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Capability to charge EVs lacking in homes, apartments

With garage outlet access in only 49 percent of detached homes and 14 percent of apartments, is the real EV market in the Midwest suburbs?


High price and limited driving range are just two of the obstacles keeping car buyers from making the switch to plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles en masse. But there could be another problem to contend with: the inability for prospective buyers to charge the cars at home.

Using findings from a 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that only 49 percent of households with at least one car have access to parking within 20 feet of an electrical outlet. Residents of freestanding homes make up the majority of survey responders who say they can access an electric outlet near parking, with a little more than 40 percent of survey participants responding in the affirmative. But when it comes to apartment dwellers, only 14 percent had a place to plug in.

Percentage of vehicle-owning households in U.S. with access to a parking spot within 20 feet of an electric outlet.
Percentage of vehicle-owning households in U.S. with access to a parking spot within 20 feet of an electric outlet. U.S. Energy Information Administration

The upside is that detached homes make up the majority -- about 65 percent -- of the 128 million units of the country's housing stock, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The downside is that the suburbs aren't the target demographic for these alternative powertrain vehicles.

Electric cars are touted by car manufacturers as the ideal transportation solution for savvy car shoppers living in urban environments. However, the reality is that most city inhabitants live in apartments or some form of multi-unit or attached housing that may or may not include garages. And for the lucky apartment and condo residents who have garage access, there's no guarantee that they'll be close enough to an outlet to plug in, or that the apartment management or condominium association will let them use it to charge their EV battery.

The EIA views these statistics as a glass half full, saying that there's significant potential in the housing market to support vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. After all, 49 percent of all U.S. homes -- 49 million units -- is nothing to shake a stick at.

But not all homes are wired equally. Only 47 percent of urban residents with detached single-family homes have parking within 20 feet of an outlet compared with 55 percent of their rural counterparts. And that number falls to less than 40 percent of freestanding homes in the Northeast region, one of the top target markets for EVs. Of course, you can always install a new outlet or EV charging station, but chances are if your garage doesn't already have an easily accessible existing outlet, rewiring the parking area could be a significant undertaking.

So where are the residences with infrastructure that can readily support an electric vehicle? Newer homes built after 1990 are more likely to provide parking within 20 feet of an electrical outlet. And ironically, 60 percent of homes in the Midwest -- where EVs are the last to debut and the least marketed -- are likely to offer easy outlet access for these advanced technology vehicles.

These findings highlight the mismatch between the demographic that can actually accommodate electric and plug-in vehicles, and the ones that same demographic tends to buy.

Urban dwellers who are open to smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles that are easier to maneuver and park have nowhere to park and plug in. On the other hand, these same small, lightweight electric cars such as the Mitsubishi i-Miev, Nissan Leaf, and BMW i3, are shunned by suburban drivers, who often have long daily commutes and more than likely need to shuttle kids between after-school activities. The Chevrolet Volt has a wider demographic appeal because its extended range powertrain gives the driver more flexibility, but it only seats four, which may not be practical enough for a family.

The next crop of EVs and plug-in hybrids coming on the market, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid, Toyota RAV4 EV, and Tesla Model X, should be more palatable to suburban residents. Or at least the ones who can afford them. After all, homeowners with big multi-car garages are the ones who can afford a second or third vehicle, which is one of the key ways EVs owners avoid range anxiety. Luckily, the EIA also found that the more money you make, the more likely your home will have the infrastructure to charge an EV. But still the real hurdle for mass consumer adoption remains to be an effective marketing campaign targeted toward the right demographic.