Red tape is holding back the EV transition

Charging infrastructure is getting held up by local bureaucracy, creating a conundrum for would-be EV drivers.

An EV charger in a parking lot with the text altered on the LED screen to say "EV charging has (sorta) arrived."

Lengthy administrative processes are causing significant delays as EV charging companies and local businesses seek to provide access to charging.

Photo illustration: Kena Betancur/VIEW press/Getty Images; Protocol

Building out charging infrastructure as quickly as possible has never been more critical to getting people in electric vehicles.

Yet as states and the federal government embark on ambitious plans to transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles, local government bureaucracies often stand in the way. From acquiring multiple permits to zoning requirements, lengthy administrative processes are causing significant delays as EV charging companies and local businesses seek to provide access to charging. That could slow down EV adoption at a time when the climate crisis depends on getting more of them on the road.

“Internal combustion engines, in California, cannot be sold after 2035. The same [is true] for Massachusetts and New York, so we have a necessity to speed it up,” said Brendan Jones, president of EV charging company Blink Charging.

While some permitting delays are of legitimate concern, such as ensuring that charging stations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, others can be due to multiple municipal agencies reviewing permit applications sequentially instead of simultaneously, the absence of a permitting checklist detailing the process and even stalling approvals that have used electronic signatures instead of ink.

According to a forecast from Boston Consulting Group, up to 68% of new vehicles sold in the U.S. could be battery-electric by 2035. That forecast was made before the Inflation Reduction Act passed the House and Senate, which would extend EV tax credits for new vehicles and introduce ones for used vehicles. Policies aimed at expanding EV charging are also tipping the scales.

The Biden administration is set to dole out $7.5 billion in funding for states to build out charging infrastructure as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. The administration has also set a goal for EVs to make up 50% of new vehicle sales and to have 500,000 chargers in the ground by 2030.

There are various types of charging infrastructure, each with its own level of complexity. A Level 1 charger — that is, the slowest type of charger — can be installed in about an hour in someone’s home without requiring complex permitting applications. Relatively faster Level 2 chargers often found at office complexes, parking garages and condo complexes generally take up to four weeks to gain approval before construction begins.

But the lengthiest wait times are for permitting direct current fast charging infrastructure, such as Tesla’s Superchargers. It can take several months before local officials give construction the green light. Those also often require a separate administrative process to be cleared with a local utility company because a transformer might be required. After that, it is a multiweek process to get that infrastructure in the ground.

Tesla cars line up to wait for an open charging bay. Tesla cars line up to wait for an open charging bay in Nephi, Utah. Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

“Typically with a DC fast charger, if you get one done in six months, from site identification to installation, you're doing a good job. It is typically about nine months and sometimes 12 months, if you have delays in permitting,” said Jones. “You have some jurisdictions that are just diabolically long in permitting, and you have to deal with it. California, New Jersey, parts of Florida, it takes a really long time to get permitting through them.”

DC fast charging is essential to combatting range anxiety, a top factor keeping people from taking the EV plunge. The Biden administration has touted DC fast charging — which can add 100 miles of range in an hour — as one of the keys to ensuring drivers can get from coast to coast without having to worry about being stranded.

An executive at a leading EV charging company told Protocol that a charging station project in a Virginia town was still languishing in permitting “for over a year with 13 or 14 rounds of comments, each one after the other and each coming up after a new office has had to review and give their stamp.” The executive did not want to reveal the name of the town because the company was still doing business in the area. “Each jurisdiction has their own rules and interprets national rules and codes their own way so we just have to kind of go with it,” they said.

States such as California have taken some steps to cut red tape and reduce delays. In 2021, the state legislature passed a new law to ensure that “local agencies [do] not adopt ordinances that create unreasonable barriers to the installation of electric vehicle charging stations.”

The new law requires local authorities to vet applications within five business days for sites where 25 or fewer charging plugs are to be built. Applications are deemed complete if there are no responses in that time frame, and the project is considered approved if local officials do not communicate any concerns to applicants within 20 business days.

Some cities are also racing to address permitting issues. A new bill under consideration in New York City would require all new parking lots and garages to have at least 60% of their spaces be capable of charging an EV. That would provide regulatory certainty for new garages and speed the build out of charging infrastructure there.

Ramping up permitting speed for chargers is critical to bringing about mass EV adoption. While the first generation of EV owners were relatively wealthy, could charge at home and were willing to endure inconveniences that came with owning a novelty car, the next wave of EV buyers will be looking for convenience. And without it, switching from vehicles powered by gas to ones powered by electricity would be a “more difficult sell,” said Marcy Bauer, senior vice president at EVgo.

“We have to have chargers where people need and want to be,” Bauer said. “We have to have them there just before they need them. Otherwise, they are not going to purchase the car or lease the car at all.”

The EV transition hinges on clearing up administrative kinks to infrastructure installed where it’s needed. “We have the tools we need to accomplish it, but we don’t have time,” Bauer said.

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