Update: The sponsor of the ordinance plans to table it at Tuesday's meeting.
New Castle County Council will consider an ordinance that could encourage more residents of the county to drive electric vehicles.
Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt takes a closer look at the proposal and its possible impact.
Anna Quisel plugs her Tesla in to charge in her garage just outside Greenville.
“It is so easy,” she said. “Just plug it in when you get home from wherever you are. I keep it plugged in all the time.”
The former family doctor is back in school for environmental management, and thinks a lot about sustainability.
“We have our solar array in the backyard,” she said. “We were kind of thinking we could go off the grid.”
Two years ago, Quisel was retiring her minivan and in the market for a new car. A Tesla was in her budget. She says going electric felt like an obvious choice.
“It was a way for us to clean up our act,” she said. “Emit less carbon.”
A few years earlier, Quisel’s husband had bought the family’s first electric vehicle. But before bringing it home, the family made some changes so they could charge it.
Electric vehicles can be plugged into normal household outlets. This is called level 1 charging, and it’s not very fast. A car only gains a few miles of range for every hour it’s plugged in.
“You get home with an empty battery on Sunday night from your nice long weekend,” said Willett Kempton, a professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. “You're not gonna have a full battery until Wednesday.”
Level 2 charging requires higher voltage, but it can get a battery from low to full overnight.
“That’s a big difference,” Kempton said.
Quisel and her husband didn’t think electric vehicles could work for them without the faster level 2 charging, so they retrofitted the wiring in their garage to accommodate it. Quisel remembers the project costing around $2,000.
That price tag probably would have been lower if the family had done it while building the house in 2007.
Making new construction EV-ready
An ordinance that would require this “EV-readiness” for new construction is expected to go before New Castle County Council for a vote Tuesday.
“It's cheaper to do it ahead of time than after the fact,” said Councilwoman Dee Durham, the legislation’s lead sponsor. “It also makes the system much more available to everyone.”
A substitute ordinance Durham submitted would require most new residential construction to include level 2 chargers or the electrical infrastructure to support them, in line with the standards of the National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association.
For single-family houses, duplexes and townhouses with garages, the ordinance would require one parking space in the garage be EV-ready.
“If it's proposed new construction of a residence that doesn't have a garage, it would still require all of the infrastructure for EV charging stations to be built, say to the street or to the parking lot,” Durham said.
For multi-unit buildings, such as apartment complexes, hotels and dorms, the ordinance would require half of the parking spaces be EV-ready and 5% have installed level 2 or higher chargers, ready for residents to plug in. The ordinance would affect buildings permitted after Jan.1, 2022.
Some cities, including Atlanta, Denver and Seattle, have already adopted similar requirements.
Kempton, with the University of Delaware, says the ordinance addresses an equity issue—since right now, many people don’t have any type of outlet to plug their car into.
“Duplexes may be okay with a driveway or something,” he said. “But once you start moving to multifamily and urban street parking, forget it.”
Kempton lives in an apartment building in Philadelphia, where he says there are only three level 1 outlets available for the building’s 500 units.
Ratios like that will need to change. President Joe Biden has set a goal of making half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 electric, which auto industry leaders support. Buildings built today could be around for decades—so if they don’t accommodate electric vehicles, they may soon seem out-of-date.
“30 years from now, nobody's gonna be buying gasoline cars,” Kempton said.
Will the proposal see support?
It’s unclear whether the proposed ordinance will see any pushback from builders.
Officials with the Builders and Remodelers Association of Delaware did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Shawn Tucker, a lawyer who often represents developers in New Castle County and a former general manager of the County’s Land Use department, says developers may prefer a requirement that they offer customers an EV-ready option, rather than a mandate that they build it.
“I think you'll hear from most that they support EVs, they support green energy,” Tucker said. “But this [ordinance] will add cost to a home, certainly, and it will ultimately be paid by the home buyer.”
Kempton says retrofits for level 2 charging capacity are “much” more expensive than building that capacity in during initial construction. One study prepared for the City of Oakland estimated that installing level 2 charging capacity for a parking garage during initial construction could save $1,000 per parking space compared to the cost of a retrofit.
Thomas Hartley, president of Diamond State Engineering and a licensed Master Electrician in Delaware, says he has retrofitted his own garage for level 2 charging and installed charging stations at several commercial properties. He estimates that installing the panel capacity and wiring to support level 2 charging in a single-family residential garage during initial construction costs $200-300, compared to a retrofit of $500-700. He notes the expense varies based on the configuration of the home, the prices that electricians or builders choose to charge, and the specifications of the owner.
Incentives are available to offset some of the costs of electric vehicles. In addition to federal tax credits, the State of Delaware offers $2,500 cash rebates for new battery electric vehicles purchased or leased before June 30, 2022. The State also offers rebates for level 2 charging stations installed at multi-family housing or in public places such as universities and hotels. But these charger rebates are not available for single-family homes and do not cover the costs of outlet installation, wiring or electrician fees.
Preparing for an electric future
Durham says she hopes the ordinance will be a model for Kent and Sussex counties. State Sen. Sarah McBride also plans to introduce a similar proposal at the state level.
“There is no goal that is too ambitious because this is an inevitable, massive market shift,” McBride said. “If we aren't ready, if we aren't ambitious, we're going to be behind.”
Scientists continue to warn of catastrophic impacts of climate change, unless the world stops burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Transportation has historically contributed nearly a third of Delaware’s total carbon emissions.
So why not go further, and mandate all parking at multi-unit projects be EV-ready?
“Sometimes it's risk-reward,” Durham said. “You're not quite sure how far you can push the envelope. So a baby step is better than trying to take a giant leap and not getting it done.”