Sunday, February 5, 2017

Tesla builds superchargers in rural northern California, and locals have mixed feelings.

I grew up in a small northern California town called Ukiah. A few years ago, I was driving through the streets of Ukiah's small downtown, when I encountered a bright red glow coming from a public parking lot at the center of town. I discovered that the light was emerging from several new Tesla supercharging stations brightening up the parking lot. At first, I laughed aloud: “Tesla” is not a word I have heard often on the streets of Ukiah, and I have never seen an actual Tesla in town.

After more thought, it dawned on me that the chargers aren’t for the locals. They were installed in my quiet northern California community for people traveling through from more urban centers, such as San Francisco and Palo Alto.

When the supercharger installation was proposed, Ukiah’s City Council had some concerns about allowing Tesla to install them downtown. There was concern about having a “billboard” of sorts, advertising only for Tesla, and some council members didn't want to maintain chargers that would not serve any other electric car. Further, these chargers would take up otherwise public parking spaces right downtown. Tesla was not interested in any other location, however, and it argued that the chargers would bring additional shoppers to the community. Petaluma, another northern California town, installed Tesla Chargers and saw about 1000 users per month, which translates into an added $12,000 to the local economy. Tesla paid for the installation and continues to pay for the electricity they use, so financially the installation and maintenance would not be an issue.

Eventually, after some debate, Tesla’s proposal passed in Ukiah, but only narrowly. The Mayor, Doug Crane, argued in favor of the chargers, saying that the city needed to make a “leap of faith” in order to support the growing business of electric cars. Indeed, Teslas are environmentally friendly, but they are also expensive. With available models priced between $68,000 and  $138,000, the choice to purchase a Tesla is not an option to just any passionate environmentalist.  Ukiah has a median household income of $42,237, and 39.26% of the population makes $30,000 or less per year. Hence, purchasing a Tesla is not a decision that most Ukiah residents are able to make, regardless of their commitment to the environment.

After the debate and approval in the City Council, Tesla forum users held an online discussion about Ukiah and about the concerns both the public and council members raised about the superchargers. One user called the resistant city council members “ignorant” and chastised the opposition to the superchargers, saying: “This will be the biggest draw in their city, they should be paying Tesla for the privilege of having it.” Another forum attracted similar comments. “Perhaps money spent elsewhere would be better rewarded.” Said another user, “Never been there and now we certainly won’t.”Yet another user speculated that the parking spots were used by employees from surrounding businesses, and wondered why those employees couldn’t just park elsewhere and walk a little farther to work. This user callously said: “I wonder what the obesity rate is in Ukiah.” Still another user wrote: “Unenlightened people resent the incentives granted to encourage adoption of [electric vehicles]. I thank the visionaries… for leading the way.”

These were not the only unkind comments about Ukiah locals on the Tesla forums. Perhaps these users are just trolling, and I shouldn't take them seriously.  I must point out, however, that just because locals were concerned about Tesla's superchargers in Ukiah does not mean that they are against electric vehicles, innovation, or environmentalism.  Similarly, those who opposed the superchargers are not automatically “unenlightened.” To some, Tesla as a company may even symbolize an affluent group of people who have more resources than those in Ukiah do, locals may fear that their community could be looked down on. All this is to say: this issue is about more than just a few parking spaces. There are a lot of possibilities that could lead someone to oppose Tesla's proposal, many of them specific to the values and the identity of the community.


dnlauber said...

This is a really interesting perspective on change in your hometown, Mollie. I really enjoyed seeing statistics on the median household income in Ukaih. Tesla is about to debut a $35,000 baseline vehicle (Model 3)--its cheapest car yet. But even that vehicle, without incentives, is more than approximately 40% of the annual household income in Ukaih. I wonder if the people ridiculing the city online realize to the people of Ukaih, the "biggest draw" of their city isn't chargers for cars that residents of the city don't drive. I'm curious to know whether Ukaih has seen a boost in its local economy, similar to that which occurred in Petaluma after it installed chargers. How do people in your city view the chargers now, a few years after they were installed?

