Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 16, 2014

Palo Alto drives to make new buildings electric-vehicle friendly

Proposed law could cost developers thousands of dollars to accommodate electric chargers

by Gennady Sheyner

Seeking to get ahead of an expected and desired electric-vehicle revolution, Palo Alto officials on Tuesday endorsed a new law that requires builders of new developments to go along for the ride.

The City Council's Policy and Services Committee unanimously recommended that the full council approve an ordinance that would require new commercial buildings, multi-family residential developments and hotels to include parking spaces that accommodate electric vehicles. These accommodations will come in three tiers: an actual Level 2 charger; an outlet that makes it easy to plug in a charger; and a conduit (also known as a "raceway") that could accommodate future installation of an outlet and charging equipment.

Exact requirements would vary by development type. Muti-family complexes would have to install chargers at 5 percent of their guest parking spots. They would also be required to supply a charger-ready outlet for each unit in the development.

"Everyone that rents or owns a condo has the ability to park and charge their electric vehicle," Development Services Director Peter Pirnejad said of the new ordinance.

A staff report on the new requirements includes various scenarios based on factors such as deed restrictions and whether or not parking is attached to the dwelling unit. These factors would determine how many parking spots would have to be charger-ready and how many would merely have to include conduits.

Under the proposed ordinance, many hotels would be required to have chargers installed at 10 percent of their parking spaces and have conduits at 20 percent. Other types of commercial development would be required to install chargers at 5 percent of spaces and conduits at 20 percent.

The new ordinance, which is scheduled to be considered by the full council on June 16, follows in the footsteps of a law that the council passed last year, which requires new single-family developments to provide the necessary circuitry to accommodate future installation of chargers.

But the drive toward the new ordinance is not being fueled solely by local initiative.

For the sake of California's air quality, Gov. Jerry Brown in March 2012 directed the state government to actively support zero-emission vehicles, with the goal of having 1.5 million of them on the roads by 2025, a Palo Alto planning-staff report notes.

"In order to meet this goal and in order for electric vehicles to proliferate, it is important that early consumers have a positive experience and that facilities be readily available to provide convenient charging stations for the electric vehicles," the report states.

The new ordinance will come with a cost to developers, though — as much as tens of thousands of dollars per project. The price tags will vary widely, based on the types of chargers developers want to install ("smart" chargers that provide information about energy use typically cost more) and economies of scale. Staff estimates that providing the needed circuitry would cost in the ballpark of $3,000 per space; adding equipment to make the space charger-ready would raise the cost to about $4,000; and having an actual plug installed would cost about $6,000.

The council expressed some concerns about these figures, with Greg Schmid wondering whether the new law would create another burden for potential providers of affordable housing. Staff estimates that a 30-unit, 30,000-square-foot multi-family apartment building would have to spend between $68,000 and $89,000 (the lower cost corresponds to buildings with attached parking). A 30,000-square-foot commercial building would cost an added $53,000.

Councilman Larry Klein noted that given the cost of constructing a new development, including the purchase of land, the burden would add roughly 0.5 percent to the total price tag. Pirnejad also noted that these costs could be recovered by providers of charging stations.

Yet cost recovery might not be an option in the near term. One stipulation that the committee added at the behest of Councilman Greg Scharff is that the driver should be able to charge a vehicle at these stations without being charged for the privilege. Plugging in should be free at least for the first few years, Scharff said.

Councilman Larry Klein was reluctant to set such a requirement and suggested letting the market dictate the price.

"The market may well shift, and I don't think we have any role to play in the market," Klein said.

Yet he ultimately went along with Scharff, who noted that the entire purpose of the ordinance is to spur the demand for electric vehicles.

"If it's market driven, we shouldn't be doing anything at all," said Scharff, a Tesla driver who as mayor last year chose the high-end electric-vehicle company's Palo Alto headquarters as the setting for his "State of the City" speech. "What we're trying to do is encourage a certain policy and create the infrastructure in which charging electric vehicles is an easy and convenient approach."

Schmid also said he was "skeptical" about whether the city has the authority to mandate that charges be provided for free. Otherwise, he said he was happy with the new law and voted to go along with it. The committee also mandated that the ordinance return to the council for a review in three years, at which time the issue of free charging could be revisited.

Despite a few reservations, all four council members, including Chair Gail Price, lauded the new law.

"I'm pleased our city is moving ahead and that we're at the cutting edge of this," Klein said.

TALK ABOUT IT

Do you favor or oppose requiring developers to equip their buildings for electric-vehicle charging? Join the discussion on Town Square, the online forum at www.PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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