EV charging station
Credit: Ivan Radic / Creative Commons

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Sharon Gold loves her Chevy Volt, but charging it is hardly convenient. The condominium complex where she rents in Jamestown, Rhode Island, does not have a charging station. And the only public charging station in town is more than a mile away. 

An outspoken advocate for anti-idling ordinances, Gold, 74, said that although her Volt can also run on gas, “I try to keep it on electric most of the time.” So after she plugs in her car, she makes the mile-plus trek home. Then, about five hours later, she walks back to pick it up. 

And that’s if the station is available. One day last week, Gold arrived to find a gas-powered vehicle parked there illegally. 

“I’m running into all kinds of problems,” she said. 

The lack of charging access at multi-unit dwellings is one of many barriers to electric vehicle adoption now being tackled by state officials. The state Office of Energy Resources is working with environmental, transportation and health officials on a roadmap for making charging more accessible throughout the state. 

Required by legislation passed earlier this year, the final infrastructure plan is due no later than Jan. 1, 2022. The agencies have so far collected input at three public listening sessions attended by more than 130 people, and they will continue to accept public comments through Dec. 3. 

Rhode Island currently has about 225 Level 2 charging stations, all but 15 of which are public, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center. It has 25 DC fast chargers, which, because they charge so much more quickly, are especially convenient for people traveling long distances. 

The state lags in EV adoption relative to its neighbors and faces a steep challenge in meeting its goal under a memorandum of understanding committing eight states to get at least 3.3 million EVs on the roadways by 2025. Rhode Island’s target of 43,000 EVs is about 10 times the number of EVs currently registered in the state, according to data from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The state had an EV rebate program for purchasers that was very successful, but it lasted less than two years before funding ran out in 2017.  It hasn’t been refunded. 

“We struggle with catalyzing the level of EV adoption we need to meet our climate goals,” said Carrie Gill, administrator of grid modernization and system integration for the Office of Energy Resources. “An objective of the plan is to increase utilization. We’re hoping that by pushing on both levers — infrastructure and vehicle adoption — we’ll be able to see the market really start to change.”

State Rep. Michelle McGaw, one of the sponsors of the infrastructure legislation and a Chevy Volt driver, says building out charging infrastructure is crucial to boosting EV adoption, especially among people who live in multi-unit housing. 

“I’m a big EV fan and I talk to people about them wherever I go,” said McGaw, a Democrat from Portsmouth. “When I ask why they don’t drive an EV, they talk about cost and accessibility to charging.”

She noted that Portsmouth also has only one public charger. 

“I thought we would have made more progress by now in building out a network,” said Albert Dahlberg, a Tesla owner in Providence. Dahlberg helped start a group to begin laying the groundwork for electric vehicle infrastructure back in 2010. Called Project Get Ready RI, the group worked with National Grid and ChargePoint to tap some federal funds and get 50 stations installed around the state in 2013. 

“It didn’t act as the catalyst I had hoped,” Dalhberg said. 

On the other hand, the charging network is more expansive than many people realize, he said. Public perception is a problem. 

“People say to me all the time, ‘I don’t see any charging stations so why would I buy an EV?’” Dahlberg said. “But there isn’t necessarily signage — we use a phone app to find them. There are more charging options than people think. There’s a need for consumer education and outreach.”

Many of the public comments submitted to the Office of Energy Resources so far call for more charging stations at places where people do errands, shop and eat, as well as curbside charging stations on public streets, Gill said. Commenters are also calling for more DC fast chargers. 

The team is discussing ways to incentivize charging stations at multi-unit housing, she said. A state program that helped fund the installation of new chargers at workplaces, multi-unit dwellings, municipal properties and publicly accessible locations was halted in July after it exhausted its $1.4 million in funding. 

When Gold bought her Chevy Volt in 2018, she was a homeowner. She had a Level 2 charger in her garage. But after she sold her home and began looking for rentals that either had a charger or would allow her to install one, she encountered strong resistance. 

“I’m in a weird scenario because I love Jamestown and I don’t want to own again,” Gold said. “My life revolves around getting back and forth from this charging station.”

Lisa Prevost

Lisa Prevost is a longtime journalist based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." A native New Englander, Lisa covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.