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When Tucson Mayor Regina Romero took office in 2020, one of her first actions was to declare a climate emergency in her city.
Romero said she was fulfilling a campaign promise to act boldly on climate change in one of the driest and warmest parts of the Southwest.
“We wanted to deliver results,” said Romero. “The people elected me because of my promises on climate.”
One of her first actions was to establish a climate and sustainability council made up of climate experts from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University to address environmental vulnerabilities within the city.
The council saw expanding electric vehicles within the city as one realistic approach to reduce the city’s carbon output and “become a leader in clean, convenient, and affordable transportation.”
“My climate and sustainability advisor kind of really did the research and saw what other cities were doing in terms of EV readiness,” said Romero. “And we created the EV readiness roadmap with them.”
As electric cars gain in popularity, the demand for charging sites will grow as well, and access to such sites remains one of the biggest roadblocks for the market. Tucson is one of three Arizona cities to begin implementing building codes that require EV-ready infrastructure at construction. Some local and state leaders fear that such requirements will drive up the cost of housing, but advocates say consumers will not buy electric vehicles if they don’t have any where to plug in and charge up.
Installing EV chargers at construction is cheaper than retrofitting later (something that experts say will need to be done as the market expands). A 2016 report from Energy Solutions for San Francisco found that the cost to install a Level 2 EV charging station during new construction was $920, while the cost of retrofitting was $3,550, making it 75% cheaper to install charging during new construction.
Tuscon’s EV roadmap outlines goals to reach carbon neutrality (a balance in the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere) by 2030 and charts a plan to get there. The guiding principles of the roadmap were to provide clean air, accelerate clean energy and ensure a healthier future.
It highlights EV-ready building codes as one of the most effective and low-cost strategies to encourage EV adoption and to lower carbon emissions.
In 2021, the Tucson City Council adopted a code that requires EV-ready spaces for all new single-family duplexes and townhomes. All homes in the city are now required to provide a 40-amp circuit and a receptacle near a parking space.
In August 2022, council amended the code to require all new multifamily housing to be EV-ready. Starting in December, multi-family housing will be required to provide 10% of parking spaces with EV outlets. An additional 20% of spaces are required to have conduits that will allow for added EV outlets when demand grows.
The 2022 amendment also requires office buildings and retail spaces to be EV-ready.
New offices will be required to provide EV outlets for 5% of parking spaces and EV conduits for 15%. And new retail space must equip 5% of parking spaces with EV stations and 10% must contain conduits.
Romero believes this will rapidly expand access to charging across the city of 545,000 residents. She says when she took office, she noticed that public charging facilities were lacking in the city and concluded that implementing building codes was a realistic solution to address the problem.
“There’s not enough charging to begin with,” said Romero. “That’s why we wanted to make it much more universal in creating the codes and create that access to be able to have them anywhere.”
EV sales are on the rise in Arizona and the U.S.
According to data from the U.S Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, Arizona ranks seventh in the nation for the number of registered electric vehicles. As of 2021, more than 41,000 electric vehicles are on roadways throughout the state, a staggering 41.6% increase from the previous year.
The center also reports that Arizona has 2,379 public charging ports, or roughly one port for every 17 vehicles, a gap expected to grow wider as sales increase.
The lack of public charging has resulted in “anxiety range,” concern for how far a vehicle can go before it needs more charge. J.D Power, a consumer research firm, says access to charging is the largest deterrent to consumers trading in their gas-powered vehicles for electric counterparts.
Southwest Energy Efficiency Project is a nonprofit that works across the southwestern U.S to promote and advocate for greater energy efficiency. Caryn Potter is the program utility manager.
“Electric vehicle infrastructure is key for consumers to feel like they can make the switch to electric because of a well-known issue of range anxiety and the inability to currently charge,” she says. “When it comes to how consumers make their choices on transportation, they want to feel comfortable that they can charge their vehicle no matter where they are like they are currently comfortable with gas vehicles today.”
