The Southeast corridor of the U.S. — the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida — is the country’s largest producer of electric vehicles. Roughly 40% of the nation’s electronic vehicle assembly investments, totaling $60 billion, and manufacturing jobs are found here.
So when my preferred rental car company ran out of gas-powered cars in Charlotte, North Carolina, I thought: “What better region to dip my toe into the EV world?” Two weeks before, the U.S. secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm, set out on a similar all-electric road trip from Charlotte to Memphis, Tennessee.
Over seven days and 850 miles, I traversed from North Carolina through South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in a 2023 Kia Niro EV.
The more I drove, the more evident it was that owning an electric vehicle today still requires a lot of privilege, and sometimes it felt like another example of the clean energy shift not bringing the Black community along.
Only about 2% of EV owners are Black. Throughout my journey, I rarely saw faces like mine — only one, to be exact.
For Black communities, particularly the rural ones that proliferate this region, EVs are years away from being accessible because of price and infrastructure. While the average EV price has dropped significantly over the past 18 months, they’re still roughly $5,000 more than gas-powered cars, on average.
But as I drove through communities historically struck by severe weather events and those dealing with the aftermath of years of fossil fuel pollution, it became clear why the U.S. government has particularly subsidized the EV transition in this region.
Infrastructure and mapping out a trip
I left Charlotte for Jacksonville, Florida, around 11 a.m. on a Saturday. The nearly 400-mile drive typically takes between five and six hours to complete. It took me nearly 12.
Insert my first mistake. My midrange EV had a travel range of roughly 245 miles in between charges, but in reality the range fluctuates based on air conditioner use — a must in the South — and speed traveled. Throughout my trip, I never made 200 miles before needing a recharge.
Before I left on the trip, I read — and was told by everyone I talked to — about the need to map out the locations of electric chargers. So, I did. What I didn’t realize was that there are dozens of EV charger maps out there, and not all of them are accurate. The one I initially chose missed several locations. When I finally stopped, with less than 30 miles left before the car died, I was stuck with a Level 1 charger.
Insert my second mistake. There are three EV charging levels; Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. The higher the level, the quicker the charger. Typically, Level 1 chargers are free — and the most common of the bunch, but they take forever. Well, not forever, but it can feel like it when you’re stuck in a small town without reliable phone service.
But throughout the trip, the extra time required to charge the car allowed me the chance to explore new cities and catch up on reading. I was able to have grounding conversations with new people at most of the roughly dozen charging stations I used.
With the first Level 1 charger, I only added 40 miles to range after roughly three hours, but I caught up on reading James Baldwin’s two essays: “How One Black Man Came to Be an American” and “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.”
The EV journey, I learned, enables you to be more mindful of your surroundings and everyday environmental impact than driving a gas car.
What is impeding the clean energy shift for Black communities?
Despite its prominence in EV production in the Southeast, the amount of Level 2 and 3 chargers lag behind nation averages. Over the past year, the Southeast’s charging capacity grew by nearly 70%, but it is still nowhere near numbers on the West Coast or the Northeast.
The main culprit? Government support. All Southeast states trail the national average for public funding. No Southeast states have rebates or grants for EVs, while more than 15 states nationwide do. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed greater uptake of EVs for public fleets.
And across the region, where some of the poorest communities are found, private investment is lacking. Despite Georgia leading the nation in EV manufacturing jobs, the state has the second-highest annual EV registration fees in the country.
Many folks don’t have the upfront finances to afford these costs, even though electric cars are cheaper in the long run than gas-powered vehicles.
I spent $62 charging my car over the week, which consisted of nearly 1,000 miles of driving. In comparison, I would’ve spent roughly $100 on gas if I were driving a similar-sized gas-powered sedan through the Southeast.
As outlined in the fourth installment of the report “Transportation Electrification in the Southeast” by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, “The speed at which electric car, truck, and bus adoption will grow in the Southeast and the equitable access to the benefits of the growth depends largely on how the work of policymakers at the state and local level complements and enhances investments from industry and the federal government.”
What to consider
Black people are less likely to own homes, and rental units are less likely to have electric vehicle chargers across the country. If you don’t own your home and thus don’t have the power to have a charging unit at your residence, you’re left using public charging stations.
Across the nation, access to electric vehicle charging stations largely correlates with race — in most cities where EV charging is widely available, stations are concentrated in the cities’ majority-white areas.
As someone not as familiar with the states I was driving through, this often left me in uncomfortable situations, like when I spent three hours charging my vehicle in a small South Carolina town of 5,000. There, I counted four Confederate flags proudly flying, which was three more flags than other Black people I saw.
Later that day, around 10 p.m., I realized I’d need to pull over to charge for the third time. As frustration began to wash over me, I saw three smoke plumes rise in the distance — a reminder of why the clean energy transition is happening.
Situated in the middle of a Black neighborhood, the smoke stacks came from a chemical plant that neighbors one of the country’s most contaminated sites. The fossil fuel pollution and its proximity to a chain of regularly flooding rivers make the community the third-most climate-vulnerable of Georgia’s 2,000 census tracts.
In theory, EVs help lower the prevalence of such plants because Americans would begin to consume less fuel. And without those plants, Black folks could breathe a little better and for a little longer.
So, would I do it again if I had the opportunity? Yes.
If you want to make the jump or even go for a short test run like I did, I leave you with the short message the last rental car company attendant told me before I pulled out of the lot — but without any of the sarcasm — good luck.