Op-ed: Berkeley should allow curbside electric vehicle charging

Public electric vehicle charging station in Novato. Photo: Alan Gould
Public solar-powered electric vehicle charging station in Novato, where the author left his Nissan Leaf for about an hour while I getting a snack at a Mexican restaurant. Photo: Alan Gould

More and more people are buying electric vehicles (EVs). For good reason. They have no tailpipes (zero emissions) and very low maintenance costs because the car’s electric motor has basically one moving part — the rotor. (There are no valves, muffler, radiator, pistons, carburetor, fan belt, etc.)

Yes, they have limited range, but in practice an electric vehicle can serve as a primary car for folks whose normal travel needs are trips of fewer than 70 miles or so. And yes the batteries for the most part are charged with electricity supplied by a fossil-fuel power plant, but California’s grid is getting cleaner. Just imagine a widespread network of solar powered electric vehicle charging stations.

Berkeley has a permitting process that encourages the installation of charging stations, also called Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE), in private garages or externally mounted on a house by a driveway. Businesses are also encouraged to install EVSEs in principle. But, for residents at homes with no driveway, it’s illegal to install a curbside electric vehicle charging system. So buying an EV for those folks is pretty much not an option.

The key objections to allowing curbside charging include private use of the public right of way (PROW), safety and parking access. Last year, in early efforts to address these issues, the city drafted conditions of permit approval for personal charging stations in the public right of way, proposing that the parking space could be dedicated to a specific vehicle or type of vehicle; that the city would provide, at the permitee’s expense, a sign limiting daytime parking to four hours maximum; and that the permitee not charge fees for charging station use.

I and other potential applicants were especially concerned that the four-hour parking time limit would preclude us from parking in front of our own homes for a whole day.

Last September, Berkeley Planning Director Eric Angstadt presented a report titled “Update on the Status of Electric Vehicle Infrastructure in Berkeley” to the City Council. It stated that, “the City of Berkeley has an interest in promoting the adoption of PEVs [plug-in electric vehicles] as documented in the [City’s] Climate Action Plan (CAP) and General Plan. …The use of electricity for transportation…is a fundamental component to achieving Berkeley’s CAP goals.” The report indicated “concerns that Berkeley is lagging behind other cities in the provision of PEV infrastructure.”

In fact, as of February 2014, there are only two public charging stations in all of Berkeley — at the Center Street Garage at 2025 Center, and at the Upper Hearst Parking Structure. The Sept. 10 update also stated that “Residents lacking off-street parking currently face the biggest barriers to PEV adoption…., a reevaluation of residential [Public Right-OF-Way] PROW charging and a proposed scenario under which PEV charging in PROW could be considered may be appropriate.”

On close examination, many problems raised, including accessibility, enforcement, and competing uses of the public right of way, are actually non-issues. EV owners don’t need parking restrictions other than those existing in parking permit areas. They don’t need any special right to park in front of their own homes. And “competing uses of the public right of way” are all theoretical. What could be of greater importance than implementation of the Berkeley Climate Action Plan?

I think the simplest solution is for the city to permit curbside electric charging stations, with safety standards. Other options are permitting charging stations on the owner’s property, with an under-the-sidewalk conduit for the cable and connector, or permitting home exterior-mounted chargers with an extension cable through an the under-the-sidewalk conduit. The cable would be stored in a secured, dry box. Pilot installations could determine which are most practical.

Following the September planning director’s report, our City Council approved a motion by Councilwoman Susan Wengraf instructing city departments (Public Works, Transportation and Energy & Sustainable Development) to come up with a solution. We should know the results of their efforts this summer. We hope the recommendations will allow hundreds of Berkeley residents to consider buying or leasing a car they can plug in at home.

In closing, to illustrate the vision of electric vehicles all solar powered, I am including a photo of my Nissan Leaf parked at an EV charging station in Novato (top). If you look carefully you can see it is connected to roof-mounted solar panels. What if all our cars could be solar powered all the time?

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Alan Gould is a Berkeley resident.