Black Communities Fight 'Charging Deserts' and Other Barriers to EV Adoption

Not surprisingly, environmental racism is at play.

Midsection of father assisting children in charging car on driveway
Maskot / Getty Images

A recent story from The New York Times made an obvious point about electric vehicles: they're expensive. The story notes: “These cars cost much more than gasoline vehicles, which can make it hard for people who want to buy an EV— regardless of reason—to purchase one…. A Tesla Model S starts at more than $80,000, and at the low end, a Chevrolet Bolt starts at $31,000—nearly $10,000 more than a larger gasoline-powered sedan like the Chevy Malibu.”

A report from the National Center for Sustainable Transportation and the University of California at Davis reinforces this point while highlighting how it has affected EV purchases among lower-income communities. “Households with annual income less than $50,000 comprise 33 percent of internal-combustion purchases and only 14 percent of plug-in electric vehicles.” At the other extreme, households with more than $150,000 a year bought only 15% of the IC cars, but 35% of the EVs. 

When the study was done, in 2018, non-Hispanic Whites were buying 55% of the EVs, Hispanics 10%, and African-Americans 2%. That’s consistent with a Plug In America EV Consumer Survey from last year. “Only two percent of the respondents who said they own an EV indicated they are African American,” said Noah Barnes, a spokesperson for the group.

There are a plethora of reasons for this, says Terry Travis, managing partner of EVHybridNoire, which advocates for higher EV adoption among communities of color. 

Travis cites another UC Davis/NCST study that said only 52% of car buyers could name an EV model. “They had to be told that a Prius is not a plug-in electric car [unless it’s a Prius Prime, of course],” he tells Treehugger. “This education gap cuts across all races. So getting people to understand about EVs is a huge component of what we need to do.”

According to Travis, African-Americans have had “100 years of habit with internal-combustion vehicles,” with their purchase behavior somewhat disrupted by routine redlining activities and racism that kept them from getting auto loans and entering showrooms. “To make the psychological shift to EVs, they need clear and concise engagement about EV cost, charging infrastructure, and maintenance issues,” he says. “If the cars are perceived as expensive, why buy them? EVs have been marketed to environmentalists, but educated African-American women with high net worth—why not appeal to them?”

Frederick Douglas Patterson built the Patterson-Greenfield automobile, becoming the first African-American auto manufacturer, in 1915.
Frederick Douglas Patterson built the Patterson-Greenfield automobile, becoming the first African-American auto manufacturer, in 1915. Historical Society of Greenfield / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

That type of engagement has benefited the LGBT community, with Subaru and General Motors among the automakers who created very targeted marketing campaigns. Travis says African-Americans, already more concerned about climate change than Whites (57% to 49%, respectively), have “a high propensity for EV adoption.” That’s in part because air pollution—a major product of the automotive tailpipe—affects their communities disproportionately. 

Environmental racism is undeniable. The American Lung Association says people of color are 3.5 times more likely than their White counterparts to live in a county with bad air quality grades. Black people are disproportionately more likely to live near oil refineries and petrochemical plants than White people. This, in turn, leaves them at greater exposure to toxic emissions and vulnerable to associated health risks.

The vicious cycle means homes in these communities lose value, which means residents are less likely to have the purchasing power to buy EVs. That, and as Energy News Network points out, Black communities can be “charging deserts.” In Chicago, stations are heavily concentrated “in the city’s affluent and mostly white North Side….By contrast, 47 of Chicago’s 77 community areas, largely on the city’s South Side and West Side, had no public charging stations at all.”

Billy Davis, general manager of JitneyEV, which works for more EVs and charging stations in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, pointed out to NBC News that interstates were built right through Black and brown neighborhoods. “Just as a matter of justice, the corrective measures to increase electrification and the benefits of that should start in those areas that are greatly impacted," he said.

EV purchase prices are coming down, and that reality—coupled with the fact that EVs are much cheaper to operate, an average of $4,600 over a vehicle’s lifetime—needs a strong, targeted marketing campaign behind it. And the charging deserts have to become oases. That’s one of the goals of the Biden administration’s EV push, which sought $15 billion in infrastructure funding to work toward a goal of 500,000 EV charging stations nationwide. But the Senate already cut that allocation in half

View Article Sources
  1. Muehlegger, Erich, and David Rapson. "Understanding the Distributional Impacts of Vehicle Policy: Who Buys New and Used Alternative Vehicles?" National Center for Sustainable Transportation and the University of California at Davis, 2018.

  2. "More than 4 in 10 Americans Breathe Unhealthy Air, People of Color 3 Times as Likely to Live in Most Polluted Places." American Lung Association, 2021.

  3. Kay, Jane, and Cheryl Katz. "Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: Living with Industry." Scientific American, 2012.