Automakers and Utilities Filling the Gaps in Charging Infrastructure

By · March 03, 2015

EV charging station in Monmouth

Consumers new to understanding plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) want to have confidence that they won’t run out of battery power, which requires a modicum of EV charging infrastructure to be located in the areas where they drive. Even if they don’t utilize public charging often (if at all), charging stations provide peace of mind to PEV owners.

Consumers new to understanding plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) want to have confidence that they won’t run out of battery power, which requires a modicum of EV charging infrastructure to be located in the areas where they drive. Even if they don’t utilize public charging often (if at all), charging stations provide peace of mind to PEV owners. The U.S. Department of Energy has invested more than $130 million to provide a baseline of charging infrastructure, but the private sector has not kept up with rate of EV sales in funding publicly accessible charging stations.

According to the DOE’s Alternative Fuel Data Center, there are 22,949 public charging outlets in the United States. This does not include EV charging stations located at homes, or privately operated for the exclusive use of fleets or other specific EV owners. This compares to an estimated 280,000 light duty PEVs on the road today in the U.S., according to data from Navigant Research’s recently published report, Electric Vehicle Charging Services. That’s less than one public charging station for every 10 vehicles on the road. A more appropriate ratio of one station per 4 PEVs sold would help to expand sales by providing readily accessible access to power.

Companies offering EV charging, however, continue to find it challenging to receive an acceptable ROI given the current usage rates and the fee structure of public EV charging. So which entities can be patient enough to wait for a longer payback from installing EV charging stations, while receiving other ancillary benefits? The answer is utilities and automakers, which have both recently stepped up efforts to expand charging infrastructure.

Changing the Rules

In the few states where EV charging ownership by utilities is not prohibited, utilities have started to take the lead in installing EV charging equipment. Kansas City Power and Light will install 1,000 charging stations, and Georgia Power Company will install 50 charging stations, in addition to offering incentives to consumers to buy home charging equipment. In deregulated Texas, CPS Energy and Austin Energy both operate EV charging networks.

The floodgates in California were opened in December, when the state’s Public Utilities Commission rescinded a rule prohibiting utility ownership of charging networks. Three of the largest utilities in the state, SDG&E, PG&E and Southern California Edison (SCE), have all filed requests with the CPUC to operate charging stations in the state.

SCE wants to spend $350 million to install up to 30,000 chargers and to provide rebates for third-party EV charger purchases. SDG&E’s more modest plan would install up to 5,500 EV charging stations. In February, PG&E requested permission to install 25,000 chargers at a cost of $654 million. These utilities can afford to invest more than $1 billion in EV charging stations because the costs would be passed on to ratepayers, who would see slight increases in their monthly bills. The payback is likely to take longer than the 3 years that third parties supplying EV charging services usually expect, but as PEV sales grow and traffic at public charging stations rises in future years, ownership of EV charging assets could become profitable for utilities.

Better than Gas

Utilities would also benefit from integrating these charging stations with their own smart grid initiatives, so that charging could be managed to minimize the impact on peak loads. Duke Energy’s pilot program for smart EV charging in Erlanger, Kentucky, will expand to other Duke service territories in 2015. Utilities can use EVs for regulation and demand response services, which could be more cost-efficient than relying on natural gas peaker plants or other distributed resources. Also, most regulated utilities are encouraged to reduce loads through energy efficiency, which can lower their overall revenue. Load from EVs, however, are generally given a free pass as they are replacing petroleum products with electricity.

Automakers also have an inherent interest in the expansion of charging infrastructure – it helps them sell more PEVs. While Nissan has been installing EV charging infrastructure in Japan (where charging stations now reportedly outnumber gas stations) since the Leaf first went on sale, the company is also installing 1,100 fast DC charging stations in the U.S. Tesla Motors was the first automaker in the U.S. to significantly invest in charging infrastructure with its proprietary Supercharger network. Competitors BMW and VW recently announced they are teaming up to install 100 fast chargers across the U.S. This trend of automaker involvement is likely to continue as more companies will recognize the benefits of expanding charging networks as a lucrative marketing vehicle.

Automakers and utilities have long collaborated on pilot EV charging projects, and BMW and PG&E announced in January that they will be compensating BMW i3 owners for participating in demand response programs. Because of rising CAFÉ standards and the ZEV requirements in California and other states, automakers need to sell PEVs, and reducing the cost of owning a PEV, by enabling motorists to participate in grid services managed by utilities, is a logical pathway. Look for more states to be petitioned by utilities for permission to directly participate in EV charging station ownership and to develop EV-friendly compensation plans and rate structure.


· · 3 years ago

I'm surprised that Leafs have been out for almost 4 years and it's never been a matter of public controversy that Mobil and Chevron can sell gas for cars, but PG&E cannot sell electricity for cars (directly). Is it that Mobil and Chevron franchise their stations out, and PG&E would be doing it truly directly?

· · 3 years ago

An interim step that ALL states with TOLL roads should concentrate on would be Level 3 Fast/DC charging stations at existing "Fuel/Rest Stops". In New York this could be accomplished across 3/4 of the 450 mile NYS Thruway (the old Erie Canal pathway) by one utility: National Grid. Two others, Rochester and Central Hudson could easily pick up the baton in their short stretches, and suddenly, most all of populated upstate NY corridor would become within "range."

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