How permit delays are slowing down charger development

Charging companies say installing stations is quick and easy, but obtaining permits can sometimes take more than a year.

If you drive an electric car, the risk of encountering traffic jams at charging stations before you find a place to plug in is greater than ever. This is especially true in large, crowded cities like New York or Chicago. This is because the rate of sales of electric vehicles far exceeds the number of installations of public chargers.

In 2016, there were seven electric vehicles for every public charging point in the US. That number has increased to 20 electric vehicles for every public charging station, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Many toll companies now claim that part of the reason for this skewed ratio is the long process of obtaining permits and getting utilities to cooperate.

Chargers and electric vehicles: a chicken-and-egg scenario.

Experts and everyday drivers alike believe that electric vehicles won’t really become popular until communities around the world have enough public charging stations. But how can we ensure that both of these things happen step by step? The growth of the charging industry is hampered by many factors, including differences in the installation process from place to place.

Although charging infrastructure has expanded over the past few years, recent roadblocks have slowed progress. For example, Tesla slowed its Supercharger development last month due to global layoffs that also included the Supercharger unit itself. (Some of the laid-off workers were rehired at Tesla, and many found jobs at other companies.)

When it comes to federal programs, implementation has been embarrassingly slow. Of the 500,000 chargers expected to be funded under the Biden administration’s National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program, which begins in 2022, only eight stations are open in six states. Under this program, states apply for funds and then private companies submit bids to install chargers. However, toll companies that receive NEVI funds must comply with a complex web of local regulations, cooperate with utility companies, and obtain required permits – a process that can vary significantly from community to community.

These delays create impacts that a rapidly warming planet cannot afford. This not only inconveniences EV drivers in the form of long queues and overloads at existing gas stations, but also hinders the wider adoption of battery-powered vehicles. (It’s worth noting that the ratio of EVs to chargers varies by region and excludes residential chargers. The use case for individual stations also varies, including runtime, reliability, charging speed, etc.)

Long permitting process

“When building our charging stations, we often must comply with local, state and other federal permitting regulations,” Andrew Cornelia, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz High Power Charger, told InsideEVs. “One of the challenges is that these requirements vary by jurisdiction and slow down the development cycle.”

The construction of a charging station usually involves many stages. First, toll companies must select available locations and secure contracts with location hosts. These hosts often include retailers such as Target and Walmart, which have large parking lots along busy traffic corridors.

Working with utility companies is then required to run electricity to the facility. Then comes the design and construction of charging stations. The main hurdle comes during the permitting process from local jurisdictions, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to over a year.

“Once we know the facility will be connected to electricity, building the facility is a quick process,” said Anthony Lambkin, vice president of operations at Electrify America. “(Construction of a charging station) typically takes four to six weeks, but may vary depending on the size of the facility or other construction complications.”

But getting to this point may take some time. Charging companies claim that there are proven examples of improving this process.

“A more practical idea is for states to do what California did and put in place processes to enable efficient permitting,” Lambkin added. In 2015, California passed a bill known as AB 1236 to begin streamlining the permitting process for charging stations.

The Act places time limits on local jurisdictions to receive and approve applications. Provides that an application for a location with 1-25 distributors must be received within five business days and approved within 20 business days. Approval can only be delayed if applications do not comply with the permit checklist or pose a health or safety risk.

As a result, California is currently the most EV-friendly state in the US. In addition to having the most electric vehicle registrations, it also has nearly 53,000 nonresidential public charging points, which is more than the next five states combined, according to Department of Energy data. If you include Level 2 public chargers, DC fast chargers and shared private chargers, the number exceeds 105,000.

“We need to demystify toll permitting at the state level and then require cities and towns (to make the permitting process) easily accessible,” Lambkin said. “The steps required should be public. Publish it on the website and prepare an electronic application submission program,” he added.

The availability of clear information on public platforms would help stakeholders understand the process and speed up approvals. “This way I know the timeline for each phase and I know I will have my permit approved within three to four weeks,” Lambkin added.

Media interconnection delays

Determining the electrical capacity and infrastructure needed to support charging stations also takes a lot of time. This includes working with local utilities to assess existing electrical power and identify any necessary upgrades – a key step for charging stations to operate reliably and efficiently.

A stable connection ensures sufficient power. However, if for some reason power lines cannot be placed in a particular location, utilities should notify ratepaying companies in advance and provide a schedule for when power will be available. This helps with planning and moving resources to places where installation is cost-effective, Lambkin said.

“We’re seeing quite a cumbersome process right now in terms of media interconnection,” Cornelia said. “This includes everything from research to the actual delivery of the transformer, which can take months. It may even take years,” he added.

According to Cornelia, “proactive planning” is needed to ensure that charging stations can connect to the large-scale network without delays. This means actively communicating and coordinating with utility workers to ensure they plan ahead for network capacity.

Mercedes-Benz has been more proactive than other automakers in addressing this issue. Cornelia’s division, the Mercedes-Benz High Power Charger, exists to alleviate many of the inconvenient headaches – such as charging in remote, dirty and potentially dangerous places – that no owner of a $100,000 luxury car wants to deal with. Last November, it opened its first 400-kilowatt charging node at Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters in Sandy Springs, Georgia. It has since installed another 12 locations in the Southeast with giant Buc-ee’s grocery stores. It plans much further expansion.

Cornelia said Mercedes-Benz HPC worked closely with Southern Company, one of the largest utilities in the US, to meet the “ambitious timeline” for launching the first charging node.

“We started cooperation with Southern Company, where the initial lead time for transformers was approximately 90 weeks. Thanks to proactive cooperation, we managed to shorten this time to 12 weeks,” said Cornelia.

“It’s literally knowing the right person at these utilities. Having the right people who bring expertise and relationships is crucial to navigating the environment in which we live.

It also comes down to whether the state or utility is progressive and forward-looking or not. “There is always a natural time to develop critical infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging,” Cornelia said. “What separates some providers from others is a clear commitment and a long-term vision for how to deal with this.”

Affordable models are expected to boost electric vehicle sales over the rest of the decade. A slew of charging projects have also been announced recently, including the expansion of the Electrify America and Mercedes-Benz HPC networks, as well as the new Tesla-rival Ionna network, developed by, among others, a consortium of seven automakers.

If EV sales and charging networks need to grow synergistically, having a streamlined mechanism for approving chargers in each state is a must. We don’t want to say that fifty years from now we missed the opportunity to fight climate change just because we couldn’t get permits.

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