Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities today approved a proposed $45 million investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
The investments in electric vehicle infrastructure come as part of a complicated rate case that involves a number of important issues related to rate design, energy efficiency and solar energy. But at least on the electric vehicle part, the utilities and the DPU got it right.
Why do we need more investments in electric vehicle infrastructure?
Electric vehicles are a critical part of Massachusetts’ climate and transportation future. Under Massachusetts’ signature climate law, the Global Warming Solutions Act, the state is legally required to reduce our emissions of global warming pollution by 80 percent by 2050.
Transportation is the largest source of pollution in Massachusetts, and it’s the one area of our economy where emissions have actually grown since 1990. Achieving our climate limits will require the near-complete transition of our vehicle fleet to electric vehicles or other zero-emission vehicle technologies.
The good news is electric vehicles are here, they are fun to drive and cheap to charge, and when plugged in to the relatively clean New England grid, they get the emissions equivalent of a 100 mpg conventional vehicle. EV drivers in the Boston area can save over $500 per year in reduced fuel costs. Electric vehicle technology has advanced to the point where mainstream automakers and countries like China and France are now openly talking about the end of internal combustion engine.
But while the future for EVs is bright, electric vehicles are still a very small share of the overall vehicle fleet. Nationally, EVs represent less than half of one percent of new vehicle sales. In 2012, Massachusetts committed to a goal of putting 300,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025. Five years later, we are still about 288,000 EV sales short of that goal.
What investments are coming?
One of the biggest challenges facing the growth of electric vehicles is limited infrastructure. People are not going to buy an EV if they don’t know where to plug it in. A survey of Northeast residents conducted last year found that limited access to charging infrastructure is one of the biggest obstacles to EV purchases.
We have had over a hundred years – and billions in public subsidies – to build the infrastructure of refineries, pipelines, and gas stations that service the internal combustion engine. New investments in charging infrastructure are critical to making EVs as convenient as filling up at a gas station.
Today’s decision will speed the transition to electric vehicles by making investments in charging infrastructure. These investments include more funding for infrastructure for people who live in apartment buildings, more fast charging infrastructure along highways, and increasing charging infrastructure in low income communities, and greater access to workplace charging.
Overall, the proposal anticipates the construction of 72 fast-charging stations and 3,955 “Level-2” home and workplace charging ports over the next 5 years. Of those charging ports 10 percent will be in low income communities, where utilities will also provide consumers with a rebate for charging stations. These investments will provide thousands of Massachusetts residents with access to EV charging stations.
The DPU did deny Eversource the right to use ratepayer funds for education and outreach. This is unfortunate, as our survey also found that most Northeast residents are not aware of the many incentives available for EV customers, both here in the Northeast and at the federal level.
What more needs to be done?
One big question that is left out of the decision today: how do we best manage EV charging to maximize the potential benefits to the electric grid.
The key issue is when does EV charging take place? If most people charge their EVs at night, or during times of high production of renewable electricity, then the transition to electric vehicles can make our electric system more efficient and speed the transition to renewables. This will mean significant cost savings.
On the other hand, if EV charging mostly happens during “peak” hours (such as morning and early evening), then adding more EVs onto the grid could strain existing electricity infrastructure and require additional investments in pipelines and power plants. This would both raise emissions and cost ratepayers money.
There’s a simple way to address this issue: provide a financial incentive for EV drivers to charge their vehicles during periods of low demand, a policy known as Time of Use Rates. The DPU decision today punts this issue, accepting the utility position that it will take time and additional data to determine how to best implement TOU rates. While we agree with the DPU that the most important priority is to get the charging infrastructure installed, this is an issue that we and others in the clean transportation community will be watching closely over the next few years.