She emphasized that without the additional infrastructure to support electric vehicles, a smooth transition to an electrified fleet will be much more difficult to achieve and will hinder climate goals set by leaders who hope to curtail carbon emissions.
Electric vehicle sales have been on the rise every year since Tesla released the first Roadster in 2008. The number of hybrid and electric vehicles in the U.S has grown by 80% in the last five years, including a fivefold increase in fully electric vehicles.
That number will likely increase as state and federal governments pass pro-electric vehicle policies and encourage consumers through subsidies aimed at reaching climate targets. Energy experts fear that demand will soon outpace the charging infrastructure currently available for EVs.
Earlier this year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announce that California would ban sales on all internal combustion vehicles by 2035, and at least five states are expected to follow with similar laws soon, putting pressure on the auto industry to ramp up production of EV’s to keep up with policy.
Volkswagen, through a $91 billion investment, wants 70 electrified models by the end of decade . Toyota and Volvo want half of their sales to be electric by 2025. Hyundai is aiming for 34 EV models by 2025 and Honda expects two-thirds of all sales to be electric by 2030.
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Experts believe EVs will ‘clean up’ the transportation Sector
The transportation sector is the largest emitter of carbon in the U.S and the world. According to the EPA, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year through tailpipe emissions. Since the industrial revolution, the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities have emitted more than 1.6 trillion tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and more than half of these emissions have come since 1990.
While electric vehicles rely on a grid powered by fossil fuels, experts maintain that removing gas-powered vehicles from circulation will reduce overall atmospheric levels of carbon significantly. A vehicle that operates exclusively on electricity will not emit any tailpipe emissions.
At the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference, 120 world leaders convened to address the most serious threats caused by climate change. The outcome was the Glasgow Climate Pact, to recognize the emergency at hand and accelerate action by moving away from fossil fuels.
Over 30 countries, six major vehicle manufacturers and other actors, like cities, set out their determination for all new car and van sales to be zero-emission vehicles by 2040 globally and 2035 in leading markets, accelerating the decarbonization of road transport.
Cleaning up the transportation sector through public policy is widely seen as the most viable way for governments to reduce overall emissions to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
State and local governments have climate goals but lag in action
Phoenix has set its own goals for accelerating the electric vehicle boom and reducing carbon output, aiming for 280,000 electric vehicles on local roadways by 2030 with hopes to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Phoenix has the highest share of electric vehicles in the state. In 2021, the city released its Climate Action Plan, outlining climate targets set by the city and charting the path to get there. The city’s sustainability website says Phoenix is promoting the widespread adoption of electric vehicles as a primary solution to its 2050 GHG reduction target.
“I appointed a committee to do an electric vehicle plan, councilwoman (Yassamin) Ansari chaired that, and they provided recommendations to us on how we can advance electric vehicles in the city,” said Mayor Kate Gallego, “That was particularly focused on adoption and infrastructure.”
One of the action goals of the 2021 climate plan is to “support increased energy efficiency, renewable energy, and new electric vehicle charging requirements in building codes.”
Despite acknowledging the need for electric vehicle building codes in the plan, Phoenix has not yet implemented the codes, which would require electric vehicle infrastructure at time of construction.
Gallego said one reason the city has not implemented EV building codes is the fear of driving up housing costs in an already burdened market.
But climate advocates say the city had time to act before the housing market exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2010 report released by the Electric Transportation Engineering Corporation, detailed electric vehicle charging infrastructure deployment guidelines for the greater Phoenix and Tucson areas. The 61-page report addresses the benefits of building codes that support EV charging, giving the city 12 years to act.
Gallego’s views are aligned with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who in June of this year shot down a bill that would require large new buildings and apartments to install electric vehicles. He defended his decision by maintaining that this could further raise housing prices across the state.
Despite his veto, one of Polis’ first executive orders as governor in 2019 was “supporting a transition to zero emission vehicles, includes supporting the acceleration of widespread electrification of cars, buses and trucks.”
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Colorado’s 2020 EV plan says the Colorado Energy Office will develop an advanced building code adoption toolkit that includes EV infrastructure requirements for new construction.
