Building an Electric Vehicle Fast Charger Is a Lot Harder Than It Seems

Electricity is everywhere, but getting the necessary permits, utility hookups, and other red tape is slowing down our EV infrastructure.
June 2, 2021, 1:00pm
Fast charger
FREDERIC J. BROWN / Contributor via Getty Images
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Fifteen years ago, Chris Nelder was working as a consultant in Marin County, California, helping to install solar panels. Just north of San Francisco, Marin County has some 20 different cities, towns, and unincorporated communities. And each one, Nelder said, had "its own tiny kingdom with its own tiny king." These kings had to give Nelder the necessary permits to install the solar panels.

The problem for Nelder was each little king ruled their little kingdom differently. To get a solar array installed in one town might require little more than filling out a standard form and a token application fee. But a few miles down the road, installing the same solar array might require complying with a thick guidebook of rules and regulations, triggering a multi-month or even years-long process. So Nelder made himself a series of cheat sheets. Across dozens of spreadsheets, Nelder detailed the exact process for each of the little kingdoms. 

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As the years went by, these cheat sheets became artifacts of how red tape and bureaucratic hoops are making the green energy transition slower and more expensive. 

In recent years, Nelder has undergone his own transition. He's currently manager of carbon-free mobility for the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute and creator of the podcast The Energy Transition Show and has worked on the deployment of EV chargers the same way he did solar panels. 

"I ran into exactly the same problems when I was in the solar business 15 years ago," Nelder told Motherboard. "And it really comes down to red tape."

Virtually everyone in the electric vehicle industry agrees the U.S. needs a lot more chargers. President Biden has set a goal of reaching 500,000 chargers nationwide by 2030, up from the roughly 100,000 currently available. Most of those chargers are Level 2 chargers which take five to eight hours to fully charge a vehicle. Level 2 chargers are perfect for homes, office buildings, and apartment complexes and are relatively cheap to install, but plugging into a Level 2 charger while you grab a bite to eat or go to the grocery store will only add a few miles of range. 

So when people talk about "public chargers," they typically mean direct current fast chargers, or DCFCs, the kind that, when working properly, can add more than a hundred miles of driving range in about 15 minutes to newer EVs (these numbers vary greatly by charging speed, battery size, and vehicle efficiency). According to EV database Atlas EV Hub, there are about 17,654 fast chargers in the U.S., although 55 percent of them are for Teslas only. 

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The problem, as Nelder found, is DCFCs are very expensive and very tricky to build. In a 2019 report, Nelder and his co-author Emily Rogers found DCFCs can cost as little as $20,000 for a 50kW unit to as much as $150,000 for a single 350kW charger. And much of that cost comes from time wasted sorting through red tape.

To be sure, DCFCs cost more in part because they're more complicated, intricate machines than Level 2 chargers, and costs will come down as demand goes up and more research and development improves the designs, just as it did for solar panels. But Nelder and Rogers found "the greatest opportunity for cost reduction lies in 'soft costs,'" another term for red tape and other bureaucratic inefficiencies. 

The problem, many in the EV industry say, is less about getting rid of bad regulations than updating, streamlining, and standardizing them for EV charger projects, which currently fall in between existing categories of projects and so are open to interpretation by local authorities, while also increasing transparency with utilities so EV charging companies have faster access to better information.  

Although these "soft costs" are poorly documented, they're widely understood in the industry to be a major expense. Jonathan Levy, chief commercial officer of EVgo, a major EV charging company, told Motherboard that installing a fast charger, from planning to deployment, typically takes seven to 18 months, even though actual construction is just four to eight weeks. 

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Nelder and Rogers's study, which was based on extensive interviews with two dozen EV charging companies and utilities, concluded that soft costs are one of the main reasons why EV charging stations cost three to five times more to install in the U.S. than in Germany, making the economics of the nascent industry that much more difficult. 

"A lot of people assume this is easier than they think," Levy said.

So, You Want to Install a Fast Charger

How can it possibly be so hard to install a fast charger? Before we go any further, it's important to make clear that time is money. Companies that build EV charging stations have to pay their staff whether they're actively building anything or earning money. Time spent sorting through a complicated web of regulations, permitting, and utility requirements, taken together, make any given site a potential headache at best and wasted effort at worst. 

Typically, fast chargers are put in a parking lot of an existing location like a shopping center, strip mall, or grocery store. Other times, real estate companies or local governments will be the "site host." In each of these cases, Levy said EVgo has its own internal process for choosing sites based on EVgo's existing network, seeing what types of locations tend to be highly used and which aren't, then picking locations that match that profile. It then conducts  its own site assessment to look at property boundaries, underground surveys to make sure they can install the necessary equipment without hitting anything, and a utility assessment to see what the electrical capacity is at the site. 

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The cheapest, quickest, and easiest method is to hook the EV chargers up to an existing utility panel for a nearby big retail store if one is available and the store gives permission. But that can only be done if it has enough electrical capacity, a less and less likely occurrence as chargers increase in energy demand from 50kW to 150kW and even 350kW per charger. For example, Nelder and Rogers reported a bank of six 150kW fast chargers requires almost a megawatt of power supply, roughly equivalent to that of a high-rise office building. Few stores will have that much excess capacity.

Nelder was emphatic that people need to get used to talking about and understanding electricity units rather than always having to come up with points of comparison. In that spirit, fast charging is incredibly energy-intensive. A typical microwave uses about 1 kW when on. A central air conditioner uses about 3.5 kW every hour. A Macbook Air charger uses 30 Watts. So one 150kW fast charger has the energy demand equivalent of 43 central air units, 150 microwaves, or 5,000 Macbook Airs. Many fast chargers are now capable of speeds up to 350 kW, equivalent to 100 central air conditioners, 350 microwaves or 11,666 MacBook Airs. Level 2 chargers max out at about 7.7 kW.

