Source: Seattle Times


Transportation is one of the leading drivers of air pollution affecting human health in the United States and communities suffering from unhealthy levels of air pollution are particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Updated research from Harvard finds that an increase of one unit in fine particulate pollution is associated with an increase of eight percent in COVID death rates. The burden of dirty air is borne disproportionately by communities of color and a coalition of environmental and social justice groups are working to place emphasis on equity considerations in the drive towards transportation electrification.

Prioritizing underserved communities in the design of EV programs was one of the core priorities at the National EMobility Town Hall co-hosted by Forth and EV Hybrid Noire on May 28th. According to EV Hybrid Noire founder Dr. Shelley Francis, coronavirus death rates are disproportionately high in some communities of color; 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Michigan are among African American and Black communities despite the fact that these communities only make up 14 percent of the state’s population.

Dr. Francis and other advocates are calling for increased focus on educational campaigns targeting underserved communities and explicit prioritization of these groups in EV programs. Working closely with organizations like the Greenlining Institute and cities like Huron with high representation of underserved communities, California is pursuing transportation equity statewide and designated a legal definition for disadvantaged communities based on the CalEnviroScreen tool. California’s Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015 required that programs seeking to enhance transportation electrification work to improve air quality in disadvantaged communities bearing the greatest burden of air pollution.

In an effort to expand transportation funding for these communities, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has recently launched the Sustainable Equity Transportation Project (STEP), a program that will give communities funding to produce their own needs assessments and provide grants for programs tailored to these needs. The program is funded at $22 million for the current fiscal year, $2 million of which is dedicated specifically to planning and capacity-building. Medium- and heavy-duty electrification is also a key focus for California, especially given the increased exposure of disadvantaged communities to these emissions. The Golden State is expected to finalize its landmark Advanced Clean Trucks Regulation this summer requiring manufacturers of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to hit annual sales targets for zero-emission vehicles and continues to prioritize port electrification through the California Climate Investments program.

Virginia is another state leveraging policy leadership to ensure that state and electric utility programs advance transportation electrification while also addressing inequality. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires that advancements in the energy and transportation space directly benefit underserved communities. In addition to recently establishing a working group to develop a statewide EV incentive, Virginia policymakers have passed legislation requiring utilities in the state to ready the grid for EV market growth. Dominion Energy is one of the utilities affected by this policy and is leading the charge in Virginia, having received approval in March to invest $20 million in their first EV program. The utility will work directly with advocates for low-income communities as they roll out this program as well as their school bus electrification initiative which seeks to deploy more than 1,000 electric school buses throughout the state.  
Last year, Atlas undertook an effort supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council to track utility investment in underserved communities by drawing on Greenlining’s Mobility Equity Framework. Across the country, electric utilities have been approved to invest more than $1 billion in programs including a focus on underserved communities. Based on our analysis published in December, at least $345 million is likely to be invested directly in these communities. New filings are also focusing on transportation equity with Xcel Energy’s new $102 million transportation electrification plan in Colorado including a prioritization of underserved communities in all program elements.
Large companies like Xcel and Dominion aren’t the only ones seeking to ensure underserved communities benefit from transportation electrification. In North Carolina, Roanoke Electric Cooperative is one of many rural member-owned providers seeking to encourage EV adoption in their communities. The coop, which serves one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, recently implemented a subscription-based EV rate where members can pay a flat monthly fee of $50 to charge their vehicles, generating an estimated $135 in monthly savings compared to the fuel cost of driving a conventional vehicle with a fuel economy of 20 mpg. Education of their members around the benefits of EVs is a core focus for coops like Roanoke Electric and coops around the country are working to ensure that underserved rural communities also benefit from the transformation taking place in the transportation sector. We will be working with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in the coming months on their transportation electrification research.

About the author: Conner Smith