Public electric charging stations are limited but Charleston is looking toward including them in municipal infrastructure | Photo by Charleston City Paper

Lagging charging infrastructure in the Lowcountry could make planned conversions to electric vehicles difficult. Cities around the country are committing to going green, and private businesses are following suit. Charleston is no different.

Charleston’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in May, outlines a plan to transition the city’s fleet of vehicles to new, electric models. And with a presence in Ridgeville, auto manufacturer Volvo has made the commitment solely to build electric vehicles by 2030. 

Charleston began the early stages of transitioning the city’s vehicle fleet to electric models in March 2021, seeking grants to purchase two electric garbage trucks. Support for shore power and electric vehicles for use at ports is written in the city’s climate action plan. And with smaller steps, like a resolution passed by council last week to use electric leaf blowers (gas-powered models are bad for the environment, y’all), the city is taking some steps to be a national leader.

“Charleston is the best city in the state, one of the best cities in the country, and I think we need to lead by example,” said Councilman Jason Sakran. “I think the market is dictating that the demand for electric options is only going to get stronger.”

Sakran isn’t the only one seeing that trend. According to an August 2021 report from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), sales of electric vehicles in South Carolina are up 51% from July 2020, with 1.57 sold for every 1,000 people. SACE is a regional nonprofit that has pushed for clean energy and transportation for 35 years.

Local advocacy groups are standing behind city leaders’ decision to push electric alternatives, particularly the move toward electric vehicles.

“Promoting electric vehicles is a great idea,” said Coastal Conservation League communications director Alan Hancock. “They don’t have the public-health impacts that gas-burning vehicles have, especially along corridors like I-26, where there’s a lot of stop-and-go traffic. People that live along that corridor are exposed to higher levels of air pollution that cause lung and heart issues.”

But just pushing the option may not be enough, as the growing demand for electric vehicles comes with greater demand for electric infrastructure, an area in which some advocates say the area could be lacking.

“There is a need for significant increase in the amount of charging infrastructure across the country, including in South Carolina and specifically in Charleston,” said Stan Cross, SACE’s electric transportation policy director. 

City leaders aren’t ignorant of the idea. A handful of charging stations are scattered across the peninsula in city-owned parking garages. And part of the fleet transition outlined in the Climate Action Plan is examining charging infrastructure. 

The city is looking into ways and opportunities to expand that charging infrastructure outward, said director of sustainability Katie McKain, but funding remains a challenge.

“A lot of it would need to come from our general fund, and while charging stations aren’t excessively expensive, the infrastructure needed to install them is the challenge,” she said. “The up-front costs require a lot of planning and analysis. That’s a process we’re working on right now, to make sure when we do spend taxpayer money on this, we are doing it in the most efficient way possible.”

But it’s important to remember, Hancock said, the burden isn’t entirely on the city. 

“This is such a big issue,” he said. “It’s up to the private sector as well to figure out the system to make money off of charging. Congress has a big role too, in both the infrastructure bill and the budget, both of which include some support for charging infrastructure. It’s important, because the scale of the need warrants this kind of investment.” 

“A lot of cities create partnerships with third-party lenders to offset some of the costs for the installation of charging stations,” Sakran added. “Some of it can be passed onto consumers as a pay-to-charge idea, too.”

Moving forward, the city’s greatest focus should be on equity, Cross said. Since partnerships with private companies and developers will help get the charging infrastructure installed, the question is how local governments can support the transition, rather than facilitate it itself.

“That equity piece is huge,” he said. “You can think about it from a public charging perspective, but it’s really the home charging that makes it all work — 80% of the charging happens at home. Residents who don’t have access to home charging, those who rely on on-street parking, those in apartment complexes — they’re at a disadvantage. How you solve that problem is an opportunity for local engagement.

“I’m looking at my Nissan Leaf, plugged in in my driveway right now, paying my relatively cheap residential rate to charge it,” Cross said. “If I couldn’t plug into my home, then I would be dependent on public charging. That could be a challenge if there’s not enough and if it’s not dispersed equitably across the landscape.”