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Northwestern Teams Help the City of Chicago Plan New Equitable Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

Leila Darwiche | January 14, 2021
When you hear the phrase “electric vehicle,” you might think about sustainability, or perhaps some distant future where our energy landscape looks quite different from today. Words like equity and gentrification might not jump to mind. However, when students in Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Energy and Sustainability program (MSES) were asked to consult the city of Chicago on new plans to implement better electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure, equity was one of the main points of focus. During the spring and summer of 2020, three consulting groups evaluated direct-current fast charger (DCFC) planning and budgeting and then DCFC markets and customers. The students gave their presentations to the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) in the spring and fall of 2020.

Importantly, at the center of this project are equity and environmental justice issues. How can the city of Chicago push forward the electric vehicle charging infrastructure so that people feel comfortable buying cars but also making sure that it's done equitably, and it benefits people across the Chicago area?”

Holly Benz
MSES Director

Students were tasked with assessing the current EV market in Chicago as well as what the market might look like in the future in order to give recommendations for the budget and location of new EV chargers. They found that the existing number of public chargers, 449, would need to increase over six-fold by 2030 to meet the growing demand for EVs, while noting that the current chargers were concentrated in the Northside of Chicago. While a large part of the current EV users in the city live in that area, students considered a different question: is lack of access to chargers inhibiting other neighborhoods from purchasing EVs, and would implementing a strategy that placed chargers outside demand zones change the habits of those areas? 

“We had the problem of the chicken and the egg,” said MSES student Claire Juracka, whose team focused on choosing locations for the chargers “There are not a lot of electric vehicles in this neighborhood, but maybe if we put a charging station in, now that electric vehicles are hitting the used car market, they'll be more affordable to that audience.” 

Answering the chicken and the egg dilemma required knowing the potential EV users - finding ways to show the appeal of EVs to different consumer profiles. Though less than one percent of the current Chicago population is using EVs, the students identified an additional 55% of the population that is likely to become EV drivers; a portion of these new consumers were individuals who would be able to cut costs of travel by using EVs, a profile the students built to fit potential consumers in equity zones.

Using the guidance offered in Mayor Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative, a community initiative that seeks to direct resources towards underserved neighborhoods in Chicago, as well as their own analysis of income levels, the Northwestern teams outlined locations to target for charging infrastructure. However, a conversation with EVHybridNoire Co-founder Terry Travis, who works at the intersection of the EV industry and equity issues, shed light on a possible problem with simply putting charging stations in the underserved areas.

“Terry told us that ‘the way these communities approach transportation, and certainly electric vehicles isn't so utilitarian’,” said Spencer Stanton, an MSES student on one of the Northwestern teams. Travis gave the team an example of how communities in the Bay Area responded to a similar project. “They saw [EVs] as a sign of gentrification,” said Stanton. “If these stay up, a bunch of people are going to come here, and it's going to drive up rent.” These conversations emphasized an additional stream of critical, upfront work: community engagement, outreach, and education.  

For the student consultants, answering the questions posed by the city meant talking to local government officials, stakeholders and business executives throughout the duration of the project—something that required learning a great deal of information on EVs and chargers. “I think the biggest thing was the learning curve,” said Juracka. “We knew what an electric vehicle charging station was, but we didn't know even the difference between a level one, level two, and DC fast charger.”

Such practicum experiences are an integral part of the new MSES program. “[They allow] students to develop their skills on structuring an approach to a problem, on working in teams, on communicating, and on managing clients,” said Benz. In the fall 2020 quarter of the MSES program, students also worked on projects around long-term battery storage and microgrids. They were able to take what they learned into the classroom. Future topics may include regenerative agriculture, direct air carbon capture and financing models for electrification, and can be tailored to the interests of that current year’s MSES cohort.

“Having that background experience over the summer I think really added to my classwork,” said Juracka. “And it really helped build the MSES community. Even though you're in a classroom, and you have masks and distance, you still felt like you had formed real friendships and collaborations with your classmates.”