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EV charger installations in California are bogged down by local permitting

A six-year-old permitting law hasn’t unblocked installation delays — so state lawmakers are now considering mandates.
By Elizabeth McCarthy

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California has the most ambitious electric vehicle goal in the nation: It aims to have 8 million EVs on its roads by 2030. While the state prides itself on its climate leadership, it’s falling behind on the charging infrastructure needed to support its aggressive EV goal.

That’s not for a lack of public funds. California is investing $2 billion in chargers, including more than $900 million allocated for that purpose in Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

But data from public agencies indicates that the slow and inconsistent permitting processes seen across most of the 400 local jurisdictions in the state is a key problem. Public and private utility interconnections of the chargers also are fraught with complications and delays.

Permit delays have had a huge impact” on the state’s EV target, Brian Fauble, California Energy Commission specialist, said during an April 30 webinar sponsored by Veloz, a nonprofit that works to advance EVs with utilities, automakers and third-party charging companies.

Permit timelines have ranged from as little as two weeks to as long as a year. Investors are going to go where it is easier to install chargers, avoiding bureaucratic headaches, Fauble noted.

Last year, it took an average of 77 business days, up from 75 in 2019, to get a public permit for a direct-current fast charger in California, according to a 2020 report by Electrify America. That makes the state the second slowest in the nation, just behind New Jersey, according to the company, which was funded by the Volkswagen Dieselgate settlement. Permits in California are also 30% more expensive than the national average.

Image credit: Electrify America

We have to get more steel in the ground and more chargers to fuel millions of EVs,” said Kielan Rathjen, special advisor to the Governor’s Office of Economic and Business Development. The only way to do that is to make it easier to get stations approved.”

California set a target of having 250,000 public and private chargers installed across the state by 2025 and a total 968,000 ports by the end of this decade. Of the 250,000 to be installed by 2025, 10,000 are slated to be fast chargers.

But as of the end of March, there were only 73,443 chargers installed, including 5,400 fast chargers, according to the California Energy Commission. It projects that the state will fall short of its 2025 target of 250,000 chargers by about 80,000 units, Lindsay Buckley, CEC spokesperson, stated in an email.

State law is not being followed

This slow and ponderous permitting situation persists despite the existence of a six-year-old law demanding that it be fixed. AB 1236, advanced by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), is the most stringent charger permit streamlining law in the country and has been used as a model by other states.

The measure directs cities and counties to enact a streamlining ordinance, with the law providing a blueprint. AB 1236 also mandates that permit applications only be reviewed by a building department, not a planning department, and be limited to health and safety issues. Zoning and aesthetics issues, which are applied to gas station permits, are not to be considered.

Since the law was enacted, the Governor’s Office of Economic and Business Development (GO-Biz) has found that only 131 of the 400 jurisdictions in the state, or about one-quarter, currently comply with AB 1236’s provisions. That’s despite GO-Biz’s efforts to help advance the law by creating an online permit streamlining guidebook, including sample ordinances, and providing technical assistance to overwhelmed or under-resourced cities and counties.

Inconsistent local permitting also creates challenges for utilities, which play a major role in getting chargers hooked up to their grids. California’s three large investor-owned utilities have been ordered by state regulators to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in make-ready” infrastructure to connect EV chargers, with an emphasis on harder-to-electrify sectors such as multifamily housing and commercial parking lots.

Because the permitting process differs among local governments and jurisdictions, it’s critical we are connected with the correct stakeholders in advance to ensure we follow the appropriate local procedures and are able to complete our work in a safe, reliable and timely manner,” said Ariana Vanrenen, a Pacific Gas & Electric spokesperson, in a May 14 email. More than 327,000 EVs are registered in PG&E territory, amounting to approximately one in five EVs in the entire country, she said.

The soft-cost barriers to EV charging

While permitting delays are the main culprit, private and public utility interconnections also impede the installation process, according to Electrify America. Its report found that grid interconnections for high-voltage systems take an average of 38 weeks to be deployed in California, compared to a national average of 23 weeks. (However, it’s important to note that last year’s delay was largely attributed to utilities diverting resources to respond to the rash of deadly wildfires across the state.)

