by Sarah Shemkus, Energy News Network
April 12, 2023
A Massachusetts organization is stepping up its efforts to help Black-owned businesses tap into the influx of money expected to pour into the electric vehicle sector in coming years and become full participants in an industry that is likely to see significant growth.
“There’s plenty of money. There’s nothing but money,” said Nicole Obi, president of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts. “What we don’t have is time. All that money has an expiration date and we still aren’t getting the contracts and the capital.”
The council recently held its third EV Kickstarter event, highlighting opportunities for Black-owned companies to grow their business installing or servicing electric vehicle chargers, reselling equipment, and offering charging services. At the event, three small businesses also received $10,000 grants to bolster their growth in the electric vehicle space.
“We want to really make sure that we are being mindful and intentional about getting Black people [and] Black businesses into the climate, sustainability, and resiliency space,” Obi said. “This is just one of many ways that we’re looking to do that.”
The Black Economic Council of Massachusetts was founded in 2015, in response to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, released in March of that year, that found a vast wealth gap between Black and White households in the Boston area. While White households had an average net worth of $247,500, the average net worth of Black households was just $8, the report found.
Faced with these starkly disparate numbers, a group of Black business leaders decided to get together to narrow the gap.
“We’re really focused on change, particularly led by Black business owners,” Obi said.
Part of the group’s strategy to achieve these goals is helping Black-owned businesses get a foothold in growing markets, allowing them to participate in the economic successes of new industries. In the past, industry-specific booms in Massachusetts — such as biotech and cannabis — have not created many benefits for Black-owned businesses. Now, electric vehicles are a particularly promising space, and the council wants to make sure this latest boom doesn’t leave Black-owned businesses behind, Obi said.
The market for electric vehicles — and the charging equipment needed to support them — is expected to grow enormously over the next decade, with significant help from federal and state policies and incentives. The federal Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022, made more new electric vehicle models eligible for a $7,500 tax credit, added a credit of up to $4,000 for the purchase of used electric vehicles, and created a credit for the installation of charging stations.
In Massachusetts, a 2002 bill made new electric vehicles eligible for a rebate of $3,500 — up from $2,500 — with an additional $1,500 for low-income buyers in the works. The state also recently approved a plan by electric utilities to invest $400 million in charging infrastructure.
At the same time, Massachusetts is already home to thousands of small, Black-owned businesses — from electricians and contractors to property managers and valet firms — that are well suited to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the electric vehicle market, Obi said.
To that end, her organization launched the EV Kickstarter program in 2021. The group looked for outside sponsorship but ended up funding the event and several small grants to support companies interested in expanding into the space. Participants were eager and engaged and networking with each other, Obi said.
“That sealed it for me — it was worth every penny we spent to do these grants,” she said.
The second event was held in September 2022, in association with the group’s annual Mass Black Expo. Shortly thereafter, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center awarded the council a $50,000 grant to expand the programming beyond Boston, and in February, the third EV Kickstarter event was held in Worcester.
At the event, Shonté Davidson, owner of workforce development and energy efficiency consultancy Impact Energy, outlined four major pathways into the electric vehicle space: reselling equipment, installing chargers, doing maintenance work on charging infrastructure, and offering charging as a service. And Obi urged participants to talk to each other and come together to make joint bids on larger projects, to amplify their presence in the industry while the federal money is still flowing.
“I don’t know when we’re going to see a moment like this again,” Obi said. “I have a great sense of urgency about moving things along.”
The work the council is doing still faces significant entrenched obstacles. Perhaps most prominent among them is the lack of diversity in the energy space, which remains dominated by White men. Davidson is aware of no Black-owned energy service companies, and the utilities that administer the state’s energy efficiency programming are “overwhelmingly White,” she said. When employees leave to start their own businesses in the field, they often reinforce this demographic.
“They continue to hire people who look like them,” Davidson said. “The network is just very insular.”
And once these companies establish contracts and relationships with larger customers, it can be more difficult for smaller companies — and most of the Black-owned businesses in these fields are small operations — to get their foot in the door. Edson Hilaire, owner of EH Electric in Waltham, has come up against this dynamic in his attempts to expand his residential electric vehicle charger installation business into commercial and institutional clients.
“I’ve been struggling to get into that sector,” he said.
Hilaire does have some optimism, however. Joining the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts helped him learn more about the process of finding and bidding on these larger jobs, he said. Now, he has had several meetings with a major local institution about taking on work there, though the contracts have not yet come through.
“I am starting to notice there are some changes, even though it is like snail-moving pace,” he said. “It’s going to be slow, but I have hope.”
This article first appeared on Energy News Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.