Looking upward at a streetlight with clear blue sky background.
Kansas City aims to install electric vehicle chargers on up to 60 streetlights this year. Credit: Vitaly Vlasov / Creative Commons

Kansas City plans to piggyback electric vehicle charging on existing streetlights as a way to improve access in areas currently lacking charging options.

The federally funded pilot project is being led by the nonprofit Metropolitan Energy Center, whose partners include the city and utility Evergy. They hope to install chargers on 30 to 60 streetlights before the end of the year.

Kansas City is a leader when it comes to charging stations — a recent Rocky Mountain Institute analysis ranked it as the region’s top city for electric vehicle infrastructure. But that infrastructure isn’t spread evenly across the city.

“There are places in the city that don’t have the same access to EV charging as other places,” said Miriam Bouallegue, the energy center’s sustainable transportation project manager. “We’re just trying to fill in some holes.”

As envisioned, the light poles would be equipped with one charger each. Customers would pay for each kilowatt-hour of power, although a rate will have to be established by state utility regulators.

Much of the work so far has involved trying to identify the best locations to install the charging stations. Generally, planners want to locate them near “points of interest” such as stores, apartment buildings, schools and churches. They collaborated with the Missouri University of Science and Technology to map those sites and found about 300 lights that met the criteria.

The energy center also teamed up with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on a second map that highlights air pollution, concentration of rental properties, and electric vehicle ownership growth rates. Overlaying one map on the other resulted in 80 locations still in play spanning about 60 neighborhoods.

Other factors: Not all streetlights have enough electrical capacity to power up an EV battery. And because the charging equipment will require a short cord, they want to avoid creating tripping hazards. And some streetlight locations don’t lend themselves to adjacent parked cars.

One area they’re looking at, known as Volker, is minutes from downtown, abuts an enormous medical center, and features a mix of walk-up apartment buildings and single-family homes, many of them built a century ago. Running through its midsection is a mostly two-lane commercial street known as 39th Street, populated primarily by restaurants and vintage clothing shops.

Patrick Faltico, president of the Volker Neighborhood Association, was intrigued by the sound of the charging pilot and invited planners to explain the project to the neighborhood a few weeks ago. Although some business owners on 39th Street expressed concerns about losing parking spaces in an area where parking is already at a premium, Faltico said he sensed a lot of interest among the locals.

“I think it would be an enhancement in that we are trying to adopt what is arguably the future of automobiles,” he said. When people see an electric vehicle being charged up down the street, “it educates someone. And the next thing you know, they start thinking about an EV. I hope that comes out of it.”

While not widespread, streetlights have begun to sprout charging boxes in a few cities, most notably Los Angeles. In 2016, the city began installing streetlight chargers as they transitioned to LED lighting. It now has 420 chargers, though new installations have fallen behind their intended pace due to the coronavirus, said Clinton Tsurui, a street lighting engineer for the city.

Other cities such as New York City and Montreal have installed chargers not on light poles but on the curb nearby, generally for aesthetic reasons, said Sylvain Bouffard, a spokesman for FLO, a Canadian installer of EV charging systems.

He said there is a “clear correlation between the presence of a charging station and, over time, the adoption of the EV in that area.” Because the company has data on who is using its chargers, Bouffard said the addition of new customers is easy to track.

“This is a way to prime the pump to make EV infrastructure more friendly to … low- to moderate-income drivers who would be looking into EVs,” said Joy Ellsworth, Metropolitan Energy Center’s development director.

The center is planning listening sessions throughout Kansas City to ensure it places the chargers in areas where they will be used and warmly received. Given their locations in the public right-of-way, vandalism is a concern, Ellsworth said, adding, “We really do depend on the support of the neighborhood.”

Once the chargers are installed, the center will collect usage data for about a year and submit a report to the U.S. Department of Energy, which is financing the study with a $1.2 million grant. If usage is high enough, and if the energy center succeeds in installing equipment according to the initial criteria, it could serve as a blueprint for other communities, Bouallegue said.

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.