Collaboration and transparency pioneered in solar interconnections can fast-start delayed transportation electrification ambitions

Gasoline-fueled vehicles would not get far without easy-to-access gas stations and, for the same reason, electric vehicles (EV) will need easy-to-access charging stations for the U.S to transform its transportation system.

Transportation electrification is widely seen as crucial to decarbonizing the U.S. economy. But charging vendors say avoiding utility interconnection delays is necessary to maximize EV deployment. Such delays remain common, they add, but best interconnection practices are emerging

Best interconnection practices begin with the utility making clear what information it needs to prepare the site, charger builders told Utility Dive. Utilities must also be clear about when the site will be ready for installation of the charging infrastructure. Finally, charger builders and utilities must have clear channels of communication throughout the process.

Interconnection challenges

“One of the first things EV buyers want to know is where charging stations are,” EVgo Executive Vice President of Business Development Julie Blunden told Utility Dive. With 1,100 chargers in 66 metropolitan markets, EVgo has seen “tremendous uptake” in both EVs and public charging, but resolving utility interconnection issues is “critical” to maintaining that pace, she said.

“California needs 7 million electric vehicles by 2030 to meet its climate goals, and we need to move faster to make charging infrastructure available for that transportation electrification.”

Katie Sloan Director of eMobility, Southern California Edison”Bottlenecks” in interconnection have delayed projects anywhere from six months to “well over a year,” said Blunden. But it’s not just charging station vendors who want more build-outs sooner. Some utilities are also pushing for quicker deployment.

“California needs 7 million electric vehicles by 2030 to meet its climate goals, and we need to move faster to make charging infrastructure available for that transportation electrification,” Southern California Edison(SCE) Director of eMobility Katie Sloan told Utility Dive.

Though some utilities have been obstructive, SCE’s interconnection procedures “have evolved into best practices,” according to Blunden. Its procedures include clear application requirements, predictable timelines and access to utility authorities when clarifications are needed.

As EV penetrations rise, other utilities “can leapfrog some of the trial and error by using those best practices,” said Ram Ambatipudi​, vice president of business development and utility engagement at EV Connect, an EV charging company.

The streamlining of distributed solar interconnections demonstrated the problem-solving potential of utility-private sector collaborations, utility spokespeople and charger vendors told Utility Dive, and stakeholders could take those lessons and apply them to current EV charging challenges.

Though EV charging interconnections can be more complicated, the opportunity for new utility revenue streams makes collaboration “a win-win,” Blunden said. More charging will allow the EV industry to thrive and utility involvement could mean growth in electricity demand.

The need

EV sales momentum is accelerating. By the end of January this year, the U.S had sold over 1.1 million plug-in vehicles and California had sold over half a million, according to tracking from industry trade organization Veloz.

A 2018 Executive Order from California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, set a goal of 5 million zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) and 250,000 public chargers, including 10,000 direct current fast chargers (DCFCs), by 2030.

The state had 14,000 public charging stations, including 1,500 DCFCs, by the end of 2017, according to a 2018 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report.

Most public charging stations have multiple level two (L2) ports, which provide charging at twice the rate of home ports that deliver a full charge in about eight hours. DCFCs draw current even faster and can charge an EV battery in 30 minutes.

The market needs both L2 and DCFC charging stations much sooner than Brown proposed, NREL reported to the California Energy Commission(CEC) in March 2018. To reach just 1.3 million EVs in 2025, California needs between 229,000 and 279,000 chargers, including 9,000 to 25,000 DCFCs.

“We added six stations in six weeks in SCE’s territory because it has become very competent in the process elements, but not all utilities make that possible.”

Julie Blunden EVP of Business Development, EVgo For the 7 million EVs SCE sees as necessary by 2030 for California to achieve its climate goals, the utility estimates the state will need about 350,000 ‘away-from-home’ ports located in public areas.

California’s U.S.-leading EV growth made it one of the first to discover the challenges of charging station interconnections. With the growth of demand for EVs, emerging markets are now beginning to look at their interconnection procedures. An example is the Washington, D.C. metro area.

Exelon subsidiary Pepco, which serves parts of D.C. and Maryland, is now piloting a charging station program with 187 L2s and DCFCs, PEPCO Manager for Smart Grid and Technology Rob Stewart told Utility Dive. It will soon add 1,000 chargers in support of Maryland’s 2025 goal to deploy 300,000 EVs and 5,000 charging stations, and is “actively developing best practices,” Stewart said.

Charger providers and utilities need to work as “allies,” EVgo’s Blunden said. “We added six stations in six weeks in SCE’s territory because it has become very competent in the process elements, but not all utilities make that possible.”

Delays impose financial pain on charger vendors when revenues are held up until the utility completes and electrifies the station, EV Connect’s Ambatipudi added. “It is more from inexperience than irresponsibility, but learning best practices can prevent repeating the same mistakes.”

California’s significant need for charging

Best practices

Only SCE and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) “are dealing with interconnections at scale today,” EVgo’s Blunden said. “What is needed is basic transparency about the process steps, the timelines and what is needed from the charger company. SCE has a published a flowchart that is explicit about those elements.”

Transparency cannot eliminate inevitable delays in construction, but it can reduce charger vendor-utility tensions, she added.

EVgo asked PG&E for an equivalent version of SCE’s flowchart, but didn’t feel the timeline was as well laid out, something “critical” to their operations, said Blunden, while acknowledging PG&E is currently tied up in a bankruptcy proceeding that has put it in a “legitimately difficult situation.”