More likely, the EV chargers will have to be hooked up directly to the grid, either because the big box stores don't have the excess capacity or the EV charging company wants to build in more capacity than they think they'll need right now as a form of future-proofing the project.

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In that case, the EV company must now determine how much excess capacity there is at the nearest transformer, and if there isn't enough, to upgrade the transformer, an expense Nelder said could run up to $50,000.

Getting that information is hard enough. There are some 3,000 utilities in the country, each with its own method of determining excess capacity. Some have modern systems where an office worker can easily look up the necessary information (although too often, Levy says, they will simply report whether there is enough capacity at that transformer, not how much capacity there is, which would allow EVgo to maybe install a different number of chargers there accordingly). Others have to send a truck out to the location, have someone climb the utility pole, and plug into the transformer, which may or may not happen in a timely fashion. 

In some cases, the transformer is just the beginning of the problem, and the utility will determine there's not enough capacity not just at the transformer, but on the medium-voltage line connecting the transformer to the substation. Now you're looking at a million dollars to run a new feeder line. At this point, an EV charging company would have to think very hard about abandoning that particular site.

But let's say that doesn't happen, and at worst the transformer needs to be upgraded and all the issues with the utility are sorted. Now it's time to get permits.

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The first challenge is figuring out who issues the permits. In many cases, it will be a city or county building inspector. Sometimes, it's a state fire marshal. Or, if the charging site is at a university, it is the university itself. It could be a contractor for a small town who is only in the office three days a week, Levy said, in which case you can pretty much assume the project will be slowed down. Even with government entities that aren't relying on part-time contractors, Levy said many departments are understaffed and overworked, a situation made worse during the pandemic.

In any event, these are the same dynamics—and, typically, the very same people—Nelder encountered when installing solar panels, the tiny kings with their tiny kingdoms. And permits can be sent back with requested revisions for any number of reasons; they don't like the landscaping, they might want the curb set back a few more feet, or they might want adjustments to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

The ADA is federal law, but it is locally enforced, and many people interpret the law differently. For example, the ADA requires a certain number of parking spaces be designated as handicapped parking, and the law, which was written long before EV chargers were a thing, isn't clear on how to count EV charging spaces. Do they count as their own parking lot within the larger parking lot, or are EV parking spaces part of the larger lot? How do Level 2 chargers count? The ADA requires a clear path from the parking space to the destination, but in the case of EV charging spaces, is the "destination" the chargers or the big box store? Each local official will interpret these and many other questions differently.

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If revisions are needed, then the EV company has to resubmit the application, which likely means it sits in a queue with all the other applications. In rarer cases, they also have to take it to a zoning or planning board. Levy said EVgo has even had to conduct traffic studies for local municipalities worried about the congestion effects of a few EV chargers being put in a parking lot.

Is that enough red tape for you? Too bad, there's even more. It's likely the utility will need an easement on the charging location—utilities often have easements so they can, say, inspect meters or conduct maintenance—which then has to be coordinated with the property owner. In most locations with fast chargers, the property owner isn't the big box store but the owner of the shopping park. That owner may not want to grant the utility an easement for whatever reason, or at least have questions and concerns, which slows the project down more. 

And all of this is before a shovel has even hit the ground. Should the EV company finally be able to build, it will likely have to pause at multiple points for building inspectors to approve the construction, the utility to energize the site, and so on. You can see these construction pauses in EVgo's time lapses of various fast charging construction sites.

How to Make This Better

When I asked Levy what his wish list is to make this process less of a headache, he replied, "That's a long wish list." 

Laws can help, but only to a point. Six years ago, California passed AB 1236, which was supposed to address this exact problem, creating an expedited and streamlined process for permitting EV chargers by limiting reviews to health and safety issues. 

That sounds good on paper, so I asked Levy if this is the reason California alone has one third of all the chargers in the U.S. But he said it's not. Many local authorities still have no idea AB 1236 exists or what it says, and others just straight up ignore it. A recent report by Canary Media, an independent news organization reporting on the energy transition, found EV permits have actually taken longer to approve in California in recent years. 

For his part, Nelder said the EV charging industry needs the equivalent of the Tracking the Sun project, an annual report put out by the Berkeley Lab of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. This report tracks the costs of solar installation over time and identifies best practices and next steps to improve the process, including steps that could be taken on the federal level. The Obama administration's SunShot Initiative worked in conjunction with NREL to identify soft costs as a major reason solar was more expensive to install in the U.S. versus Germany and identify best practices to bring those costs down. That being said, soft costs remain stubbornly high on residential and commercial rooftop solar projects, accounting for more than half of the project cost now that the price of materials have plummeted. But, soft costs have gone down significantly for utility-scale solar projects.

Currently, nobody is doing anything like this cost-tracking for EV charging. Instead, there are a number of private companies independently navigating a tangled web of local governments and utilities in whatever way they can with only limited guidance from state and federal authorities. Just as helpful as billions of dollars in subsidies would be a federal, centralized effort to hack through this dense web to forge a clear path everyone can follow. When Nelder asked NREL to at the very least study and track the issue like they did with solar, he said he was, quite appropriately for the subject, directed down a bureaucratic rabbit hole in which the proposal got passed between different departments and infighting about whose jurisdiction it would be. Ultimately, the idea went nowhere.

It is relatively early days for the EV charging industry and the laws governing their rollout. Currently, EV charging projects are largely shoehorned into processes that weren't designed for them. It will get better, but, in the realm of the clean energy transition where, just like in fast charging, speed is of the essence, the question is how quickly that will happen.