Courtney Hatchett said...

Teslas are strange because they are such a power symbol, but also good for the they have a weird fan base. Like the comment above mentioned, the new Model 3 is supposed to be a much more affordable option and bring Teslas more within reach to average people. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. It will also be interesting to see how Elon Musk's role in the new administration progresses and if that affects the brand. ( As someone who grew up with kids from oil country, I remember driving a hybrid car to school around 2006 and someone telling me I must hate their family because their family depends on oil. This is different. I feel like this is more of a power/elite struggle than one about the green energy. These comments seem to approach Ukiah and other places as only being worth their time/money for the aspects of being a "recreational county" and not as a home where people chose to live.

Willie Stein said...

I can't help but think there's some element of this reaction against Tesla that can be explained as Emerald Triangle resentment against Silicon Valley. Not to claim there isn't substantial poverty in Ukiah and the Redwood Empire in general, because there is, but keep in mind there is a fair amount of undeclared income floating around the area from the marijuana industry. I think the area chafes against being characterized as a drive-through area, or just a brief nature tourism stop for the wealthy people of the Bay. There was huge pushback against the legalization initiative last fall from illegal marijuana growers, many of them multi-generational, precisely because they felt that it was a cynical move by the movers and shakers of the tech industry to make a grab for institutional legitimacy at the expense of Emerald Triangle farmers. None of this exactly has anything to do with Tesla directly, but I am struck by the symbolic resonance. Tesla as the symbol of the Silicon Valley technocrats carpetbagging into the marijuana industry at the expense of the rural black market economy of Mendocino county.

K. Harrington said...

This discussion raises some interesting issues about how “outsiders” view Ukiah and the value they place on this community. Like Courtney mentioned, it seems like some forum users primarily view Ukiah as a recreational area that provides opportunities for urbanites to escape the city, or maybe they just view Ukiah as a quick stopping point en route to their final destination.

In your post Mollie, you bring up the fact that one Tesla forum user called resistant city council members “ignorant” and another used the words “unenlightened people.” These comments remind me of our discussion last week about the “ignorant” rural community versus the “intellectual” urban community. We touched on the idea that educated people from urban and suburban places might view the rural community as ignorant when their values and ideas do not align with one another. In contrast, some rural people may feel threatened by those who left the rural community to pursue higher education, and they may also feel threatened by people entering the rural community with certain educational experiences - and often liberal ideals - that are unfamiliar.

The Tesla forum comments certainly seem to make assumptions about Ukiah residents' intellect as a way to explain why the proposal passed narrowly. But it seems more plausible that the residents just felt threatened and unsure about how this change might affect their community.

RGL said...

Could this be viewed as a type of gentrification of rurality like we discussed in class? Even though it is not an example of urbanites (people) settling in rurality, it is definitely an example of an urban ideal infringing on rural community. I see it as a clash of culture. One of the biggest ideas we discussed in defining what rural means. Tesla is pushing against the simple, traditional, natural rurality and bringing new technology, the latest fad in cars. I definitely see both sides of the argument: if you can't afford the car or are morally opposed to big business, why should Tesla get to profit off of your community's public space?! I am glad there is at least hope of benefit to your hometown. Thanks for sharing this anecdote!

Jenna said...

I think from your post (and sorry if I am wrong) that these Tesla charges only charge Tesla cars. If that is correct, then I understand the Tesla commenters unkind (dare I say ignorant? I probably shouldn't) comments even less. I fail to see how community members not wishing to have such an exclusive charging station in such a central part of town is "unenlightened." Indeed, it seems completely understandable that if a community were to install a charging center, it would actually be more beneficial to members of the community, visitors and the environment to have a station that charges all types of electric cars. Therefore, it seems like these comments made on the Tesla forums are about these specific peoples' desires and cars and a failure to acknowledge (like several others said in the above comments) that there are actual people living out their day to day lives in this community. This seems to be just another example of urban individuals ignoring or writing off individuals thoughts and feelings simply because they live in more rural communities.