Supercharging Durham’s electric vehicle plan – Danielle Arostegui

Danielle Arostegui
Danielle Arostegui

If the first word that crosses your mind when you hear Volkswagen is “scandal,” think again. For the City of Durham, a more fitting word is “opportunity.”

The Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal was undoubtedly a major blow to environmental goals in the realm of local air pollution. The affected diesel models belched out up to 40 times more than the allowable levels of certain pollutants that cause smog and associated health problems. However, the subsequent legal settlement reached this past year poses a tremendous opportunity for local governments to jumpstart new environmental programs focused on electric vehicle adoption.

Here’s how it works: As part of its settlement terms, Volkswagen has pledged to invest $2 billion in zero-emissions vehicle infrastructure and education in select U.S. cities. The Raleigh metropolitan area, which Durham city officials have said will include Durham, was recently selected as one of the original 11 metro areas to receive new chargers, paid for and installed by Volkswagen.

In addition to these dedicated EV funds, the Volkswagen settlement also includes funding for states to clean up the pollution that the noncompliant diesel models emitted in their atmospheres while they were on the road. Once it submits a plan for how it will do this, North Carolina stands to receive an additional $92 million, up to 15 percent of which can also be used to purchase and install EV charging equipment.

Capitalizing on the financial windfall afforded by this historic environmental settlement represents an opportunity for the Triangle cities to elevate their status as environmental leaders and to indicate to the international community that U.S. cities stand behind international efforts to curb climate emissions over the coming decades.

Durham should take this opportunity to make their case to the state of North Carolina that funding for EV infrastructure in the county would be a wise investment, both environmentally and financially.

The City of Durham has found that EV charging in Durham County at night does not result in emissions increases from electricity generation, as local generators already produce more energy than is needed at night in order to maintain baseline levels of capacity. This is a strong argument for how funding Durham EV infrastructure could help clean up the region’s air, while spurring innovation.

The city’s current sustainability plans prioritize installing public charging stations. Between the city and county, Durham has installed at least 12 public charging stations already. However, if the City wants to get the most bang for its buck from any Volkswagen funding it might receive, it should consider shifting its focus from public charging to residential charging.

Ironically, my interest in EV charging stations in Durham also traces its roots back to the Volkswagen scandal. Up until recently I was the owner a diesel Volkswagen Golf. As I left the dealership after trading in, I pondered the question of what car to get next. Was it time to consider an EV?

All signs pointed to yes. I had a short commute. I wasn’t anticipating too many long-distance trips in my future. I wanted to feel better about my contribution to climate change. And, to sweeten the deal, there were some very attractive EV lease terms on the market.

There was just one problem. I didn’t have anywhere to charge it.

Like more than 40 percent of Durham and Chapel Hill residents, I am a renter. I live in one of the large multifamily apartment complexes scattered about the edges of Duke University, where I am enrolled as a graduate student studying climate policy. My apartment complex, like many others in Durham, does not have any EV charging stations.

The National Academy of Sciences has found that access to home charging infrastructure is a virtual necessity for EV owners. No amount of public charging stations could make up for the fact that I had no reliable way of charging a new EV at home. As a result my plans of buying an electric car went up in smoke (or should I say, exhaust fumes?).

While some of the newer apartment complexes in Durham do offer EV charging, there are still many that do not, and this is a gap in the city’s plan to boost EV adoption rates.

Volkswagen has made installing chargers in multifamily dwellings a tertiary priority of its investment plan, after investment in public stations and workplace stations. This leaves a potential gap in investment in residential chargers where the city and county of Durham could step in and make a significant difference.

Danielle Arostegui is a graduate student at Duke University studying climate policy.