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Utilities Should Invest in Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

, policy analyst | July 5, 2018, 2:03 pm EST
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For more than a century, our cars and trucks have been fueled almost exclusively by oil. Today, electric vehicles (EVs) give us the potential to power our vehicles with a diverse set of energy sources, including clean and renewable energy. But to make that happen, we need to build the infrastructure that can keep our vehicles fueled and make owning an electric vehicle as convenient as a conventional car.

Across the country, many utilities are stepping up to build the EV infrastructure that we need. Some recent investments include:

  • The California Public Utilities Commission recently approved $738 million in electric vehicle infrastructure proposed by PG&E, SCE and SDG&E, inincludingundreds of millions for charging heavy duty vehicles such as buses and trucks.
  • Utilities in Maryland have recently proposed a $104 million investment in charging infrastructure that would create 24,000 charging stations across the state.
  • The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities recently approved a $45 million investment by Eversource. A comparable investment by Massachusetts’ other major utility National Grid is still pending in front of the DPU.
  • Ohio has recently approved a $10 million pilot for electric vehicle charging stations.

These investments raise important public policy questions. What electric vehicle infrastructure is most important to speed up adoption? How should we design electricity rates to maximize the value of electric vehicles to ratepayers and the grid? How can our infrastructure best support all types of electric vehicles, including heavy duty electric vehicles such as trucks and buses? How can we use infrastructure to support electrification of shared vehicle fleets?

Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists is releasing a fact sheet outlining 10 principles that we see as particularly important to guide utility investment in electric vehicle infrastructure. In this fact sheet, we argue that utility investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure is important public policy and ultimately a good deal for ratepayers.

Why should utilities invest in electric vehicle infrastructure?

Electric vehicles (EVs) represent both an enormous opportunity and a significant challenge for our utilities. Converting our vehicle fleet to electricity could add as much as 1,000 terawatt hours of demand onto our electric grid, an increase of about 25 percent of current levels. If managed correctly, this large and flexible load could significantly increase the efficiency of our electric system, which would benefit not only EV drivers but also all ratepayers, providing lower costs.

In the long run, widespread deployment of EVs could also be a source of energy storage, filling a critical need as our electricity system moves away from fossil fuels toward intermittent sources of power, such as wind and solar. Without proper management of EV charging, however, the additional power needed to fuel EVs could require significant new capacity, increasing pollution and imposing additional costs on ratepayers.

Building more EV infrastructure will help more people and businesses make the switch to electric vehicles, saving money and reducing emissions. Consumer studies have consistently found that inadequate access to charging infrastructure remains one of the most pressing obstacles to EV adoption. We have had over a hundred years to build the massive infrastructure necessary to support our gasoline and diesel vehicles. Creating an EV charging network that can compete with our oil infrastructure will require tens of thousands of new charging stations.

What principles should guide utility investments?

  • Provide chargers where people live and work. Most EV charging happens at home, and as affordable, long-range EVs are becoming available, overnight home charging can provide drivers with all the charge they need on most days. So providing universal access to home charging is a top priority. Workplace charging can be a valuable perk that can spur adoption through personal and professional networks.
  • Create a network of high-speed chargers along highways. While most charging will happen at home, a network of fast chargers along highways—capable of recharging an EV in 30 minutes or less—will be a critical component of our infrastructure, allowing EV drivers to access charging for road trips and emergency uses.
  • Maximize benefits to ratepayers and the grid. EVs can provide significant benefits to ratepayers and improve the efficiency of the electric grid if electric vehicle charging occurs during times of low demand or high production of renewable energy. Utilities should create policies that encourage drivers to charge their vehicles during these ‘offpeak’ hours.
  • Establish fair electricity rates for EV charging. EV charging rates should be fair, transparent and provide value to EV drivers. High demand charges can make it difficult to create a viable business model for high speed charging stations, which can be particularly important for electrification of heavy duty and shared vehicles.
  • Support electrification of trucks and buses. Heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks and buses are major contributors to global warming pollution as well as to local air pollution, such as emissions of NOx and particulate matter that cause significant health problems. Investments in charging infrastructure and station equipment can help make these technologies cost effective for fleet managers and transit agencies.
  • Support electrification of new mobility services. Ride hailing services such as Uber and Lyft play an increasing role in our transportation system and must be electrified. Utilities should work with these companies and others to ensure that they have the charging infrastructure and rate design that they need to move to EVs.
  • Ensure low-income communities benefit from electrification. Integration of EVs into ride- and car-sharing networks, installation of more charging stations in apartment buildings, and electrification of transit and freight vehicles can help ensure that low-income residents benefit from the transition to electric transportation.
  • Create an open and competitive market for EV charging. Utilities should work with the auto industry and suppliers of charging equipment to ensure that we retain a competitive market for EV charging that encourages innovation and consumer choice and provides EV drivers with a consistent, high quality experience.

Taken together, universal access to residential charging, widespread availability of workplace charging, and high speed chargers along critical transportation corridors can make driving an EV cheaper, cleaner, and more convenient than any other car. And inducing smart charging and integration with renewables can ensure that the transition to EVs makes our grid stronger and more efficient – and save ratepayers millions in the process.

We encourage utilities and agencies to move forward with ambitious projects to build out EV infrastructure and create the clean transportation system that we need.

Photo: SanJoaquinRTD

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  • Ken Dragoon

    There is a lot of momentum behind battery electric vehicles, but I share Keith Malone’s concern that UCS not forget about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Because hydrogen is much less expensive to store than electricity, it is more amenable to being used to support renewable electricity on the grid when surplus power is available. Ken Dragoon, Renewable Hydrogen Alliance (RenewableH2.org)

  • keithdude

    Daniel: Will UCS explore hydrogen and the use of it as a means of grid balancing and energy storage? I assume you’re also tracking what’s happening with power-to-gas initiatives here and globally. I’d be more than happy to engage you in a longer conversation via email or phone. Keith Malone, California Fuel Cell Partnership

    • Jonathan Avilla

      I second Keith and Kens comment about hydrogen. Hydrogen must not be left out of the utility equation here. Charging infrastructure is a promising way to help balance the grid, but what system is going to put in place to manage usage? Hardware and software will need to be developed to organize customers to charge their vehicles during certain times. Even with these systems in place there is still no guarantee that customers will charge their vehicles. A more strategic approach to balancing the grid is to produce hydrogen via electrolysis and excess power. Producing hydrogen through grid power guarantees a designated recipient of the excess power than charging infrastructure does. Jonathan Palacios-Avila, StratosFuel, Inc