Morgan: Portsmouth policy hostile to electric vehicles and moving painfully slow

In New Hampshire, the transportation sector accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. For that reason, a timely transition from gasoline powered motor vehicles to electric vehicles (EV) is important. Yet in order for the citizenry to perceive such a transition as advantageous, EV charging infrastructure must be ubiquitous.

Tom Morgan
Tom Morgan

Level 2 EV chargers deliver a full charge in 8 to 12 hours. Such chargers are well suited for residential settings and hotels. There are several such installations in Portsmouth, however most of them attract few customers because they were installed in locations where folks are not willing to wait around 8-plus hours for a charge. Evidently, the city’s Level 2 deployment was ill-informed and poorly planned.

In contrast to Level 2 chargers, the more robust EV fast chargers do the job in 25 minutes, and for that reason fast chargers are much in demand at restaurants, grocery stores, and shopping venues.

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The 25-minute chargers are a potential game-changer. Unfortunately, City Hall staff seems oblivious to the strategic importance of this technology, as exemplified by their cavalier response in 2015 to a proposal by Elon Musk’s Tesla for a bank of fast chargers in the city center. The proposed chargers were to be installed, owned, and operated by Tesla, at no cost to city taxpayers. City staff declined to issue a permit, explaining that the proposal was not permitted by the zoning ordinance.

Staff was referring, of course, to an ordinance that was largely authored by city staff. It is an ordinance that is noticeably hostile to EV infrastructure.

In 2017, a Volkswagen subsidiary proposed an 8-plug fast-charging station on Walmart’s 7-acre parking lot, once again, at no cost to city taxpayers. Staff rejected that proposal as well. Same reason cited.

Elsewhere along the Interstate 95 corridor, EV fast chargers have been installed in Amesbury, Seabrook, Kittery, York, Kennebunk, Biddeford, Saco, Scarborough, South Portland, Westbrook, and Portland. In those communities, you will find these 25-minute chargers in proximity to grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, gyms, parks, community centers, shopping centers, and tourist destinations.

Alas, there are no 25-minute chargers anywhere in Portsmouth.

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Liza Featherstone, a journalist writing in the New Republic, observed that “delay is (climate) denial’s hipper, more dangerous cousin.” Delay. Yes, we know it well.

Greta Thunberg advises us to “Act like your house is on fire.” It is and we should. On April 5, 2021, City Councilor Kennedy made a motion to direct staff to explore measures to permit the installation of EV fast chargers citywide and to issue recommendations for action by the council. The motion passed 9 to 0.

Four days later, the city’s Economic Development Commissioners responded favorably to the council’s initiative. The commission understands that EV infrastructure will play a role in supporting the local tourist industry’s competitive position vs. other tourist destinations.

City planning staff then simply ignored the council’s directive.

On May 2, 2022, City Councilor Josh Denton, supported by Councilor Kate Cook, requested staff comments on his proposed zoning amendment that would permit privately-owned EV fast chargers to be installed on private property. Mr. Denton’s motion passed unanimously. The council’s discussion can be viewed on the city’s YouTube channel commencing at 3:04:10. Kudos to Councilors Denton and Cook!

So what happens next? Expect more intransigence from the usual suspects.

In the meantime, City Hall administrators employed a no-bid process to bring in a former Portsmouth planning director to repair the zoning ordinance. At considerable expense.

Now, tell me once again, who broke this ordinance in the first place?

And why does our zoning ordinance expressly permit EV fast chargers at “motor vehicle service stations,” but nowhere else in the city? Who came up with that one? Surely not the no-bid contractor.

Portsmouth’s no-bid cronyism is unethical. And self-defeating. The city should have put the zoning project out to bid. There’s a whole world of exciting possibilities out there, if only the city’s decision makers were willing to move on from the same old, same old.

Will the Denton/Cooke zoning proposal survive the no-bid contractor’s expert review? It’s not looking good. I guess we’ll find out. Eventually.

Tom Morgan is a city planner and an advocate for smart growth. He resides in Portsmouth.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Morgan: Portsmouth NH policy hostile to electric vehicles