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California Leads the Way as States Address Need for EV Charging Stations

Building enough charging infrastructure to capture the anticipated economic and health benefits will be an enormous undertaking. But can California’s power grid handle the strain of so many EVs plugging in on a daily basis?

The following is a California-focused excerpt from an article in Governing, Techwire's sister publication, about how states are coming to terms with electric vehicles and the infrastructure they require.

Jurisdictions that hold off on building charging infrastructure until they are sure electric vehicles (EVs) are really coming are likely to be caught flat-footed.

“We don’t really have a chicken and egg problem, we have a chicken and waffle problem,” says Chris Nelder, the EV grid integration manager for the Carbon-Free Mobility Practice at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a clean-energy research organization. “The vehicles are definitely coming, so we should stop waffling and build some charging stations.”

Whatever short-term doubts policymakers and local officials might have about electric vehicles, the market has foretold the future. Tesla, the electric vehicle manufacturer, is more valuable than the next six car makers combined. Automakers including GM, Toyota, Honda and Volkswagen have all announced dates for the phaseout of vehicles with internal combustion engines, as have such luxury brands as Volvo and Jaguar.

The state-by-state ratio of chargers per EV driver is in constant flux, but in terms of sheer numbers, California outpaces the rest of the country. The most recent report on infrastructure by the National Renewable Energy Lab shows Vermont with the most chargers per 100,000 population, but based on data from the California Energy Commission’s ZEV dashboard, the Golden State is home to the great majority of all Level 2 chargers in the U.S., and nearly 40 percent of all DC fast chargers.

Nearly half of all the electric vehicles in the country belong to California drivers, and by 2035 the state will forbid the sale of new vehicles with internal combustion engines. A 2018 executive order from then-Gov. Jerry Brown set goals of 5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roads by 2030 and 250,000 charging stations by 2025.

Major investments are being made toward infrastructure goals. Gov. Newsom’s May revision of the 2021-22 budget includes $500 million for EV charging and hydrogen fueling stations, as well as $415 million for targeted infrastructure to support heavy-duty vehicles (transit buses, school buses and drayage trucks). A $436 million plan approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in January is the biggest-ever utility effort of its kind. The funds go to Southern California Edison to add almost 40,000 chargers in Southern California.

Decades of clearly stated intentions, strong regulations and incentives to reduce the risks of a transition to EVs paved the way for California’s success thus far, says Hannon Rasool, deputy director of the California Energy Commission’s Fuels and Transportation Division. Now the state wants to make the most of the opportunities it has created.

Zero-emission vehicles were the state’s No. 1 export in 2020, Rasool says. “We want more vehicle manufacturing in California, we want battery production in California, we want infrastructure done at the local level and local jobs — there’s a huge opportunity.”

In Rasool’s view, the fact that technology will continue to evolve is no reason to delay installation. EV infrastructure is more than charging stations themselves; there’s a back-end aspect that involves traditional electrical work.

“You dig a trench, lay down some conduit wire, put in a transformer, a lot of that will last 30, 40, 50 years,” he says. “Even if you want to change out a charging station with something newer and shinier, that other infrastructure is still going to do the same thing — there’s a wire taking electricity back and forth for you.”

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has been working with local jurisdictions to streamline permitting processes and reduce soft costs, says Rasool. “You can have a bit of a fragmented state at times, with different jurisdictions having different permitting requirements because they’re seeing electric vehicle charging for the first time.” California building codes require new construction to be ready to accommodate EV charging and establish requirements for charging spaces in multi-family dwellings and nonresidential buildings.

California is also one of the few states to make a firm commitment to equity, allocating half of the CEC’s clean transportation budget to programs that benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities. “We expect the private market to make investments where they have the biggest bang for their buck,” says Rasool. “We need to take public dollars where they might not go.”

A recent study from the University of California, Davis Institute of Transportation Studies sought to evaluate the factors that might affect decisions about where to place chargers. Free charging, which is now available at some workplaces and public facilities, is not likely to be sustainable over the long run. Charging at home might be more or less attractive depending on whether utilities offer lower rates for those who charge their vehicles at times when demand for electricity is low.

“Policymakers need to develop pricing schemes that will prevent an unnecessary shift of charging behavior from home to non-home locations and allow optimal use of the public infrastructure,” says the UC Davis report.

To the extent that this remains a work in progress in jurisdictions across the country, planning the optimum deployment of stations may be difficult. The rate at which miles traveled in autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services replace trips in personal vehicles is another unknown that could affect where charging stations will be needed.

Some worry that EVs will strain utility grids. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at how energy demand would be affected in every state in the U.S. if Americans relied entirely on EVs. They found that many states already have enough capacity, provided charging is managed properly, while states such as California and Texas would need to build new power plants or buy more electricity from other states.

“There’s no question that utilities can do this, but it’s not going to be trivial,” Nelder told The New York Times.
Carl Smith is a Senior Staff Writer for He works with editors and staff writers to produce smart, high-value, high volume editorial content for the web and related products to make Governing the go-to source. He can be reached at