Should public electric car-charging stations be free to use?
That’s a question before the West Tisbury Select Board, where the town currently has two free charging stations.
On an Island where less than 5 percent of vehicles are electric, and where town meetings have pledged to be completely fossil-fuel-free in the next 17 years, we argue that public charging stations should remain free for the time being.
The issue was brought before the board by a member of the town’s energy committee, suggesting that mostly wealthy individuals are using the charging stations — or at least people with expensive cars — and the town should not be supplementing wealthier individuals.
There are a few issues with this idea that we would like to point out. First, the suggestion that only wealthier individuals are charging their cars at the town stations is a discredit to the environmental movement. It creates a perception that only the wealthy can afford an electric car, which simply isn’t true. If you can afford a new car to begin with, there are electric cars that are on the lower end of the market, especially considering the federal tax credits and state incentives. To convince the masses that going electric is a sensible option, perception is incredibly important.
Also, is there more than just anecdotal evidence that only expensive cars — Teslas? Porsches? — are plugged into the town stations? The information seems to come from simply watching who uses the charging stations at random. The town should not make a decision based simply on observation.
There is also a question of how much the town is spending on electricity. Town officials say they don’t know the exact amount, because the stations are part of the general electric bill of the town offices. Our guess is that it’s not excessive. In Aquinnah, energy officials have said that the town’s free charging stations incurred around $20 to $30 during slower months, and several hundred dollars during the busier months: Hardly enough to bankrupt a town.
Also, if West Tisbury were to set a fee for usage, they would likely have to buy new charging stations, which would probably cost more than giving away free electricity.
But most important to the discussion is why the town built the charging stations in the first place: to encourage the use of electric cars. Right now, the Vineyard isn’t doing great. Data from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation reports that 4.7 percent of registered cars on the Vineyard are either fully electric or hybrid. While we don’t have an exact number, it’s safe to say that very few cars are electric. Keeping any and all incentives available should stay in place until those numbers are much, much better. And if people are using the charging stations — wealthy or not — they are doing their job promoting electric car usage.
The discussion at hand is a good one to have, and we’re glad the West Tisbury board is having it. We think there are ways to make public stations more convenient and effective, like strictly enforcing time limits, so that people don’t hog the machines; or building them in central locations, near restaurants and shops.
At some point, the electric vehicle market and the charging stations that come with it will be significantly different. Free charging stations will likely be a thing of the past, and the older models likely obsolete. But to get there, governments from the executive branch all the way down to municipalities have a choice of whether to support the electric vehicle transition or not. There will be steps along the way to find out how to do that. Maybe it’s building more charging stations in centrally located areas; maybe requiring rental agencies to rent only electric vehicles, which would likely mean building more public stations; installing more powerful stations that take only minutes rather than hours; or making it easier for businesses to build charging stations, which will slowly start to replace gas stations.
As we think about the transition, it’s impossible not to see the effects of climate change in the daily national news: a habitat with less rain combined with powerful winds in Hawaii leading to the most devastating wildfire in the last century; record-breaking heat in Arizona; flooding in Vermont. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the climate emergency, but municipalities can help. We encourage town officials to continue to do so.