Connect the Watts™ – Working Hand-In-Hand with Utility Partners

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By Marcy Bauer, Senior Vice President of Program Delivery and Gerald Cabrera, Senior Director of Grid Integration at EVgo
May 19, 2022

You’re probably acutely aware that the computer or phone or iPad you’re reading this blog post on is powered by electricity, and that electricity may have been generated by a gust of wind or photovoltaic panels soaking up the sun. The electric grid and the network of utilities that power our society is massive, complex, and key to enabling the shift to electric vehicles (EVs).

EVgo started the Connect the Watts™ initiative to bring together all the spokes in the electrification flywheel: utilities, public funding agencies, local permitting authorities, retail site host partners, equipment suppliers, and automakers — to work together to make this vision of mass adoption of EVs a reality. Through Connect the Watts, EVgo works collaboratively across the EV ecosystem to develop and define best practices, policies, and organizational approaches to break down barriers and deploy EV chargers at the speed needed to stay ahead of EV adoption.

This blog is part of a new series that will highlight what’s happening on the ground and provide specific examples of progress throughout the EV charging flywheel. Part one in our series focuses on utilities.

Working with utilities is one critical part of the ecosystem for companies like EVgo to deploy more EV fast charging so you and your neighbors can all make the switch to driving electric. The truth of the matter is that transportation electrification is new to a lot of utilities, who have to keep doing their critical work of keeping the lights on while providing electricity for a segment of the economy that has previously been out of their purview—transportation.

We need to deploy charging infrastructure faster than ever before, which requires utilities to learn from each other and the EV charging industry writ large to tackle the 5 key barriers we will address in this blog post—easements, equipment inventory, dedicated staffing, design approval processes, and feasibility study challenges.

Over the past few years, EVgo has issued a number of best practices documents to share our decade plus of experience building out fast charging. In our Utilities Best Practices publication, we identified five areas of improvement for utilities looking to lead the way on transportation electrification:

  1. Improve the Easement Process

  2. Maintain an Inventory of Utility Equipment

  3. Dedicate Design and Construction Staff

  4. Streamline Utility Design Approvals

  5. Improve the Feasibility Study Phase

To put the importance of speed into perspective, consider that while DC Fast Charger (DCFC) installations may often result in similar load profiles to larger construction projects, the timeframe for designing, permitting, and installing chargers is much faster: 2-6 weeks for DCFC projects, compared to 12+ months for new commercial construction. Putting these new projects in the same queue as new commercial construction projects for capacity checks and utility design results in unnecessary delays at the start of projects, which ripple out to create even more delays throughout the project timelines. We have to move more quickly.

Below, we explore the best practices to do just that and highlight some of the achievements of particular utility partners across the country. While some of these best practices may not seem as sexy as charging a Rivian at 500 amps, their implementation is necessary to power the electrification revolution and decrease our nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions – transportation.

Improve the Easement Process

Easements are documents that give utilities the right to access portions of privately owned land that run over, under or directly adjacent to utility service lines and equipment. That may sound complicated, but the truth is that there are utility easements all over the place. Easements authorize utilities to perform the maintenance, repairs and upgrades needed to ensure uninterrupted electricity to the chargers. In other words, if you have utility electrical equipment on your property, you want to give the utility access so they can fix it if need be. But that traditionally has required a contract, which is even less fun than talking about utility processes. The process of negotiating easement language between utilities and property owners is time- and resource-consuming, and it can create significant delays throughout what could be fast construction projects.

EVgo has successfully implemented two alternatives to easements that allow utilities to access their service lines and equipment when needed. While adoption of these alternatives has been limited, utilities across the U.S. should consider them to expedite projects. One alternative to easements is the Access Agreement approach. An Access Agreement is a short paragraph included in the contract between the property manager and EVgo, in which the property owner formally grants permission for the utility to enter and alter the affected part of the property for maintenance of lines and equipment, including tree trimming and other activities that the easement enables and protects. Access Agreements can eliminate anywhere from a few weeks to 6+ months of EV charger project timelines. EVgo consulted with several real estate and utility stakeholders to outline sample language for Access Agreements, which we included in the Utilities Best Practices publication.