The state plans for 940,000 EVs in the state by 2030 but lacks the infrastructure to support this, climate advocates say.
Elizabeth Baldwin researches environmental, energy, and water policy at the University of Arizona. She thinks citing higher construction costs is a short-sighted view.
“Lots and lots of things increase the cost of housing,” she says. “If you think about the consumer’s decision on whether or not to buy an electric vehicle, the fact that we don’t currently have the infrastructure for people to charge electric vehicles in their home means that the market is not going to operate in an effective way.”
Baldwin says when governments do not adopt these codes and standards, they are undermining the market for electric vehicles and in turn undermining their own climate goals.
“Codes and standards, frankly, are just some of the best ways to implement change at relatively low cost,” she says. “It looks like they are looking to the cost of the homeowner and they’re not thinking about the cost to the electric vehicle purchaser.”
And codes and standards are a way to address equity issues surrounding the EV market, which for years has been seen as a luxury with some vehicles, like the Tesla X, which starts at nearly $80,000. But with increased production, price-parity is near, which most analysts agree could occur sometime between 2023 and 2025.
When Romero was assessing climate goals and solutions, she wanted to make sure all residents would benefit from the policy.
“We’ve done this with an eye to equity, making sure we are taking into consideration the needs of frontline communities,” Romero said. “Because those who are in the front line of climate change are the elderly, children, low-income communities, communities of color that really feel the brunt of climate change.”
Through the Tucson code, residents across the city, regardless of economic status, will have access to electric vehicle charging at home, bridging the social and economic gap that can hinder widespread adaption of EVs, Romero said.
Ultimately, Romero hopes this will result in a broader and more diverse share of consumers able to make the switch to electric vehicles as the market reaches price-parity.
“If we don’t have charging in multifamily buildings that are going to have a denser population it’s going to create an equity issue in the future,” Potter said. “If we don’t have enough opportunities for people to charge in many different types of building it’s going to create an unequal balance to charging infrastructure.”
Eisenhower invested in the future
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a direct response to the nation’s growing number of automobiles. The act authorized the building of highways throughout the U.S and remains the largest public works project in the nation’s history.
Under the act, the federal government would pay for 90% of construction costs for interstate highways.
Baldwin believes the U.S. is now in a similar position to that of the post-Korean-War America.
“I think it’s interesting that we pose this question about electric vehicles,” she says. “We didn’t really pose that question about automobiles.”
As the auto industry moves away from internal combustion production and governments pledge for 100% carbon-free transport, electric vehicles sales will continue to climb.
“We understood that if we built highways that would connect, that would create a transportation system that would bring us lots and lots of benefits,” she said. “So it’s a little hard for me to understand if we look in the future and we realize that we now need, not just a transportation system, but a low-carbon transportation system, that is something that we need, why aren’t we investing there?”
Baldwin believes that local, state, and federal governments should work toward expanding EV infrastructure if the private sector will not.
“Building infrastructure for systems like that is not something that individual consumers can do,” she says. “That is something that historically government invests in and provides if it’s something that the private sector is not going to provide on its own.”
Funding from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law will expand access to public charging. In September, the federal government announced approval of the National EV Infrastructure Formula Program.
NEVI formula funding will make up to $5 billion available for 35 states, Washington D.C, and Puerto Rico to expand electric vehicle chargers across 53,000 miles of highway across the nation. The Biden Administration has an ambitious goal of 500,000 public charging stations available by 2030.
Arizona is set to receive $76 million from NEVI formula, which will not only establish new stations but make improvements to existing ones. The Arizona Department of Transportation estimates the funds will be used to build 11 to 19 new stations in the coming years.
Romero says her community will be prepared for an expanded electric fleet expected in the years to come. In December, Tucson’s Climate and Adaptation plan will go in front of council for final approval.
“We need this infrastructure in place in order to promulgate the additional electric vehicles that we need to put on the roadway,” she said. “That’s where the future is.”
Jake Frederico covers environment issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send tips or questions to [email protected].
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