More EVs, Fewer Plugs: How Permit Delays Slow Down Charger Growth

If you drive an electric car, the chances of encountering a traffic jam at charging stations before finding a spot to plug in are higher today than ever. That’s especially true in large, congested cities like New York or Chicago. This is because the pace of EV sales has far outpaced the installation of public chargers.

In 2016, there were seven EVs for every public charging point in the U.S. With a surge in EV sales in recent years, that number has increased to 20 EVs per public charger, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Many charging companies are now saying that one reason for this skewed ratio is the lengthy process involved in acquiring permits and getting utility companies on board.

Chargers and EVs: The “chicken and egg” scenario

Experts and ordinary drivers alike believe EVs won’t really take off until communities everywhere have an abundance of public charging. But how do we ensure both of those things happen in lockstep? The growth of the charging business has been held up by many factors, including how much the installation process varies from place to place. 

Even though charging infrastructure has expanded over the past few years, recent roadblocks have slowed progress. Tesla, for example, slowed the expansion of Superchargers last month amid global layoffs, which also included the Supercharger team itself. (Some of those dismissed workers have since been rehired at Tesla, while many found roles at other companies.)

When it comes to federal programs, the rollout has been embarrassingly slow. Out of the 500,000 chargers planned to be funded under the Biden Administration’s National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program, which launched in 2022, only eight stations are open across six states. Under that program, states apply for funding and then private companies make bids to install chargers. However, the charging companies who receive NEVI funds must comply with a complex web of local regulations, work with utility companies and get required permits—a process that can vary wildly from community to community.

These delays have ripple effects that a rapidly warming planet can ill afford. Not only does it cause inconvenience to EV drivers, with long lines and overburdened existing dispensers, but also hampers the broader adoption of battery-powered vehicles. (It’s worth noting that the ratio of EVs to chargers varies regionally and leaves out residential chargers. The use-case of specific stations also varies, including uptime, reliability, charging speeds, etc.)

Electrify America Flagship Indoor Charging Station In San Francisco, California

Long Permitting Process

“We often need to navigate local, state and other federal permitting rules to build our charging stations,” Andrew Cornelia, the president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz High Power Charging, told InsideEVs. “And one of the challenges is that these requirements vary by jurisdiction and they slow down the development cycle.”

Building charging stations typically involves multiple steps. First, charging companies must select accessible locations and secure agreements with site hosts. These hosts often include retailers such as Target or Walmart, which have large parking lots along busy traffic corridors.

Next, collaboration with utility companies is required to route electricity to the site. This is followed by the design and construction of the charging station. The main roadblock arises during the permit acquisition process from local jurisdictions, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to over a year.

“Once we know that we’re going to get power to the site, building the site is a quick process,” said Anthony Lambkin, the vice president of operations at Electrify America. “[Building a charging station] usually takes between four to six weeks, but can vary depending on how big the site is, or any other complications related to construction.”

But getting to that point can take a while. Charging companies says there are proven examples of how to streamline the process. 

“The more actionable idea is to have states do something that California did, have processes that allow streamlined permitting,” Lambkin added. In 2015, California enacted a law labeled AB 1236 to begin streamlining the permitting process for charging stations.

The bill imposes time restrictions on local jurisdictions to accept applications and approve them. It mandates that an application for a site with 1-25 dispensers has to be accepted within five business days and approved within 20 business days. Approvals can only be delayed if the applications are inconsistent with the permitting checklist or pose health or safety risks.

As a result, California is now the most EV-friendly state in the U.S. In addition to having the most EV registrations, it also has nearly 53,000 non-residential public charging ports, more than the next five states combined, according to Department of Energy data. If you include public Level 2 chargers, DC fast chargers and shared private chargers, that number tops 105,000.

 

“We need to demystify charging permitting at a state level and then require towns and cities [to make permitting process] easily accessible,” Lambkin said. “The steps involved should be public. Publish it on a website and have an electronic submittal program,” he added.

Having clear information available on public platforms would help stakeholders understand the process and expedite the approvals. “This way, I know the timing involved in each step and I know that within three to four weeks, I’m going to have my approved permit,” Lambkin added.

Delays With Utility Interconnections

Determining the electrical capacity and infrastructure necessary to support the charging station also takes a long time. This includes working with local utility companies to evaluate the existing electrical supply and identifying any necessary upgrades—a crucial step for the reliable and efficient operation of charging stations.

A stable connection ensures enough power supply. But if a particular site cannot get supply lines in for some reason, utility companies should notify charging companies in advance and provide a timeline as to when power would be available. This helps with planning and reallocation of resources towards sites where installation is viable, Lambkin said.

“Right now we’re seeing a pretty cumbersome process in terms of utility interconnection,” Cornelia said. “This spans everything from studies to the actual transformer supply which can take months. It can take years even,” he added.

Mercedes High Power Charging Stations2

According to Cornelia, “proactive planning” is needed to ensure that charging stations can connect to the grid at scale without delay. By that, he means actively communicating and coordinating with people within the utility companies to ensure that they plan grid capacity ahead of time.

Mercedes-Benz has been more proactive than other automakers at taking this on. Cornelia’s division, Mercedes-Benz High Power Charging, exists to try and take out the many uncomfortable headaches—like charging in remote, dirty and potentially unsafe locations—that no owner of a $100,000 luxury car wants to deal with. It opened its first 400-kilowatt charging hub at Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters in Sandy Springs, Georgia, last November. Since then, it has installed another 12 locations in the Southeast with convenience store giant Buc-ee’s. It plans to expand much further.

Cornelia said Mercedes-Benz HPC worked closely with Southern Company, one of the largest utility companies in the U.S., to meet an “ambitious timeline” to launch its first charging hub.

“We built a relationship with the Southern Company, where we initially saw transformer lead times of about 90 weeks. Through proactive collaboration, we were able to bring that down to 12 weeks,” Cornelia said. 

“It’s literally knowing the right person within these utilities. Having the right people who bring the expertise and the relationships to the table is critical to navigating the environment we live in.”

It also comes down to whether a state or individual utility is progressive and forward-thinking or not. “There’s always a natural lead time to developing critical infrastructure like EV charging,” Cornelia said. “What makes the difference between some providers and others is a clear commitment and a long-term vision of how to manage that.”

Affordable models are expected to spur the sales of EVs during the remainder of the decade. A ton of charging projects have also been announced recently, including the expansion of Electrify America and Mercedes-Benz HPC networks and the new Tesla-rivaling Ionna network from a consortium of seven automakers among others.

If EV sales and the charging networks have to grow with synergy, having a streamlined approval mechanism for chargers in every state is a necessity. Fifty years from now, we don’t want to say that we missed the window for combatting climate change purely because we couldn’t get the permits. 

Contact the author: suvrat.kothari@insideevs.com