Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | We must overhaul dysfunctional municipal permitting systems and utility connection processes if we expect to install close to 7 million electric vehicle charging stations by 2035.
There’s a fabulous amount of federal money that’s been allocated to expand the nation’s EV charging infrastructure. While the rollout has been painfully slow, eventually states and local governments will be able to access these funds. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that there’s not nearly enough understanding from federal, state or local policymakers on how dysfunctional municipal permitting systems and utility connection processes are today. For a program that’s already been slow to launch, it’s about to slam into systems that are already struggling, even before we need to dramatically ramp up capacity.
In just the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, there’s $7.5 billion in funding to improve the country’s charging infrastructure, and the private sector will invest many billions more. The Union of Concerned Scientists projects that we’ll need close to 7 million new charging locations by 2035, spread across public and residential locations. That’s compared to perhaps 100,000 chargers in place now. That would be a 500% increase—challenging even for a smoothly functioning system.
COVID-19 forced local governments to work remotely, so they must finally be moving into the modern digital era, right? As someone who tried (and often failed) to convince local governments to adopt low-cost, easy-to-use, streamlined permitting technology, I am sad to say that’s not usually the case.
The Current Baseline
To add 7 million chargers, millions and millions of permits and utility connections will have to flow through a system that’s already clogged. A sidewalk-based charging station might need an electrical permit, a building permit, an encroachment permit for construction in the public right of way as well as a new or updated connection to a utility’s power system. Has your experience getting permits for a home renovation been a happy, streamlined, efficient process? Now multiply that by 7 million.
There’s an entire industry of “expediters” that exists because permit processes are slow, opaque and mind-blowingly archaic in many locations. And governments and utilities struggle to source and schedule enough inspectors and installers. Again, that’s before we ask our creaky local systems to process millions more permits and connections over the next 10 years. We may end up with a scenario where only huge corporations own and operate charging stations because they’re the only ones able to stomach the time and expense of getting permits.
Existing Technology and Regulations Are Part of the Problem
Whether it’s a custom-built system or an older generation software as a service, or SaaS, product, local government permitting technology is usually broken. Modern, mobile-friendly, customer-facing interfaces are rare, and performance management tools are an afterthought if they exist at all. SaaS products are expensive, cumbersome and charge governments ridiculous fees to adapt and upgrade systems. Governments often pay millions per year for subpar technology. But because the perceived switching cost to better cloud-based tech is high, governments stick with what they know, despite the waste of money, time and goodwill.
Do you think I’m exaggerating? Nationally, it takes an average of 60 days for permits to be issued—and an average of close to 80 days in California—and some even take up to a year to be issued. Recognizing the problem, California legislators proposed a bill that targets a five-day approval period (which some forward-thinking municipalities have as their average). That bill, first introduced in 2015 hasn’t had much support because it doesn’t help municipalities move beyond their current limitations.
We have to do better. There have been some improvements in process for the highest-level, federal permits for large-scale energy projects, but that won’t do much to help with local permit processes. Tens of thousands of municipalities and counties shouldn’t be left to figure this out alone because few local governments have the internal technology sophistication to build (or even purchase) truly best-in-class technology.
Sadly, we can’t look to SolarApp+ as a model either. The U.S. Department of Energy’s pilot program to speed rooftop solar permitting is barely off the ground after many years of development and planning, and it relies on the goodwill of permitting software companies to integrate with it.
We can’t even put charging stations at public rest stops or other seemingly obvious locations because existing federal regulations prohibit commercial activity at highway rest stops.
What Can Jumpstart the EV Charging Permitting Process?
First, remove the prohibition on commercial activity at interstate highway rest stops.
Second, fund EV charger-specific connection acceleration programs at key utilities.
Third, take a tiny portion of the funds that are slated for the actual charging infrastructure—a minuscule percentage of the billions on the table—and build a standardized, open source, standalone permitting system purpose-built for EV charging. The funding could come from the feds, but a better option would be through a new public-private partnership supported by agencies and investors. A recent report from Cornell Tech highlights examples of these kinds of collaborative development efforts from around the world. A nimble software development team could create a permitting platform in time to help improve EV charging infrastructure timelines.
Any new tool should be modular and include cloud-based software that governments can use for free. No strings, no limitations on use. The project should open source the code so that, if governments have the capacity, they could replace parts of their existing systems with the new modern code.
This permitting app should be built quickly with design-focused user research. It should feature modern computer vision technology and AI image recognition that make it easier for inspectors to get their jobs done.
Jurisdictions that use the new system (or that meet aggressive efficiency timelines without it) should be rewarded, and funds should be withheld from the ones that don’t.
For governments who won’t or can’t give up their clunky existing technology, any new solution should export data in formats easily ingestible by those old systems. Agencies should even consider paying legacy tech firms and teams to create APIs and new ways to bring new data into their old systems of records until they can be replaced.
We’ve seen from California’s efforts to streamline permitting, jurisdictions will mostly ignore attempts to gently modernize them, and we don’t have an extra 20 years to wait for their technology to improve. Nor should huge sums (as has happened with housing permitting change requests in California) continue to go to private sector operators who lock governments into their systems and overcharge for platform updates.
Let’s build a national, standardized EV permitting system and technology, give it to every jurisdiction in the country, put charging stations at every rest stop and save everyone years of stress and wasted energy.
Catherine Geanuracos builds companies, technologies, programs and teams that respond to the most urgent issues of our times. She was a private sector government technology CEO and founder, providing no-code workflow software used for real-time digital transformation in jurisdictions serving more than 6 million people. Find her on Linked In.
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