Electric vehicles of all brands, shapes, and sizes gleamed in the almost 90-degree sun at Clean AIRE NC’s EVs for Equity event at Northwest School of the Arts on Saturday where community organizations dedicated to sustainable energy, transportation, and, of course, clean air shared their initiatives with the public.

Northwest School of the Arts is within the boundaries of the Historic West End Green District, a collaborative effort between Clean AIRE NC and the Historic West End community. Its lead organizers, Ron Ross, William Hughes, and Mattie Marshall spearheaded the Green District after partnering with Clean AIRE NC to monitor air quality in their neighborhoods.

The US Department of Energy hails electric vehicles (EVs) as a cleaner option compared to conventional gas-powered cars due to their lower carbon dioxide and particulate matter emissions. The North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources Division of Air Quality says that gas-powered vehicles emissions can lodge deep into the lungs and exacerbate health conditions like COPD heart disease, asthma and diabetes.

Black Americans have worse respiratory health outcomes due to their proximity to polluted air, soil and water – the lasting impact of environmental racism from housing segregation. Clean Aire NC’s environmental justice manager Daisha Williams explains, “Pollution impacts us differently. If you’re exposed to air pollution, you’re more likely to die from COVID.”

Marshall, Ross and Hughes also led the effort to get the PoleVolt electric vehicle charging station at The Ritz at Washington Heights, launched in March of this year. Marshall says she believes cleaning up the environment “is a necessity.”

“Without clean or healthy air, I don’t think we can exist.”

UNC Charlotte electrical engineering professor and associate director of the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) Robert Cox demonstrated use of the PoleVolt to curious onlookers.

Cox said most electric vehicle charging happens at home, but in a dense urban environment like Charlotte, that’s less of an option.

“One big win is being able to use existing light pole infrastructure to install the charger,” he said. The PoleVolt, along with two other charging stations, are part of a pilot program to answer questions Cox and his partners at Duke Energy have about the feasibility of bringing public charging to Charlotte.

In addition to encouraging bicycle use and walking when possible, Charlotte’s public bus routes are going fully electric thanks to a $44 million dollar transportation grant from the “build back better” infrastructure bill passed last November.

The up-front costs may present a hindrance to lower-income folks who are most impacted by air pollution. Thelma Currence, who grew up in the Historic West End, feels conflicted.

“I definitely agree in exposing the community to more progressive thinking,” she said. “But if you look at the economy of the immediate area, I don’t know if many can afford or would buy an EV.”

Photographer Alvin Jacobs expressed similar thoughts.

“That Tesla over there costs $140,000. Good for you, but it’s expensive,” he said. “It’s not for us.”

“I don’t think it’s just about cars,” says Ray Addison of Go Station, a New Mexico-based sustainable transportation company. “We need to take a multi-modal approach,” he said.

“As the market matures, we’ll see more vehicles enter the secondary market.”

Eric Zaverl of Sustain Charlotte agrees that public transportation is an important piece.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s just small drops in the bucket.”

According to Zaverl, there are many other moving pieces to cleaning up the environment and making transportation more equitable.

“It involves the political power to influence and change things for the better, trying to offer more compensation for community members’ involvement and time, and getting folks educated and organized. There’s a lot of areas missing.”

Affordable housing along the corridors of public transportation to avoid gentrification and displacement are other issues that need to be addressed.

“It’s difficult to do in North Carolina because of the way our state is structured. We can’t do inclusionary zoning,” Zaverl said.

Considering the war in Ukraine, along with pandemic-exacerbated shipping delays and supply shortages, Zaverl says “using a renewable source that’s somewhat free like solar that we can control and that’s clean,” is a better option.

“Some states are using less money on highways, but NC is not one of them,” Zaverl said. However, cities across the nation can be the leaders in policy change.

“If we start changing in urban areas, where most people are living, we can change things.”

Lastly, there will have to be a cultural shift to adopt more renewable energy sources in the future.

“There’s a lot of people in denial with this apple pie in the sky idea of America,” Zaverl said. “If you tell your kid that they’re perfect every day, they’re not gonna be able to reflect and make necessary changes when they grow up.”

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