A group of Black Detroiters in the Motor City are forging a path for the country’s transition to electric vehicles, and ensuring it’s equitable.
From manufacturing, to installation of charging stations, and consulting, the EV entrepreneurs say their work is driven by the need to transition away from gas-combustion powered vehicles that contribute to global warming and climate change.
In the United States, the transportation sector makes up nearly 30% of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Transportation is also a significant source of pollution in low-income and communities of color, where the effects range from worsened respiratory and cardiovascular disease to increased risk of premature birth.
Meet the Detroiters at the forefront of innovative EV solutions who said they will be announcing the formation of a new EV trade association next month during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit
A decade ago, King started one of the first Black-woman owned EV charging station companies in the country: Dunamis Clean Energy Partners.
“What better place to have EV infrastructure built than the city that put the whole world on wheels? We’re proud of making sure that it’s Detroit,” King said.
The Dunamis model is a holistic one that makes EVs accessible to underserved communities most affected by climate change through education, hands-on experience with EVs, and creating jobs.
The company employs 155 workers in southeast Michigan and plans to add approximately 30 more jobs with the launch of Dunamis Charge, a manufacturing plant recently constructed on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit. By 2025, the company expects to employ more than 150 employees at the east side plant.
“We will be hiring directly from that community as well as surrounding communities that have historically had environmental justice, environmental racism issues,” King said. “We want to focus there first and we’ve made a commitment to at least 50% of our workforce coming from those communities.”
The plant goes into soft production this month, she said, with full production expected in October. Dunamis’ charging stations will be marketed to utilities and municipalities.
Carla Walker-Miller is the founder and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services, which is among the largest Black and woman-owned energy waste reduction companies in the country.
Walker-Miller founded her Detroit-based company in 2000 and now employs 170 people across five states, offering a range of services from energy efficiency program design to EV charging stations, batteries, and solar panels. Walker-Miller calls herself a “facilitator of clean energy infrastructure” and in the last few years, that facilitation has been geared more toward EVs.
“There’s a lot of education, a lot of information, a lot of processes, a lot of awareness that has to be generated in order to build the infrastructure and that’s where we come in,” Walker-Miller said. “We began calling ourselves facilitators of the market because we want to make sure that places that won’t normally or organically have access to charging, actually have it,” she said, like rural and underserved low-income communities of color.
Earlier this year the company signed a contract with Tesla to become an EV dealer and installer. Now, they’re consulting with multifamily housing facilities and city developers around the country to discuss EV charging installation, with a focus on equity. The expansion of its EV work could result in as many as 50 new jobs for her firm around the country in the next year, Walker-Miller said.
As a leader in clean energy for decades, Walker-Miller said she often sees a fear of competition, but with EVs there shouldn’t be since there’s a dearth of everything from contractors to infrastructure and assessors “and that’s a good place to be,” she said.
“There’s so much work to be done,” she said. “We need to build the economy.”
McCoy is the founder of Vehya, a startup that installs and services EV charging stations. At Vehya, McCoy is focused on training people of color to fill the electrician gap needed to install EV charging stations. In addition to training people, the company connects professionals to requests for EV technicians, making charging station installation easier and faster.
“It’s an ecosystem,” McCoy said. “I gotta make sure that people have access.”
Based in Detroit, Vehya just opened an office in San Paulo, Brazil, as well. Installing EV chargers is an up and coming opportunity that McCoy wants to make sure people of color have access to, he said.
“My mission is to be like the ambassador for sustainability and right now particularly EVs, but that includes solar, wind, battery storage – all these things we need,” he said. “A lot of times if there’s not somebody like me in it, then by the time we get to it, we’ve lost so much money, we’re so far behind the curve, so I’m using my platform, Vehya, to try to promote it as much as possible.”
Kwabena “Q” Johnson
Johnson is a fourth-generation autoworker and the founder of Plug Zen, a southwest Detroit startup that develops, manufactures, and distributes EV charging stations. Before founding Plug Zen, Johnson worked at Ford Motor Co. for 10 years. He is also the mobility manager for Walker-Miller Energy.
“It was just part of who I was – cars. So I wanted to see it go through the next phase,” he said.
Plug Zen manufactures charging stations that can charge multiple cars at once, which are good for businesses, multi-family housing, and municipal operations. In May, the company piloted its chargers at the Detroit Smart Parking Lab in Corktown.
By the end of the year, Plug Zen plans to start production. In the meantime, Johnson said he is looking forward to working with other Black Detroiters in the new trade association.
“I like seeing people from our backgrounds have a part of this, because the world is shifting, and it’s shifting away from the old boy club and the traditional owners and it’s allowing others to have a say in the play in it, and I’m really excited about that,” he said.
There is no equitable future in EVs so long as EV is synonymous with cars. To be actually equitable, we must be talking about a range of vehicles, especially smaller ones which are actually affordable. Like bikes, scooters, and golfcart sized vehicles. Sounds a lot like those saying that they’re fighting for equity and access are only doing so to claim they’re trying without doing. When the vehicle costs more than$10K to have and needs several thousand dollars to maintain, it isn’t equitable. We need to move past this idea of being the motor city car capital of the world. That moniker no longer suits us. We need to be looking towards achieving mobility freedom for all Detroiters.
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