In California, EVgo has successfully implemented the Access Agreement approach with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). EVgo has more than 20 projects slated for construction and commissioning in 2022 under Access Agreements, and we have worked on contract language with a third utility outside of California that will enable them to accept this approach as well.

In cases where the Access Agreement is not feasible, the next best option is to empower EVgo to create the easement land description and exhibits for the utility. This creates a “fast lane” for easements which can eliminate months of delay from project timelines and eases utility land and right-of-way departments resources.

Maintain an Inventory of Utility Equipment

Typically, utility equipment is made to order for each project, which can significantly lengthen project timelines. For example, transformers can take 20+ weeks or longer for utilities to obtain, even though the equipment is often the same or similar from project to project. To facilitate rather than slow down deployments, utilities should maintain an inventory of transformers, meter pans, etc., and/or implement trigger ordering of equipment once assigned, which will speed up the equipment timeline.

Recently, delays have been exacerbated by broader supply chain shortages, including transformers, current transformers (CTs), and meters. One active EVgo project has been done with construction but waiting to be energized for over 3 months due to the utility’s inability to procure a CT. In another example, a utility has shared an expected lead time of 1-2-years to obtain pad mounted transformers. Inventory management can go a long way to meeting all of our collective electrification goals.

Dedicate Design and Construction Staff & Streamline Utility Design Approvals

To streamline project timelines and EV utility design approvals, utilities should dedicate a team with a single point of contact who has familiarity with DCFC installation to large accounts. In some utility territories, EVgo has 5-10+ active projects going through the utility process, with 5-20 more in early stages of utility engagement for feasibility and design checks. When projects are assigned to managers on an individual basis, they can change hands multiple times over their life cycle. Having a single point of contact to liaise with the EVSE can expedite problem solving through the design-build process and pass along learnings from each deployment to speed the process further. *

Southern California Edison (SCE), PG&E, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), and Dominion are premier examples of successfully implementing EV-dedicated design and construction resources, along with dedicated staffing.

Improve the Feasibility Study Phase

A feasibility study is conducted by the utility to confirm power availability and identify likely points of interconnection for a proposed EV charger project. However, not all utilities conduct a feasibility study, and without them, a project risks needing to be redesigned much later in the process once reviewed by the utility. Redesigns can add 8-10 weeks to the project schedule, and potentially cascade into additional delays from securing host re-approvals for revised charger placement and/or permit revisions.

In our Utilities Best Practices publication we highlight SCE’s dedicated resources to conduct field verification reviews, which take approximately 14 days. We also highlight PG&E’s dedicated assessment process to outline capacity constraints and point of interconnect, which takes approximately 30 days. Now, we’d like to highlight Salt River Project Power and Water in Arizona, XCEL Energy in Colorado, Seattle City Light in Washington, Puget Sound Energy in Washington and Oncor in Texas, which have allocated engineering resources to provide feasibility studies for projects within their territory.

As more and more new EV models hit the road, each day/week spent gathering approvals becomes that much more critical. EVgo is on track to at least quadruple the number of utility engineering requests submitted in 2022 compared to 2021. Demand for feasibility reviews, design and easement solutions, equipment procurement, and construction coordination will only continue to grow as EV adoption rapidly increases.

EVgo is grateful to the utilities mentioned above for leading the way to improve and accelerate the process to deploy charging infrastructure. We hope to feature additional utility partners in our best practices documents as they incorporate and improve upon these examples—and every other utility can learn about these best practices and more by plugging into Connect the Watts™. As the nation transitions to electric transportation, everyone must work together to accelerate the roll out of EV charging infrastructure faster than ever before. Both the planet and our rapidly evolving transportation sector demand it.

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*Acknowledgments

EVgo would like to acknowledge a few EV-dedicated utility points of contact who have helped expedite installation timelines including Monica Vona of PECO; Mark Pintauro of Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG); Adam Goldbach of Duquesne Light Company; Kathleen Staples of Dominion; Juan Mejia of PG&E; Patty Munoz of SCE; and Michael Fuller of SDG&E.