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Tesla Charging Stations popping up around St. Louis

FILE PHOTO: B.R. Kirk's Tesla car takes a charge on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, in St. Charles. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

Up to now, Missouri utility regulators have declined oversight of electric vehicle charging stations, opting to leave installation of the technology to the free market rather than having costs shouldered by the ratepayers of monopolized power companies, such as Ameren.

That’s still the official regulatory stance of the Missouri Public Service Commission, but an opinion handed down this month by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, calls for the state to reverse a key aspect of its position.

If upheld, a reversal may uncork fresh spending on electric vehicle charging stations by utilities in the state. With the PSC sidestepping jurisdiction over the technology so far, electric companies such as Ameren have been left with no guarantees about recovering associated costs through ratepayers, making investment in the arena a riskier proposition than utilities are accustomed to.

The PSC has based its decision not to regulate charging stations on at least a couple factors. One has been its interpretation that it does not have legal authority on the matter, arguing that charging stations do not technically qualify as electric plants.

But the Aug. 7 ruling from Western District Court of Appeals says the commission “erred when it held that (Kansas City Power and Light’s) electric vehicle charging stations did not fall within the statutory definition of ‘electric plant.’”

The opinion from Judge Alok Ahuja ordered to “reverse that aspect” of the PSC’s position “and remand the case to the Commission for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

A spokesman for the PSC declined to comment on the Western District decision, saying that, despite the opinion issued in the case, the matter is still considered pending litigation with an ongoing window for parties to motion for rehearing.

In past discussion, the commission has also based its stance on the belief that adequate competition exists in the marketplace for electric vehicle charging stations — making involvement unnecessary for a regulatory body for utilities that typically operate in monopoly conditions.

“We should only be regulating where there’s natural monopolies, not where there is competition,” PSC Chairman Daniel Hall said in April 2017. “And there is very clearly competition.”

But experts said that argument may also be rendered moot by the Western District ruling.

“I think the court felt that that’s something we can’t factor in as an argument right now,” said James Owen, executive director of Renew Missouri, which tracks energy issues in the state. “The economic argument doesn’t matter because the law is clear that they can do it.”

The state Office of Public Counsel, which advocates on behalf of consumers, has also argued in the past against having ratepayers cover charging station infrastructure that — for now, at least — primarily serves an affluent class of electric car owners.

Ameren, though, has shown interest in installing charging stations for the past couple of years, bracing for the rise of electric vehicle models that automakers are set to release in the near- and medium-term future.

In late 2016, the St. Louis-based utility announced plans to launch a pilot project that would string charging stations along the Interstate 70 corridor, before putting it on hold as the PSC mulled its ability to regulate them. This February, Ameren revisited the subject with plans to establish hundreds of stations in its service area.

Ameren voiced approval of the appeals court decision, but said it is too soon to determine how it may influence the company’s own path, moving forward.

“Ameren Missouri believes the court decision is good for our customers and a positive step in deploying electric vehicle charging in Missouri,” said Steve Wills, the company’s director of rates and analysis, in a statement. “While still reviewing details of the decision, we have yet to determine if there will be any potential impact on our plans for expanding EV charging in Missouri.”

Owen said he believes utilities like Ameren were already firmly committed to their charging station programs, but that the court decision will provide additional help.

“I think (the PSC’s) stance has slowed the development of these programs,” said Owen. But the new ruling, he believes, “absolutely gives (utilities) more confidence to go acquire the investments they need to build these.”

Moreover, he said the case could be important for governance of future technologies, noting that arguments in the proceedings looked at how the state has regulated entities like phone booths and gas stations.

“What analogy is suitable? ... We spent a lot of time talking in this case about what is the EV charging station like, compared to things that have already been done,” said Owen.

“The court case is relevant to help determine what the Public Service Commission can and can’t do,” he added. “What’s the next thing that the case is going to help clarify? ... To be continued, I suppose.”

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Reporter covering energy and the environment for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.