Sheryl E. Ponds, whose Washington, D.C.-based upstart designs and builds electric vehicle charging stations, has had success landing business from customers seeking home installations as adoption of the new green technology grows.
But for Ponds, who is Black, it’s hard to ignore the fact that those customers tend to be suburban, affluent and white. She values their business, but wants to make sure the infrastructure she develops also reaches urban and Black communities. So last year she started pitching her service to managers of apartment properties in areas where demographics tend to be more diverse — even though sales have been tougher to come by.
“They aren’t necessarily too excited about installing an amenity they can’t recoup through rents,” Ponds, CEO and founder of Dai Technologies Corp., told Forbes. “In multifamily, if I’m not willing to deal with the extra [work] that comes with selling to property managers, then Black families will be on the back end of getting served in this industry. They’re going to be locked out of EV adoption.”
Ponds is one of several Black entrepreneurs with EV-charging startups who are trying to ensure that Black people aren’t left behind as America transitions to electric vehicles. At stake, they say, is a chance to improve health outcomes in ZIP codes long plagued by air pollution and high asthma rates, which tend to disproportionately affect Black Americans. They also say EV-charging infrastructure will have implications for green job opportunities, mobility and participation in the gig economy in urban areas, especially as companies such as Uber pledge to have all-electric fleets within the next decade.
“The thing is, we have more to gain from EV adoption than most communities,” Ponds said. “We tend to live in neighborhoods where we need decarbonization, we need environmental justice and we need health outcomes that will improve as a result of reducing fuel emissions.”
Black American children are nearly three times more likely to have asthma compared with white children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and are eight times more likely to die from it. A 2018 study in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that Black children are more vulnerable to ground-level ozone from tailpipe and smokestack exhaust, even at low concentrations and even when they’re using asthma therapies such as inhalers.
Environmental justice advocates are banking on electric vehicles to help mitigate that. Only about 2% of EV owners are Black. Vehicle costs have often been cited as one factor, but another is the lack of charging stations in predominantly Black neighborhoods, which industry experts have described as “charging deserts.”
“A lot of the communities that we live in, we just don’t have access to EV charging,” said Josh Aviv, founder and CEO of SparkCharge, which offers on-demand portable charging that can be requested through a mobile app. “But I think as we see these barriers start to be removed, we’ll start to see more people in our community buy electric vehicles.”
Aviv, whose company recently raised $30 million in Series A funding, said he started SparkCharge in 2017 partly because he believed that stationary charging infrastructure wasn’t going to be deployed fast enough to keep up with demand. Even with recent federal funding dedicated to EV charging stations, the process of standing up a new charging station can take 12 to 24 months, Aviv said. “When we enter a city, in under seven days, that city is completely blanketed with energy where any EV owner anywhere in that city can push a button and have range brought to them on the spot,” he told Forbes. “We do that in a matter of days versus years.”
Aviv said his company also offers technical jobs and training for prospective technicians. “Our hiring strategy when we go into a city is that we like to hire from underrepresented communities and basically bring them into the green economy and give them green jobs,” he said.
Research firm Gartner projects there will be 36 million electric vehicle shipments annually by 2030, up from 3 million in 2020, or a 26% compound annual growth rate.
Paul Francis is founder and CEO of Ontario, Calif.-based KIGT, which installs proprietary and third-party charging stations. In an effort to develop a footprint in urban areas he’s started entering revenue-sharing agreements with churches in south Los Angeles that allow KIGT chargers in their parking lots. The upfront costs can be steep, he said, especially with the tens of thousands of dollars needed to upgrade transformers so the chargers can draw power from the local electrical grid.
“If we’re talking about millions more people driving EVs soon, it has to come from these communities,” Francis told Forbes. “They need adequate charging, and so I’m willing to bet on investing capital there … and we’ll be there first and we’ll grow with them.”
William McCoy runs a software company called Vehya, which offers a marketplace that helps EV-charger customers manage projects and find electricians. He said his interest in making sure Black people are involved in the EV transition deals mostly with the economic opportunity. He said it’s common for electricians, in particular, to pull in more than $150,000 a year in some markets, due to the demand.
“The people that I see need jobs,” he told Forbes. “So being able to be the person who works with these companies, including the big auto [original equipment manufacturers], I’m able to get people jobs. And that’s really what it’s about. In my head, it’s how I can affect those communities the most.”