LA Street Lights Might One Day Charge The Electric Car You Don't Yet Have

You can park and charge outside of the Highland theater in Highland park. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

Mayor Eric Garcetti's Green New Deal aims to have at least 100,000 new electric vehicles in the city by 2025. All those cars will need a place to plug in, and it might not be at home — about two-thirds of Los Angeles households rent, and landlords don't have to invest in EV chargers.

Even with apps like PlugShare, which allow Angelenos with driveway chargers to offer them for general use, L.A. may not be ready for a mass conversion to plug-in cars.

So, the city has come up with a novel solution: tapping the power of streetlights to charge your vehicle.

POWER BLOCK

They're already beginning to pop up around the city, most with banners hanging over them that say, "Electric Vehicle Charging Station."

"When the city decided that one of their priorities was to encourage the purchase of EV vehicles, it seemed prudent that it would be best to attach EV charging stations to our light poles," said Norma Isahakian, direct of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting.

Doing so, she said, "would eliminate another piece of equipment to be constructed into the sidewalk and utilize our circuitry."

The reason that's even possible is because the city just converted most of its street lights to energy-saving LEDs. That freed up enough electrical capacity to enable EV charging from the same piece of infrastructure.

A new fast charger in the lower level of the Aiso parking garage in Little Tokyo. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

The stations are operated by a handful of companies. Some of the big ones are GreenLots, Charge Point and EVGo. Each has its own app, and when you get to the charger — which is essentially a box with a long cord and an attachment — you just scan the QR code with the app, it unlocks the charge cord, you plug it into the car and zap. You're charging.

The fee is typically $1 to $2 per hour to use. But the parking is free.

ELECTRIC DREAMS

The very first street light to accommodate an EV charger in LA was installed in 2016, on 4th Street and Main in downtown LA.

On a recent weekday around 3:30 p.m., a Chevy Bolt was parked there and plugged in.

"This is our pride and joy," said LA Department of Transportation parking administrator Ken Husting. "This is where it all started."

Back then, electric vehicles were still a novelty and finding a place to charge was one of the reasons people weren't buying. So the city wanted to help with accessibility.

The conversion of city-run parking spaces to include EV chargers, Husting said, is to "incentivize people to go green and go electric."

To do that, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation partnered with the LA Department of Water and Power and the Bureau of Street Lighting. It's also beginning to convert some of its off-street spaces, like the new Aiso Parking Garage in Little Tokyo.

The new fast charger has otpions for different connectors to serve a variety of vehicles. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

HARD CHARGING

Driving down the entrance ramp on a recent weekday afternoon, a row of Chevy Volts and other EVs were clustered in the corner, plugged in to all six of the Level 2 chargers. In one hour, a Level 2 charger gives you about 20 miles of range.

There's also a fast charger, but that wasn't being used on a recent weekday afternoon. That one gives you up to 180 miles of range in an hour and you pay for it by the minute. Because fast charging is the future, Husting said, LADOT will add another 44 fast charges to its public parking facilities within the next six months.

"Whenever we convert a surface lot to a parking garage, 5% of those will be EV ready," he said.

And an additional 10% of the spaces will be wired to accommodate future chargers as the number of EV drivers grows and more people need places to plug in.

Currently, just 106 of the 11,500 city-owned parking garage spaces and 200 of its 37,000 metered spots have EV chargers right now.

The Bureau of Street Lighting plans to add 150 more EV chargers to its street lights each year, working with LADOT to combine those charges with city-owned parking spaces. Most of them are being paid for with grants from the California Air Resources Board and California Energy Commission.

Electric vehicle chargers, like the one pictured here in Highland Park, only charge for the electricity not the parking. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

But the city still has a long way to go to get to the 28,000 public EV chargers by 2028 that are called for in the mayor's plan.

"We're nowhere near where we need to be to support those," said Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, a national advocacy group for EV drivers.

It's a chicken and egg situation. He said people won't buy EVs unless they have places to charge them. Still, LA currently has the most public EV chargers of any city in the country. Levin called it a "national model."

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.