Southern California Edison takes between eight and 12 months from start to finish for charger installations, depending on the end use and the applicant’s degree of familiarity with the process, Carter Prescott, SCE’s director of e-mobility and electrification, said during a May 14 phone interview. The utility does not break out the time it takes to electrify chargers from the time spent obtaining permits from local jurisdictions.

SCE is investing $2 billion to support EV charging and provide rebates to customers over the next five years. By 2045, it expects EVs and building electrification to drive up its electricity demand by 60 percent, with 70 percent of that boost projected to come from EVs, Prescott said.

Even worse on the permitting front is New Jersey. Fast DC charger permitting takes about 108 days in that state, which is about twice as long as the average length in the rest of the U.S., Electrify America reported.

It can be a lot slower” than in most other states, Pam Frank, a vice president with the EV and environmental consulting firm Gabel Associates, lamented during a May 19 phone interview.

Image credit: Electrify America

While New Jersey and California have the distinction of ranking last on the permitting front by Electrify America’s standards, the national average for charging installations is nothing to brag about. Local permitting and station electrifications by utilities, the soft costs” of EV charging, make up three to five times the cost of the charger itself” in the United States, a much higher ratio than that seen in Europe,” according to a late 2019 RMI report.

These EV charger installation soft costs mirror those faced by solar projects as the industry was taking off, RMI’s report states. It will take a similar level of effort to understand the soft costs of EV charging infrastructure and how they can be reduced,” authors Chris Nelder and Emily Rogers contend.

Resolution of the identified problems is needed by regulatory agencies, civic officials, staff of local building and planning departments, utilities, private-sector charging network operators, and legislators.”

Pending legislation could add permitting mandates

This is all easily solvable,” said Matthew Nelson, Electrify America director of government affairs, in an interview last week. He pointed to AB 1236, California’s 2015 streamlining law, as offering incentives to ease the permitting process.

That includes having a one-stop shop for online permit applications and checklists, including electronic signatures for permitting. When cities and counties comply with AB 1236, it cuts the amount of time they spend on permitting and gives them liability coverage, said Rathjen with the Governor’s Office of Economic and Business Development.

But the majority of the cities and counties that fail to comply may soon face an enforceable mandate from the state. Legislation is pending that would give AB 1236 some enforcement heft, requiring that a permit be deemed granted after 20 days unless objected to by building department staff.

The bill, AB 970, was developed by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) and Chiu. Building department officials and the League of California Cities oppose the bill, saying it would create an untenable burden on local governments” and give an unfair advantage to EV charger applications.

Charger permitting is supposed to be given priority under AB 1236, Bill Magavern, Coalition for Clean Air policy director, pointed out in an interview last week. AB 970 seeks to overcome the obstacles,” he said. It is expected to soon be passed by the California Assembly and then head to the state Senate, after facing no opposition in the Assembly local policy committee.

New Jersey also seeks to speed up its plodding permitting via legislation. State bill 3223 also would create a model permit streamlining ordinance that local agencies must follow within 30 to 60 days of enactment. The bill passed the state’s Assembly on May 20.

Even beyond permitting and siting challenges, transforming the transportation sector is a daunting task, involving a massive amount of public and private investment. States are seeking to ensure a robust buildout in low-income and heavily polluted communities. They’re also trying to manage the balance between easing the utility demand charges that are assessed when grid demand spikes, which can drive EV charging costs too high, by instituting smart-charging rates and regulations to ensure that EV charging doesn’t overload the grid.

But if done right, robust growth in the electrification of transportation electrification will do more than clean the air, particularly in disadvantaged communities. It also will create jobs, which are even more sorely needed in the aftermath of pandemic-driven job losses.

We want California to shift to an EV market as quickly as we can, particularly given the urgency of the climate crisis and where the market is going,” Chiu said.

(Image: Electrify America)

Elizabeth McCarthy is co-founder and managing editor of California Current. She has reported on energy, the climate crisis, water and health issues for various publications and organizations.