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Out West student blog

The journey of navigating publicly-accessible government databases to assess statewide trends of EV charging station development projects

Over the course of several Fridays during fall quarter, Bill Lane Center summer research assistants are gathering at our weekly American West Research Seminars to present about the projects they pursued in June, July, and August of 2023. Lee Rosenthal, '25, shared his work on tracking electric vehicle charging station permits in California. Below are his reflections.

Lee Rosenthal in a green t-shirt smiles at the camera against a backdrop of blue sky and green rolling hills.
Lee Rosenthal, Bill Lane Center research assistant

Lee Rosenthal (he/him)
Hometown: Cranford, New Jersey
Area of study: Design, ‘25
Research project: Permitting of electric vehicle charging stations across California

Tracking major trends across the most populated state in America is a difficult task in and of itself. But when those trends can only be found by searching through publicly accessible government databases, it becomes clear that the task at hand may be even more difficult than initially anticipated. Such was the nature of one of my main research tasks this summer at the Bill Lane Center. 

In 2021, the California government passed Assembly Bill 970 (AB 970), a bill mandating that complete applications for Electric Vehicle (EV) charging station permits be approved and issued on an expedited timeline. Over the course of the ten-week research program, I conducted an analysis of sixteen different cities and counties across California, scouring their website for online permitting databases to assess their compliance with AB 970 and identify the cause behind any potential bottlenecks. Of those sixteen cities and counties, only eleven had searchable databases where I was able to access information regarding building permits. And of those eleven searchable databases, only three had easily-accessible information about the dates on which individuals applied for the permit and dates on which the permit was issued – information necessary to track permit processing times. I was ultimately able to conduct three case studies with the counties that had this usable data: San Luis Obispo, Tulare, and San Francisco. I found that many permit applications were still not meeting the timeline requirements put forth by AB 970, and unfortunately the databases had no additional information to explain these delays (i.e. number of charging stations, type of chargers, etc). 

I began searching for this information by cross referencing the permit datasets with data from the California Energy Commission (CEC) and National Renewable Energy Lab that contained comprehensive information about public EV charging stations in California. However, I curiously found very few matches despite filtering for matching addresses and uniformizing the entries. I returned to searching through the online permit databases, when I found that a number of additional ones actually did have information on application dates and issuance dates – they simply were not able to be downloaded into an Excel file alongside the basic downloadable dataset. I was going to have to get creative. I began looking into various webscraping strategies, enlisting the help of my coworker Logan Schreier, who wrote a program to accomplish this task. Simultaneously, I manually parsed through all of Stockton city’s EV permit applications that I could find, tracking application and issuance dates myself and adding the city to our collection of case studies. By then, Logan had found that the software used by a large number of cities and counties had barriers in place to prevent their databases from being scraped, making our webscraping plan practically impossible to complete on our limited timeline. 

I was left feeling disheartened. If cities and counties aren’t making data relating to their permit processes easily trackable, how would stakeholders ever be able to ensure that the larger EV goals of California would be met? I struggled with this question until one of the partners of the Bill Lane Center, the California Governor’s Office for Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), pointed us to a project being developed by the CEC – an EV Infrastructure Project Tracker. This tool seeks to assemble comprehensive data, including permitting data, from all EV charging station projects that receive state funding. This data will then be used to track trends of permit processing times on EV charging station projects across California. 

Excited to have found this budding resource but wanting to contribute thoughts I felt relevant and helpful, I submitted comments to the CEC on behalf of the Bill Lane Center with recommendations in developing this tool. I advised them to develop some strategy for collecting historical data from before the creation of this tracker to trace the effect of policies like AB 970 on permit processing times. I recommended one strategy of building a comprehensive webscraping algorithm that could collect and summarize this data, similar to the prototype that Logan had built. I also recommended that they implement some strategy of obtaining data on projects that don’t receive CEC funding, potentially using a similar webscraping tool that updates the central tracker in real time. 

While finding and interpreting comprehensive permitting data may have been one of the most challenging projects I worked on this summer, I am hopeful that, with developing resources like the EV Infrastructure Project Tracker, future stakeholders will better be able to better understand EV charging station development trends across California and optimize this process.

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