A federal grant from the US Department of Energy will kickstart a plan to install more electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in the right-of-way, a project that leaders hope will enable more equitable access to e-car power for all Portlanders.

Portland City Council unanimously approved an intergovernmental agreement with the Department of Energy on January 10, accepting the more than $1.7 million grant and agreeing to contribute a local match, as well as allocating $750,000 toward the project this year. 

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) project aims to fill gaps in the city's public charging infrastructure and make chargers more accessible, city-wide. While Portland isn't entirely devoid of publicly available EV charging stations, they're mainly located in the city center, and are much harder to come by in lower-income neighborhoods further from the river. 

An EV charger density map of Portland. Yellow areas contain fewer than five chargers, and red zones have none. pbot

Local and national transportation agencies have been working on addressing the primary barriers limiting broader adoption of electric cars. State and federal tax rebates offer financial incentives that significantly lower the cost of purchasing both new and used EVs, sometimes even making them more affordable than traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Clean Vehicle Rebate Program, currently suspended for a lack of funds, offered incentives aimed at lower-income Oregonians to increase access to EVs.

But there’s another question would-be EV-owners have to ask: How am I going to charge this thing? If you live in a single-family home with a garage or driveway, the answer is pretty simple: Just plug the car into an outlet in your carport and let it juice up while you sleep. But apartment dwellers don’t always have that option. They have to resort to publicly accessible EV charging stations, which may be inconveniently located and hard to get to. 

"While some Portlanders can make the switch to an electric vehicle and easily charge at home, many Portlanders lack access to home charging because they live in a home without a garage or driveway or are renters and must rely on their landlords to make the necessary infrastructure upgrade," a PBOT webpage for the plan states.

PBOT also acknowledged that low-income and communities of color have been pushed out to the outer parts of Portland, where "vehicle ownership is often necessary due to a lack of convenient, safe, and efficient alternatives, such as rapid transit and dedicated bicycle facilities." 

"Increasing EV adoption in underserved communities where car ownership is likely to remain necessary is crucial to achieving the City’s climate action and racial justice goals," PBOT states. "The current charging deserts have largely formed around these neighborhoods, and this program will bring convenient and accessible charging options to all areas of Portland." 

Enter the plan to add more electric car charging stations around the city, officially adopted by City Council last March. 

The plan enables private vehicle charging and utility companies to install public chargers along city curbs in sidewalk “furnishing zones”: the strip of sidewalk directly adjacent to the street, where parking meters are typically located. The charging stations will be located in “designated centers” throughout Portland, with the aim of expanding access to parts of the city that lack the current infrastructure, such as in North and outer East Portland. 

The $1.7 million federal grant will help put the plan in action by funding staff time, project costs for engagement and outreach activities, and other administrative procedures associated with the project. In order to meet the local match requirement for the grant, the city will contribute about $1.7 million of its own funds. The city will contribute almost $600,000, and Portland General Electric (PGE) and PacifiCorps have both agreed to help fund staff time and pay for the installation and maintenance of a combined 50 EV chargers.

PGE and PacifiCorps will pay for the initial and ongoing operations costs of the chargers— they'll receive revenue from the people using the charging stations— meaning the city and PBOT won't be financially responsible for them. This is good news, because PBOT isn't exactly flush with cash to spare. 

It's not yet clear when Portlanders might see the first EV charging stations popping up along curbs. PBOT says they have been finalizing the contract and permitting process allowing companies to install the chargers. There will be a public notification process before chargers are installed.