Build it and they will come.
Ameren aimed to put that philosophy to the test when, last year, the utility announced plans to string six electric vehicle charging stations between St. Louis and Jefferson City. The pilot project was intended to gauge whether the effort would help boost the number of electric vehicle drivers in surrounding counties, relative to other areas.
Ameren’s plans hit a roadblock when state regulators at the Public Service Commission signaled that they were hesitant to exercise jurisdiction over the new technology. With a 4-1 vote Wednesday, the commission made that position official.
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The decision means regulated utilities such as Ameren can build stations, but they wouldn’t be assured of recovering the costs through rate increases spread across their base of customers.
The question now is whether the vote will snuff out Ameren’s interest in vehicle charging, or whether the utility will forge ahead like its cross-state counterpart, Kansas City Power & Light. That utility has helped Kansas City become a national leader in electric vehicle adoption.
PSC Chairman Daniel Hall argued that charging stations don’t meet the definition of entities the commission is authorized to regulate.
Hall considers them “battery-charging services” rather than generators of light, heat or power that fall under the PSC’s domain. He also points out that it’s a service the private sector has shown a willingness to provide, with independent companies such as ChargePoint, a Silicon Valley company, operating at least 37 charging ports in Ameren Missouri’s service territory.
“We should only be regulating where there’s natural monopolies, not where there is competition,” Hall said. “And there is very clearly competition.”
Regardless of which company’s logo ends up on the charging stations, Ameren would be able to recover costs associated with distributing power to them. The cost at the plug, though, will be “whatever the market will bear,” Hall said.
Ameren, which postponed installation of its proposed charging stations, said in a statement that it is still determining “the appropriate next steps” after the PSC’s decision.
Should it decide to stay in the game, Ameren could look across the state to find a model of utility involvement with charging stations. KCP&L has installed nearly 1,000 charging stations over the last two years, and Kansas City tops the nation in electric vehicle growth, according to data released last month by the Electric Power Research Institute , or EPRI, and IHS Automotive.
“Adoption keeps outpacing our expectations,” said Chuck Caisley, vice president of marketing and public affairs for KCP&L. “We’ve got the highest year-over-year growth in the United States.”
That growth has corresponded with the expansion of the utility’s $20 million Clean Charge Network. More than 900 stations out of 1,000 planned by KCP&L are already in service. The utility’s network represents the bulk of the 1,025 public charging ports that the PSC says are available in the state.
Representatives of both Ameren and KCP&L said comparing the two utilities’ efforts would be difficult, given their different scale and aims.
KCP&L has a separate case before the PSC, seeking to recover costs of its Clean Charge project through customer rates. That is likely to be turned down, too; Hall noted that discussion about KCP&L’s case has been “consistent with (the Ameren) decision.”
Caisley said a rejection would not mean KCP&L’s investment was not worthwhile. He considers the project an “overwhelming success” and is glad it has helped spark a conversation among state regulators about how to incorporate this new technology into the grid.
“At the end of the day, it would be a setback but it would be a relatively minor setback,” said Caisley. “At least the commission recognizes the value that there’s a lot of electricity infrastructure that has to be built just to accommodate these vehicles on the system.”
With 30 new electric vehicle models set to be released in the next four years, doubling the number now on the road, some experts believe the growing market will require an “all the above” approach combining private sector and utility involvement.
“Despite the fact that most charging happens at home and work, there’s still a need for public charging,” said Dan Bowermaster, the electric transportation program manager at EPRI. “It’s going to take everyone. It’s going to take utilities, it’s going to take the free market.”
Caisley thinks utilities “might be the natural entity” to install them, especially in areas that are “infrastructure-challenged” and may not attract private investment.
But private companies may now scale up their activity in Missouri, with Hall suggesting that companies like ChargePoint were waiting to see how the state would handle the industry.
“ChargePoint is interested in building more, but only if the commission determined that it is not a regulated entity,” said Hall.
Even with a total of $1.5 billion spent on utility-owned pilot charging station projects across the country, Bowermaster says competition will be needed for states to hit their goals for electric vehicle adoption.
“It takes a village,” he said. “Distribution has to exist for any kind of mobility to make a jump.”