To support the growth of electric vehicles, Houston is addressing air quality concerns and long-term funding strategies for electric vehicles and charging stations. Texas has also been allocated $400 million of federal money, which will be distributed over the next five years, to fund electric vehicle infrastructure.
Electric vehicles are registered in 233 out of the 254 counties in Texas, according to a plan released by the Texas Department of Transportation this spring.
As of July 19, there were over 19,000 electric vehicles registered in Harris County and over 13,000 in the city of Houston, according to data from Dallas-Fort Worth Clean Cities and the North Central Texas Council of Governments, using information from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles registration data and the Atlas EV Hub. However, electric vehicles only account for 0.55% and 0.56% of all registered vehicles in Harris County and Houston, respectively.
While electric cars are becoming more accessible, the issue lies with making charging stations more available, said Harry Tenenbaum, director of commercialization and infrastructure at Evolve Houston. The nonprofit works with companies and local governments to facilitate installing and developing EV infrastructure, and to educate Houston residents about electric vehicles.
The nonprofit's Regional Infrastructure Strategy for Electrification report—or RISE Houston—released in March, said as of September 2021, 1,200 public chargers for electric vehicles are in the Houston area. That amount supports the electric vehicles on the road today, but the projected electric vehicle growth can quickly outnumber the existing chargers, the report said.
“The first step is learning more and finding out how many people don’t have access to charge at home,” Tenenbaum said. “Then the next step is figuring out what’s acceptable access to charging.”
The federal government, the state of Texas and the city of Houston have invested in Houston-area infrastructure to meet the growing demand and improve accessibility.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas estimates Houston will have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2028, according to TxDOT’s plan.
Ebrahim Eslami, a research scientist specializing in air quality at the Houston Advanced Research Center, said there are between 7 million-10 million cars in Houston, but if there is only a little bit of electrification, there can be an improvement in air quality.
“Assuming 100% of [vehicles] are going to be electric by 2040, we need electricity,” he said. “We need the infrastructure for [electric cars] to emerge as the main source of electric production sources.”
Although it is unclear how much carbon is reduced if more residents switched to electric vehicles, there would be a decrease in ground-level ozone—a harmful air pollutant that can cause health problems—if more electric vehicles are on the road, Eslami said.
“At the end of the day that’s what counts,” he said. “We want to reduce the health impacts.”
Health impact results show that increased ozone and particulate matter will lead to 122 premature deaths annually if there are no changes to air quality in the Greater Houston area, according to a December 2019 report from the Center for Transportation, Environment and Community Health. Eslami said he believes zero emissions from cars is possible.
“In the two weeks during [coronavirus] lockdown there were almost no emissions,” Eslami said. “[This] shows the potential of having better air quality in a big city like Houston.”
Electric vehicle infrastructure requires generating enough power, transmitting energy across the grid and bringing energy through electric chargers to the consumer, Tenenbaum said.
The city of Houston is working on a long-term funding strategy to transition a nonemergency, light duty fleet to electric by 2030, said Thomas Pommier, senior staff analyst at Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability, in an email. The city plans to invest in publicly accessible chargers at libraries, parks and community centers, but officials were unable to provide the cost and timeline for when the chargers will be available.
“It’s important to recognize that we cannot do this alone,” Pommier said. “It is expected that most charging needs will be met at home or at work.”
For this to happen, investments will also be required from the private sector to make electric vehicle chargers available at apartment complexes and workplaces, he said.
Under the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in November, Texas is expected to receive more than $400 million from the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program to be distributed between 2022-26 over the next five years, Pommier said. This is part of President Joe Biden's administration’s goal of 50% of new car sales to be electric vehicles by 2030, according to a June White House press release.
This year, TxDOT will deploy chargers at 55 new locations around Texas—mostly near interstate highways. However, TxDOT’s plan does not include locations within the city of Houston, Pommier said in an email.
Beginning in 2023, an estimated $42 million-$43 million is expected to flow through the Houston-Galveston Area Council to deploy more electric vehicle chargers in the Houston region, he said.
“Fortunately there are a lot of people and a lot of organizations that are not only interested in this, but passionate as well and provide whichever resources they can ... to investigate the impacts of the human health and environmental impacts of transportation,” Tenenbaum said.
The Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability works with Evolve Houston to coordinate accessible chargers and accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in the Houston region.
“EVs are a great way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it’s more efficient to generate power for a whole bunch of vehicles than it is to fuel them with gas,” Tenenbaum said.
Evolve Houston’s RISE Houston report estimates $6.7 million has been invested for public charging stations as of March. The money is a combination of private funding from individuals and organizations, such as H-E-B, apartment complexes and parking lot owners; and public funding from grants and incentive programs, Tenenbaum said.
Evolve Houston also helped design a fleet electrification strategy by studying 15,000 public and private fleet vehicles, which are vehicles owned or leased by a business or government agency. The study found if all technically and economically feasible fleet vehicles were replaced by electric vehicles, it would reduce more than 17,000 tons of carbon emissions in Houston annually, Tenenbaum said.
To engage residents about electric vehicles, Evolve Houston hosts ride-and-drive events to allow people to test drive an electric vehicle. So far, they have partnered with CenterPoint, Shell and Houston Community College, said Katheryn Abou-Chakra, director of marketing and membership at Evolve Houston.
“A big focus of ours is to raise education and raise awareness,” she said. “The best way to do that is to get people into electric vehicles so they can actually drive them themselves.”
Evolve Houston will host a relaunch event on Aug. 18 to announce an upcoming program and introduce new leadership.
“We strive to build a more resilient, sustainable and equitable city,” Pommier said. “Electrifying our transportation will not be enough. We must also do everything we can to fund and promote the use of multimodal transportation, including transit, biking and walking.”