Red Tape Surrounds EVs

By Published On: November 5, 2010

California policymakers push electric vehicles, but after the handshake at the auto dealership, buyers face a costly and time-consuming process. That’s because unlike other vehicles, electric autos can’t simply be taken home and fueled up at the corner gas station when they run low. Instead, new electric vehicle owners have to get a vehicle charger installed, a time consuming and sometimes expensive task that can cost thousands of dollars. Installing a charger is not like plugging in a new appliance. It’s more like altering the structure of a home, requiring a permit and coordination with the local utility. To streamline the process--both Chevrolet, for its plug-in hybrid electric Volt, and Nissan, for its pure-electric LEAF--have teamed up with companies to offer turnkey charger installation for their customers. That may help speed the process, but not until California’s 481 incorporated cities and 58 counties get up to speed. Right now, in Southern California Edison territory--considered ground zero for the electric vehicle market--it takes between 32 to 50 days to install a vehicle charger, according to Steven Powell, the utility’s strategic planning manager for plug-in vehicle readiness. Edison’s work on installations takes about one-third of that time, according to Powell. Basically, Edison and utilities need to be involved for two reasons, according to Powell and other utility managers. First, they need to see if there will be any distribution system impacts in neighborhoods where people buy electric vehicles. Upgrades, particularly of transformers, may be required to prevent system overloads, particularly when clusters of electric vehicles appear--such as more than one in a neighborhood. Vehicle charging can draw as much power as a whole house. Second, because Edison and other utilities want to encourage night-time charging to hold down peak loads, they often need to install separate meters for the chargers so they can bill for the power electric vehicles consume under time-of-use rates. Those rates, which are higher during the day than at night, are designed to encourage night-time charging. The other two-thirds of the time it takes to install a vehicle charger results from building permit reviews at city and county halls, as well as customers dealing with electrical contractors. Looking ahead, most agree that it’s important to streamline the charger installation process, particularly as the number of electric vehicles grows. Sacramento Municipal Utility District electric transportation supervisor Bill Boyce expects the popularity of electric vehicles to grow along a similar trajectory seen over the past 10 years with conventional hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius. Edison alone, according to Powell, expects as many as 100,000 electric cars within its service territory by 2015 and between 400,000 and 500,000 by 2020. Accommodating the first 100,000 is likely to necessitate only distribution system upgrades, he said. After that, the utility is likely to start employing smart charging technologies. That includes, for instance, communications capabilities between the utility and chargers to disable them during peak demand periods in order to manage load. In preparation for the expansion, Powell said Edison is aiming to improve the installation time to between one and two weeks through better coordination between the utility and installers, plus quicker permit processing and job site inspection by local governments. Ultimately, he hopes to whittle down the time to between two and three days with electrical installers handling virtually everything for the customer. City permit reviewers have little in the way of up-to-date guidance on how devices should be installed. They likely have to approach each new vehicle charger by reading and figuring out how to apply the National Electrical Code, according to Craig Childers, California Air Resources Board air resources engineer. Soon, he said, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Electric Power Research Institute, and Pacific Gas & Electric plan to come out with simple guideline documents that will make it easier for city and county staff to issue and sign off on permits for vehicle chargers. Even then, Childers notes, it will take time for all local government building departments to come up to speed on electric vehicle chargers. To identify how the state can aid cities and others involved to streamline their processes for electric vehicle purchasers, the Air Board engineer pointed to a report due out next month that’s expected to outline recommendations to better ready the state for electric vehicles. A multi-organization task force, known as the California Plug-in Electric Vehicle Collaborative, is drafting the document. It includes automakers, state agencies, such as the Air Board and California Energy Commission, utilities, and others who need to cooperate in establishing the infrastructure for charging electric vehicles. Cities are all over the map when it comes to processing charger installation permits, say observers. Some, according to Childers, have expedited permitting processes in which electricians can fill out applications on the web from their smart phones while standing at a job site. Fees vary by city, he added. Other cities seem uncertain how to handle applications, notes Leo Galcher, who heads the Electric Vehicle Association of Southern California, a group of electric transportation enthusiasts. Galcher said his city, San Clemente, didn’t know anything about installing a charger when he inquired. It had no standard forms to fill out and no permit fee it could quote, he said. It led him to question why a city permit is needed at all to install a charger, particularly since the automakers all have agreed to use a standard plug for charging. The standard plug benefits consumers by enabling a competitive market for chargers--and for installing them--since the equipment is not proprietary. Electric vehicle buyers may decide to simply pay a vehicle maker’s turnkey installer, but they probably can save money by shopping around for their own charger and installer, noted Childers. Another hurdle for many prospective electric vehicle buyers is that the charging stations are difficult to install in multiple unit dwelling garages. For instance, in condominium complexes where many upscale motorists may want to purchase electric vehicles, charger installations likely require condominium board approval, as well as an okay at city hall. That’s if they can be installed at all. Thirty-five percent of Californians live in multiple-unit housing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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