentiful – in parking garages and, at the Public Market, for example – places where you plan to be awhile because they take hours to fully recharge a vehicle.

Monroe County – which has above-average EV ownership compared to the rest of the Empire State – is on par with other New York communities when it comes to those L2 chargers. But even that is inadequate. And it has twice the number of EVs per fast charging station as the statewide average.

“It’s sort of the chicken and the egg scenario,” McAreavy said.

Should the EVs come first, driving demand for chargers. Or are the chargers needed first, so buyers are more comfortable choosing an EV.

"There's all kinds of scenarios out there that have to be thought about. that have to be addressed,” he continued. “I run into strong advocates, particularly environmental groups, that want EVs to be the only car sold in the market today. I understand their interest in wanting that. But it's just not realistic. We don't have the type of environment and the type of infrastructure that would support something like that.

“But it doesn't mean we can't work toward it."

Supply and demand

The state helped Rochester install public charging stations in select city parking garages and at the Public Market.

“And they've let us know that we have some of the highest usage in New York state of electric vehicle charging stations,” said Anne Spaulding, who leads the city’s division of environmental quality.

However, the last one was installed four years ago.

New York has seen mixed results with various programs to set up public charging stations.

A state comptroller report released earlier chastised the Power Authority’s EVolve NY charger deployment program for not putting ports where they were most needed. And like New York’s other programs, the rollout has been slow.

“Counties with high numbers of EVs have relatively few charging stations,” read a statement from the Comptroller’s Office, “while some counties have few EVs but a high number of charging ports.”

A close-up view of a newly-installed electric car charging station at the Pittsford Wegmans.
Max Schulte
A close-up view of a newly-installed electric car charging station at the Pittsford Wegmans.

New York’s EV Make-Ready program -- offsetting installation costs on commercial sites -- has helped to install 155 charting ports in the Rochester region, with another 104 under construction through New York State Electric and Gas Corp. and RG&E.

Separately, however, RG&E is the only utility in New York state to record zero activity with an incentive program that helps reduce monthly electric bills once those ports are up and running.

“The technology is going to catch up,” said Kelley, still waiting on her Volkswagon . “It really will catch up. It has to. I have confidence. I have faith that it will.”

Spaulding said the city is developing an EV plan to include a strategy on charging station placement – possibly at recreation centers and libraries, and reaching into the neighborhoods, or even along streets, if possible. It’s also possible the city will turn its attention to working with real estate developers to improve access.

McHugh-Grifa said real change, though, will require a shift in mindset, making climate issues a priority.

“We don't have ... community leaders demanding it on a broad scale, which to me is puzzling – given the intersection between climate and poverty and health challenges,” she said.

The electrification of vehicles is a start. A recently announced EV carshare is better, she said, breaking the dependence on personal vehicles while opening access to all.

“There's so many other areas of community concern that, from my perspective, can be addressed through climate solutions,” McHugh-Grifa said. “But it's just, it's not the thing that's kind of on the top of people's minds.

“And that is holding back progress.”

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.
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