They’ve been a game-changer for city dwellers who want to buy electric vehicles: curbside chargers attached to utility poles. In Melrose and Wilmington, where the first were installed, they provide the driveway-less with a way to fuel up without the cost and inconvenience of digging up sidewalks.
But now that more cities and towns want to sign up, they’re hitting a huge roadblock: It’s no longer legal to purchase or install the chargers in Massachusetts because of an unintended consequence of the state’s 2022 climate law. (Previously installed chargers are not affected.)
The law required that EV charging equipment and many other kinds of appliances and gear meet efficiency standards cataloged by the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership, a nonprofit that works across 12 states and the District of Columbia on sustainability programs. While 172 different pieces of equipment related to EV charging meet the energy efficiency standards, the pole-mounted EV chargers do not.
As of Jan. 1, 2023, products in categories mentioned in the climate law, including electric vehicle supply equipment, “may only be sold or installed in Massachusetts if they are certified by their manufacturer as compliant,” the state Department of Energy Resource said in an email. “DOER is aware that there are currently no pole-mounted electric vehicle chargers certified with the [appliance standards database].”
Source: National Grid; Pole photo provided by National Grid; Ground charger provided by Kelsey McClellan/The New York Times
That wasn’t the intention of the climate bill’s authors, Senator Mike Barrett, one of those authors, said. Although the pole-mounted chargers are less energy efficient than other kinds of chargers, greenhouse gas emissions can still be reduced if they encourage people to switch to EVs, Barrett noted.
“There’s a lesson here,” Barrett said. “Technology is moving very quickly. There’s a golden balance to be struck between writing a law that is precise and writing one that still has enough play in the joints to accommodate tomorrow’s change.”
A correction is in the works, he said. “Let’s hope we get the right legislative fix. I think we will.”
The fix, which would entail allowing the pole-mounted chargers despite their energy efficiency ratings, could be included in a new climate and energy bill. Barrett said he is working on passing a bill by the end of the legislative session in July.
That would please many communities around the state, including Boston and Cambridge, that have made adding chargers a priority. The transportation sector accounts for 39 percent of the state’s emissions, and convincing almost 1 million drivers to go electric by 2030 is a key part of the plan to slow climate change. But drivers thinking of switching cite a lack of charging as one of their major concerns, along with the relatively high price of EVs.
The pole-mounted chargers “are well-used in Melrose and people like them,” said Eric Bourassa, transportation director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which represents 101 cities and towns in the area. “More would like to do this, lots more.”
Cambridge, for example, is installing 100 EV charging ports around the city and wanted some on poles for cost savings and convenience. The chargers are attached to poles in a metal box about the size of a microwave oven. Drivers use an app on their phone to activate the charger, which rolls down a retractable cable. Typically, pole-mounted chargers are on 240-volt circuits, known as Level 2 charging, and add about 15 to 30 miles of range to an EV’s battery per hour.
But Eversource, the city’s electric utility, said it could not install pole-mounted chargers because of the climate law ban — an explanation the company repeated when asked by the Globe about the situation.
“We have tried to get Eversource to give us pole-mounted chargers like Melrose has, so far without success,” Cambridge City Councilor Patty Nolan said.
Cambridge’s alternate program to allow residents who live more than one-eighth of a mile away from a city-owned charger to drape electrical cords over the sidewalk hasn’t caught on much. Only five residents have obtained permits for over-the-sidewalk charging, Kristen Kelleher, community relations manager for the city’s Department of Public Works, said.
The pole-mounted chargers have additional benefits beyond the lower installation cost, according to Bill Bullock, director of integrated resources at the Reading Municipal Light Department. The municipal utility installed two pole-mounted chargers in Wilmington in 2022.
“They stay up out of the way, which is handy when they’re out of the snow and above the snowbanks,” he said. “We want to put in more.”
An additional complication is a ruling by the state Department of Public Utilities in December 2022, under the administration of then-governor Charlie Baker.
With the success of its Melrose pilot program, National Grid asked to be able to install, own, and operate 200 more pole-mounted chargers across 10 communities using funds collected from its customers (part of a statewide $400 million utility program to improve charging).
But the DPU decided not to allow the expanded program, citing concerns about competition, as National Grid proposed owning the chargers and setting prices for EV drivers. “The company has failed to demonstrate that its proposal . . . would not hinder the development of the competitive EV charging market,” the ruling stated.
Absent the climate law ban, the order still allowed utilities to install pole-mounted chargers owned by others and paid for with other funding sources, a National Grid spokesperson noted. “We’re happy to work with customers who are interested, as long as they’re up for owning and operating the chargers themselves,” he said.
DPU, now overseen by the Healey administration, said the 2022 decision shouldn’t be seen as opposing pole-mounted charger programs. The order “is not reflective of its position on pole mounted charging infrastructure, but rather rooted in its longstanding precedent that utilities should not own infrastructure that the private market can deploy on its own,” the department said in an email.
With various charger-related grant programs, communities will be able to find ways to pay for pole-mounted chargers despite the DPU not approving commercial utilities to own the chargers, according to Matt Bloom, director of partnerships at EV charging software company AmpUp, which worked with Melrose and Wilmington. They just need the climate law to be fixed, he said.
“In our more population-dense cities and towns, utility pole charging is a pretty good solution to fill in gaps,” Bloom said.