Edson Hilaire is poised to make good money in the electric vehicle industry.
Owner of EH Electric and HVAC based in Waltham, Hilaire has nearly 20 years of experience as an electrician − installing lighting, generators and smoke detector systems, replacing wiring and upgrading panels.
His skillset is desperately needed, considering the sale of new gas-powered vehicles will be prohibited in Massachusetts starting in 2035, paving the way for electric- and hydrogen-powered cars to rule the road.
The timeline signals urgency. The state has about 13 years to build an expansive electric vehicle infrastructure to support the law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker this year − vast networks of charging stations, suppliers, installers and maintenance providers.
“It’s like an evolution right now,” said Hilaire. “This is it, this is not a fad that’s going to come and go. This is exactly what happened when gas came onto the market and there weren’t a lot of gas stations around. Our country doesn’t have the infrastructure.”
It’s something the state is “well behind on,” said Nicole Obi, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, or BECMA. But she feels the backlog presents an opportunity, one that could tap the expertise of Black business owners like Hilaire to lend their talents to the electric vehicle industry − helping the state reach its carbon-neutral goals while simultaneously growing their own livelihoods.
There are big contracts to be won and dollars to be made. Under President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Massachusetts is expected to receive close to $64 million to grow its electric vehicle charging network.
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Black Economic Council of Massachusetts holding electric vehicle ‘kickstarters’
Obi’s organization is in the throes of an initiative to create a Black-owned electric vehicle network, engaging business owners around the state in discussions about the potentially lucrative opportunities. Holding “kickstarter” events and doling out small grants of $5,000, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts is calling on electricians, property managers, equipment suppliers and anyone whose line of work could translate into selling, installing and maintaining electric vehicles and their chargers.
“With all of this construction in Massachusetts, where are they buying their charging stations from?” said Obi. “We want to be getting contracts that source from Black-owned businesses.”
In September, the Baker administration released $3.6 million in grants to support 25 organizations working to support minority- and women-owned businesses in “climate-critical” sectors. BECMA received $50,000 to expand its electric vehicle kickstarter program to areas outside of Boston.
BECMA has held two kickstarter events so far, bringing in key players to talk about the opportunities and economics for owner-operators, resellers, installers and maintenance providers in the electric vehicle industry.
After the first event, “more than half of the people that participated said the barriers to entry were lower than they thought and that they were interested in getting into this space,” said Obi. At the Mass Black Expo in September, the second kickstarter saw a whole new cohort of business owners. They’re planning for another next year.
“A lot of these business owners base their businesses in Black communities,” said Obi. “I’m very much interested in making sure that Black and brown communities don’t get left behind and that in (electric vehicles) in particular, we don’t have these deserts because no one is willing to put the infrastructure in place.”
‘Opening up doors’
Hilaire started learning about electric vehicles during continuing education required as part of his state electrician license. It was about 2014, and he was getting about one call per year to install a charging station or do an assessment.
Hilaire, a Haitian immigrant, wanted to grow his business but needed capital. He started working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 to make the extra money, in addition to running his own company. The electric vehicle sector seemed to explode in the public eye, and he started getting more and more calls.
After becoming acquainted with BECMA and participating in a kickstarter event, Hilaire said the experience changed the way he thought about how his business could participate in the industry. So far, he’s only done residential charger installations, but now he’s interested in commercial, too.
“Opening up doors,” Hilaire said of the kickstarter. “It shed some light on a lot of things I wasn’t aware of. It did wonders for the business because it was able to give us a small grant to help secure some tools and equipment. We were able to hire another body. All of it helped.”
Recipients of BECMA’s kickstarter grants also receive access to MassDevelopment for debt financing.
Hilaire sees the federal funds pouring in to create the infrastructure and, along with them, the potential for Black business owners like himself to secure contracts − like the installation of charging stations for a major housing or commercial development.
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Per the state’s electric vehicle charging station building standards, at least one parking space in any new commercial construction with more than 15 parking spaces must be made ready for charging stations.
“It’s up to the investors to force the hands of the business-as-usual guys and say, ‘You can’t do this project without having some minority representative involved,'” Hilaire said. “We know what we can do. But it starts with the people who have the money, the investors and general contractors. I’ve been in rooms where people say, ‘We’ve been looking for minority contractors but we can’t find any.’ That’s an insult. We’re out there.”
Capital, workforce: Barriers to entering the electric vehicle industry
Like Hilaire, other BECMA kickstarter participants have cited access to capital as the biggest barrier to breaking into the electric vehicle space, as well as constraints around workforce.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 76% of Black entrepreneurs rely on personal and family savings for financing, and minority-owned businesses overall require significantly more start-up money out of the owner’s pocket.
Hilaire is emphatic that if the state wants to reach net zero by 2050, its legally-binding emissions goal, “it can’t just be the ones that have the money” doing the work and receiving the benefits.
“If the state is trying to be carbon neutral, you can only do that if everyone’s involved,” he said.