EV Connect’s Ambatipudi agreed, but added that PG&E has “retooled its program” and expects to deploy “a lot more charging stations this year.”

Since September 2017, PG&E has installed 644 public L2 ports and 446 DCFCs and has over 2,800 L2 ports and over 1,300 DCFCs queued, PG&E spokesperson Paul Doherty emailed Utility Dive.

Collaboration is critical “because the customer’s focus is on their needs and aesthetics, while our focus is the utility infrastructure requirements.”

Katie Sloan Director of eMobility, Southern California Edison

When there was less charging on PG&E’s distribution system, safe interconnections were often possible without hardware upgrades, Doherty said. To meet new demand for chargers requiring system upgrades, PG&E is working “to standardize interconnection procedures” but also “to balance the speed of interconnection” with “safety and reliability.”

Charger providers who are “fully prepared with site details often are interconnected the most quickly,” he said. Unplanned changes made during construction, like relocating chargers to be nearer substations or nearer handicapped-accessible parking, can “set the interconnection timelines back considerably.”

Both SCE and PG&E have effectively engaged with the transportation electrification industry “to expedite interconnections,” Ambatipudi said. EV Connect’s installation of over 3,000 ports in the course of a decade also “went smoothly” with ConEd and National Grid in New York, as well as Sacramento and Imperial County public utilities in California.

SCE’s detailed flowchart and timeline
Credit: Southern California Edison (used with permission)

Collaboration

SCE has built and interconnected 1,000 public charging ports as part of its Charge Ready pilot, most of which are L2s, Sloan said. About 300 private vendor interconnections are completed or pending. Its $760 million proposal for a four-year infrastructure build-out of 48,000 more charger ports awaits regulatory approval.

SCE has a planning team that works directly with customers’ engineers on location, design and construction, giving them “one single point of contact at the utility,” Sloan said.

Collaboration is critical “because the customer’s focus is on their needs and aesthetics, while our focus is the utility infrastructure requirements,” she said. The utility is focused on the least-cost project, but “if the customer wants a more expensive choice, we do it if it is technically feasible.”

“Like SCE, utilities need to be properly staffed and have processes in place. Charger companies can make the process better by using standard specifications that meet utility requirements.”

Ram Ambatipudi​ VP of business development and utility engagement, EV Connect The Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) process also begins with utility-vendor collaboration. “Working with the utility often results in savings for the charging company because we know where electrical access is cheapest,” SMUD Supervisor of Electric Transportation Bill Boycesaid.

SCE operates under a three-stage process: project design, construction and energization. A similar process of collaboration is described across multiple power providers Utility Dive spoke to, including SMUD, PG&E and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E).

Interconnection times vary, but “best-case scenarios” may take three to six months, Doherty said. With complications, that timing could double or triple, he added. SDG&E interconnections generally take between six and 12 weeks, said SDG&E spokesperson Helen Gao.

Coordination is the key, said EV Connect’s Ambatipudi. “Like SCE, utilities need to be properly staffed and have processes in place. Charger companies can make the process better by using standard specifications that meet utility requirements.”

The main thing charger vendors can do is “engage early and often with the utility about the plans it is making,” SCE’s Sloan said. “The sooner the utility knows what and where the charger provider wants to build, the sooner we can be ready.”

But other delays are beyond the control of utilities or vendors.

The solar solution and beyond

Siting and interconnection issues can create tension between the utility and the vendor, but “delayed permit approvals from [authorities having jurisdiction] are a much bigger factor in project implementation,” EV Connect’s Ambatipudi said.

SCE sped up this part of the process by understanding how to “navigate” permitting agencies and meet their requirements, “and our experience with solar may show how to do even better,” SCE’s Sloan said.

“Rooftop solar interconnections initially took a few months and now take a few days,” she said. “We cannot complete charger installations in a few days, but we can make interconnections more routine, which is something that we learned in solar.”

“…an EV charger interconnection is more like a 2 MW solar array. And interconnecting DCFCs will be an order of magnitude more challenging.”

Bill Boyce Supervisor of Electric Transportation, SMUD  The California Solar Initiative guidebook “includes timelines for solar installers and utilities,” Blunden said. “Utilities can use that example to reduce interconnection and permitting delays, as they did for solar.”

The solar industry accelerated permit approvals by convincing key agencies to adopt a comprehensive standard policy, Ambatipudi said. “That kind of coordination between [authorities having jurisdiction] and the private sector can happen again.”

Residential rooftop solar interconnections got much faster at SMUD when they became “standard and repetitive,” Boyce said. “But an EV charger interconnection is more like a 2 MW solar array. And interconnecting DCFCs will be an order of magnitude more challenging.”

Pepco is transferring its utility industry-leading solar interconnection process to charger interconnections, Stewart said. “But we’ll have to get engineering involved for the bigger loads that come with fast charger interconnections.”

SMUD and SCE are also anticipating challenges from interconnecting the much bigger loads from medium- and heavy-duty vehicle fast-charging. An SCE medium- and heavy-duty vehicle pilot will launch this year and the utility is working with fleet operators now “to better understand the significant differences in the bigger loads,” Sloan said. “We expect a lot of learning.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named how many EV charging stations EV Connect has installed and misrepresented Sloan’s title. EV Connect has installed 3,000 chargers and Katie Sloan is the director of eMobility at SCE.