Should utilities build charging stations for electric cars?

Martha T. Moore, on

Published in Business News

WASHINGTON -- Faced with deadlines to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road, states are being asked to decide whether utility companies can build electric vehicle charging stations -- and pass on the cost to their customers.

Building more charging stations could help alleviate "range anxiety," the fear of running out of charge with no station in sight, and therefore stimulate sales of the clean-air-friendly cars. But in some states, officials say that letting the utility industry build more stations would force all electricity consumers to pay for a service that only a few, relatively affluent, people will use.

In California, home to nearly half the electric vehicles, or EVs, now on U.S. roads, the Public Utilities Commission last year approved plans for three of the state's largest utilities -- Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric -- to build more than 12,500 charging stations at workplaces, apartment complexes and public locations for about $200 million.

But this year, Missouri, Michigan and Kansas all have slapped down utilities' requests to build charging stations with customers' money. "Let the private sector invest in the EV market, rather than have ratepayers finance the speculative venture," the Kansas Corporation Commission ruled.

The different outcomes reflect a broader debate about whether charging stations need to be built to create a market for electric cars, or vice versa, and whether the money should come from electric customers, private charging station companies or automakers. Volkswagen, for instance, will spend $2 billion over 10 years to install electric chargers as part of its civil settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over falsifying emissions data.

More than half a million electric vehicles are on the road in the U.S., with the most in California, Georgia and Washington, according to data from ChargePoint, a company that builds and operates charging stations. Electric vehicles use some 44,000 public vehicle charging outlets across the nation, nearly a third of them in California.

Increasing the number of charging stations is especially urgent in the seven states that in 2013 joined California in promising to put 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles, a sixfold increase over current levels, on the road by 2025: Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

"We see action in those states," said Max Baumhefner of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that supports utilities putting up more electric vehicle charging stations. He pointed to laws in California and Oregon that ordered utilities to submit proposals to beef up electric vehicle infrastructure -- and allowed them to pass the cost to customers.

"But the good news is it's not restricted to those states," he said. "It's not just a Left Coast-East Coast phenomenon." Georgia has utility-built charging stations. In North Carolina, 200 charging stations are being subsidized by Duke Energy as part of a 2016 settlement with the EPA for clean-air violations.

In Kentucky, utilities are building charging stations for which only customers who use them will foot the bill. The state Public Service Commission has allowed two utilities, Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, to build up to 20 public charging stations and recoup the cost through charging motorists a bit under $3 an hour to charge their vehicles. In addition, the utilities can build an unlimited number of charging stations on commercial properties, which would pay a fee for the privilege.


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