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Leon Kaye headshot

Solar-Powered EV Charging Arrives in the San Joaquin Valley

By Leon Kaye

Some coastal residents might describe Fowler, California, as the middle of nowhere. But it's smack in the center of the San Joaquin Valley, a region critical for growing food for the rest of the state and much of the U.S. Like much of the Valley, this town of 5,500 people, located a 15-minute drive south of Fresno, struggles with terrible air quality. But a growing movement may soon change that.

Earlier this week, local officials and business leaders chose Fowler to kick off what they hope will be the expansion of solar-powered electric car stations across the region. It was a small but boisterous event to celebrate the official opening of 13 transportable, solar-powered charging stations in communities surrounding Fresno, installed at a cost of $800,000.

The level 2 dual-port chargers are located in towns such as Coalinga, Firebaugh, Kerman, Perlier and Reedley. Most of the funds were fronted by Caltrans via a grant to the Fresno County Rural Transit Agency, which operates a fleet of small buses across the valley. The regional air quality control district paid for approximately 10 percent of the costs.

Local officials describe the project as the largest deployment of solar-powered charging stations in the region, and the first to connect all rural cities in one single county.

Envision Solar, a San Diego-based solar products design firm, built the charging stations. The company aggressively hires veterans, disabled workers and others who face hurdles finding regular employment. Its product line is manufactured in the U.S., and the company has completed projects for customers including Kohl’s.

Envision says its solar EV charging station generates 4.1 kilowatts of clean power, includes a battery storage unit that can store up to 30 kilowatt-hours, and can power up to 150 e-miles a day. And it's small enough to be installed without displacing parking spaces.

For now, one of the two chargers included in each station is dedicated to locally-owned fleets, such as buses, during regular business hours. The other space is available to any vehicle owner for free charging all day – as is the case with the other charger after 5:00 p.m.

And therein lies the question: Does it make sense to have these chargers in areas with few electric cars that are often described as “disadvantaged communities”? For Envision’s CEO Desmond Wheatley, these chargers are not about the cart-before-the-horse questions that often hinder the expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure. “This is about taking small steps here,” he told TriplePundit after Wednesday’s ceremony. “Yes, people here are disadvantaged, as in the air they have to breathe. These charging stations are just the start.”

And Wheatley has a point. The San Joaquin Valley is often described as having some of the worst air quality in the U.S. The region grows some of the best stone fruit, nuts and pomegranates on earth, but that bounty comes with a huge environmental and social cost. A combination of factors make the region’s air lethal for many residents: Emissions, chemicals and dust from agriculture; rapid real estate development; and a political class that resists any efforts to clean the air contribute to the valley’s pollution.

In the Valley, the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains provide a spectacular backdrop against the endless vineyards, fields and orchards – that is, when they are visible. Haze usually obscures them from view, making the region's air quality issues painfully visible.

On that point, it is clear that these electric chargers will not just sit there unused. The local rural transit authority has four all-electric buses within its fleet and plans to go all-electric within a decade, one local official told 3p.

Most of the new charging stations are located in neighborhoods where visitors -- people who find one of these stations on a smartphone app and needs to charge up during a meal or coffee break -- can at least spend some money locally before continuing the drive through Central California.

Wheatley hopes these stations will help generate an economic multiplier. He noted that the average family spends at least $5,000 a year on gasoline and automobile maintenance. (AAA estimates reach almost $8,700 annually.) “Imagine if that money could be spent locally, instead of much of that amount ending up leaving the community, as in oil companies and even Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Of course, critics might tell Wheatley that in a region where as many as half of the families are eligible for Medi-Cal, California’s Medicid program for low-income families, electric cars are hardly a priority. But Wheatley is bullish on his vision of the near future.

“As these cars become more mainstream, their costs will decline, and you will also see a larger secondary market as these cars' previous owners decide to buy a new car,” he explained. From Wheatley’s point of view, this program should easily pay for itself as more money is spent locally.

The bottom line is that for electric cars to gain consumer trust, they have to go outside their comfort zone of big coastal American cities. If more drivers can witness and experience these vehicles’ torque, the elimination of gas stations and regular car maintenance, and their silence on the roads, they will buy in to a future of EVs – and more importantly to the automobile industry, they may actually buy one of these cars in the near future.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye