Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - June 14, 2013

Charging ahead

Palo Alto works to streamline permitting process for EV chargers

by Elena Kadvany

In environmentally conscious Palo Alto, electric cars are on the rise.

And because every electric car needs a charger, more and more Palo Altans are choosing to install a charger of their own at home, putting a spotlight on the city's permitting process for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

Sven Thesen, an energy and electric-vehicle consultant who previously ran Pacific Gas and Electric Company's car department, has installed two chargers at his Palo Alto home — one for private use on the side of his driveway and one on the sidewalk, the first curbside residential charger in the nation.

"The charger on our driveway was a normal process," Thesen said.

The curbside charger, which any EV driver can pull up to and plug in, is mounted on city property so took Thesen down a more complicated path to get it permitted and installed.

The city's EV charger permitting process is twofold, requiring both electric utility and building permit reviews.

It begins when an applicant submits a set of plans for a charging station, which then go through the city's plan-check process. After a few revisions, the city usually approves them, with a five-day turn-around time, Development Services Director Peter Pirnejad said.

After the plans receive the city's stamp of approval, a permit is issued and inspections can be scheduled. Inspections are typically available the next day, Pirnejad said. After inspections are done, construction can start and the resident gets a final permitted charging station.

Although Thesen finds the process reasonable, he and other Palo Alto electric-car owners find issue with the city's permitting fees.

"They (city inspectors) poke around and open up boxes and things like that. Some jurisdictions would say this is unnecessary because the wiring is so simple, but this is Palo Alto and they take care of us," Thesen said. "But I think we need to figure out a way to drop the $250 price."

The current fees for residential charging stations include an $89 base electrical permit fee, $160 EV charging station fee and a records-retention fee of $4 per every plan sheet.

Pirnejad said the city is reviewing these fees as part of its fee schedule this year.

"We do want to be proponents of electric-vehicle charging stations, but there is a process and that process has to be fully cost recoverable," he said. "We're not trying to create a profit, we're trying to recover all of our costs."

Palo Alto has additional costs because of the additional electric utility review requirement. Other cities only require a building permit review.

This also means a longer process, which creates difficulty for an electric-car owner who needs immediate charging.

A Palo Alto resident who wished to remain anonymous began installing a residential charger himself before he realized the city had its own permitting process.

But once he realized, he chose to continue on his own, without a city permit.

"The Palo Alto permitting process requires a fee; that was the main thing. And then the time delay in getting the process," he said. "We were needing to have that charger. My wife couldn't make it to work and back and get the vehicle fully charged without the higher voltage charger."

Most electric cars, such as the Nissan LEAF, come with a free portable charger when purchased. But those are lower-voltage, so drivers often need more juice than that.

Higher-voltage chargers can be purchased at stores like Costco for upwards of $900 and installed by an electrician for upwards of $1,000. Thesen's curbside charger, which came with data-gathering technology, cost $2,700 and was paid for by a grant from EV charging station company ClipperCreek.

EV drivers can also use smartphone apps such as PlugShare to find in real-time where the nearest available charging station is. Not all are free.

But nothing beats the convenience of installing a high-voltage charger at your own home — and at your own price.

Higher voltage chargers can be bought online and self-installed, which is what the anonymous resident did. Or, EV owners in the area can send their portable charger to EVSE Upgrade, a startup in Berkeley that will convert the charger to a higher voltage for $239 and mail it back within one business day.

Thesen referred to the people choosing alternative routes of installation as "cowboys, cowgirls, renegades" who save hundreds of dollars.

Code Enforcement Officer Judy Glaes, who works to enforce property maintenance, zoning and building codes in the city, wrote in an email that her department has not yet been involved with any complaints against unpermitted EV stations.

"Should we receive a complaint in the future, we would work to have the station permitted and inspected to final," she wrote.

Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commissioner Arthur Keller said that until the city's process gets streamlined, EV owners should be able to rely on public chargers.

"A lot of people are against getting electric cars because it takes awhile to get a charger installed," Keller said. "In the meantime, we have to rely on public infrastructure for charging."

He said that the city has many public charger plans in the works, including adding a third to the City Hall parking garage, one to the Cowper-Webster parking garage in downtown Palo Alto, several in the two parking structures behind California Avenue and in the garage next to the post office on Cambridge Avenue.

In the meantime, an advisory committee called the Photo Voltaic Action Committee (PVAC) is meeting monthly to discuss the current hiccups in the photovoltaic residential permitting process and how to improve it. After figuring out PV installation and permit requirements, the committee will begin the same process for EV chargers.

Thesen and Pirjenad are PVAC members, as well as city officials such as Palo Alto City Councilmember Pat Burt and contractors and stakeholders that are involved in Palo Alto's energy efforts, such as Go Solar Now owner Bruce Gordon and Craig Lewis, executive director of the Clean Coalition.

A shorthand list of "key outcomes" from the committee's January meeting includes a "concurrence that we have room for improvement on both the plan check and inspection side of permitting."

The committee also set goals for itself: "We should be aspiring for leading the industry, not mediocrity," another item list reads. "Challenge our existing permitting and inspection process. Reinvent versus improve."

READ MORE ONLINE

For more Home and Real Estate news, visit www.paloaltoonline.com/real_estate.

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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