No driveways, garages, or guidance: D.C. electric vehicle owners grapple with charging Cords across the sidewalk are discouraged. Meanwhile, $5 billion will arrive from the infrastructure bill, but it won't address charging in tight urban neighborhoods.
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No driveways, garages, or guidance: D.C. electric vehicle owners grapple with charging

Eric Ellsworth shows his electric vehicle charging setup on Capitol Hill. He strings the cables through the trees to avoid blocking the sidewalk. DDOT has no set policy on what EV owners with no driveway or garage should do. Jordan Pascale/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jordan Pascale/WAMU/DCist

Eric Ellsworth recently moved back to D.C. from Massachusetts, bringing his family's 2020 plug-in hybrid-electric minivan to his new rowhouse on Capitol Hill.

At his old place, he ran a cord from his porch to his driveway, making for an easy plug-in. Now, he has only street parking.

Last year, D.C. officials told him it was illegal to formally run electricity from his home and create an outlet at the curb. So now he runs a long orange cord from an outlet in his home, out a window, but he didn't want to run a cord across the sidewalk, figuring that wouldn't be the safest solution.

"Then the moment of inspiration was when I was like, 'Oh, I can just run this thing up into this tree and then down to that there signpost' and things will work," he recalls.

From there the cord goes across the hood of his vehicle and into the charging port. A less than ideal setup. And that's all if he can get the spot in front of his house.

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Ellsworth, like many EV owners in our urban area, has had to jerry-rig his charging situation.

Other people who don't have garages or driveways run a cord across their sidewalk and throw a mat or cord cover over it, a solution the District Department of Transportation discourages because of tripping and accessibility issues. Many other EV owners specifically make shopping runs to Costco or Whole Foods where they have free or cheap chargers. Some ask to use neighbors' charging stations for a few hours a day. Others use apps like PlugShare to find a place to juice up.

One element of the federal infrastructure plan calls for spending $7.5 billion on electric charging stations for vehicles. At a recent press conference, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said while the country is moving toward an electric future, it needs a big investment.

"The future is electric and this administration is moving toward it at lightning speed," Granholm said. "But we're not going to go electric fast enough if we don't have the ability to eliminate range anxiety for people and have them plug in wherever they live wherever they work wherever they want to head."

But that infrastructure money is dedicated to first creating a charging network along highways. Later investments will address underserved and rural areas. That means local investment and regulations will largely be left up to cities to determine how best to serve urban neighborhoods.

By 2030, half of the vehicles automakers create will be electric and popularity is expected to explode. D.C. has a goal to get 100% zero-emission private fleet vehicles on the streets in just 23 years. Already EV ownership in D.C. has doubled in the past year, with 5,000 vehicles registered.

The number of cords running across sidewalks in D.C. shows there's a lot left to figure out.

Phil Mendelson is one of the new EV owners. He bought a Chevy Volt last year despite living in a rowhouse with no easy way to charge. He charges his vehicle whenever he's out and about.

"For example, I had a meeting with some folks out of the office and I know they have a charger in their building garage," Mendelson said. "It is a challenge and I'm willing to put up with it, but some people may not."

But unlike most people, Mendelson has a role to play in setting policy. He's chair of the D.C. Council.

"I think the city is moving too slowly," Mendelson said. "With the federal bill, we're gonna see even more stimulus for EVs and really the biggest impediment is charging. There's no reason why we can't have it much more prevalent throughout the city."

The council has already passed some laws. They're requiring 20% of parking spots in new and renovated apartment buildings to be electric-ready. And DDOT is finalizing its regulations for curbside charging. At least one local ANC is urging DDOT to allow residents to run conduit from their homes under the sidewalk to the curb instead of allowing private companies to run curbside charging stations like is planned. DDOT has said its streetlights cannot provide enough energy to install chargers on light posts.

"As we begin to see the need for EV chargers across the city, DDOT is proactively working on policies to ensure we find solutions that work for residents," DDOT Director Everett Lott said in a statement. "We are continuing our effort to finalize a program that addresses the installation of charging stations in the public right of way.

"Residents are encouraged to use publicly accessible charging stations to ensure they are safely charging vehicles without impeding or obstructing the public right of way."

Montgomery County already has a permitting process for chargers to be installed either on private property or at the curb. Residents have to pay for the work, but anyone will still be able to park in that curbside spot. Alexandria has a list of 31 recommendations to make the city more EV-ready.

Eric Ellsworth, who has the cords strung up in the trees, wants the District to figure out the issue fast.

Days after our interview, he got a "nasty" note in his door...he doesn't know who left it... it was written on a pamphlet titled "public space responsibilities of homeowners." The handwritten note read "Running power through a public tree isn't going to fly."

Eric Ellsworth got this note in his door. He's not sure who left it, but said he's going to keep charging this way until he gets more official notice to stop. Courtesy of/Eric Ellsworth hide caption

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Courtesy of/Eric Ellsworth

Ellsworth says he's going to keep his charging setup for now until he gets something more official telling him to stop.

"Sure, the city can say no, don't do that," he said. "But until somebody comes up with an answer, people are going to continue to do it.

"(The city) is going to have to accelerate something that works."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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