Photo By: Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press
One of the main issues of concern in the emerging Electric Vehicle market is the classic chicken or egg dilemma: Which comes first, widespread EV ownership or a statewide EV charging network? Many analysts believe that increasing the availability of charging stations for electric vehicles would make a big difference for increasing the interest of potential EV buyers. But without a bigger market, private charging companies and other businesses seem reluctant to invest in such a network.
In our last newsletter we noted that one Michigan utility, Consumers Energy, attempted to break this logjam by coming up with a plan to develop a $15 million EV charging network in its service territory, but later withdrew their proposal after concerns were raised by a variety of private and public interests. In a Detroit Free Press story covering the controversy, it was suggested that the debate itself may now be slowing electric car growth in Michigan.
The state is home to approximately 330 public charging stations, but they are not distributed particularly well across the state and they also haven’t kept up with demand as the EV market expands--now over 10,000. That means that current and potential EV drivers have less choices for re-charging when their batteries run low, reducing their potential value and creating range anxiety, which is the fear that an EV may run out of charge before the driver can find an available station to plug-in.
The main question seems to be, who builds and pays for the charging stations needed to make more trips viable for electric vehicles or to ameliorate range anxiety? In the Consumer Energy plan, the utility would have built the charging network and their electricity customers would have underwritten the cost. It’s a simple and straightforward approach, but perhaps too simple for addressing a range of concerns that arise, such as why can’t EV drivers or charging station site owners help share the cost, or whether other charging supplier businesses might be better equipped at building out the charging network.
Chargepoint, for example, the company that runs the nation's largest network of electric vehicle charging stations, agrees that public utilities are an important partner in the deployment of charging infrastructure, but thinks that a utility ownership approach would stifle competition from 3rd party suppliers. They would prefer that utilities provide incentives to business that want to install the stations, leaving it to the market to site and operate the network.
Environmental stakeholders share concerns about competition, but think there may be a range of models that could work. Also of importance is ensuring that stations are sited where they may be most used and useful, and provide the greatest benefit to potential EV drivers. Workplaces, multi-family housing, and strategically placed public charging should be priorities. Requiring charging station hosts to contribute financially to installations would likely help to ensure that the stations will get used, and making sure that any fees for EV charging sessions are applied fairly will help ensure that benefits are realized while also providing appropriate price signals.
Solving these issues is critical if we want to get past the current EV charging station logjam. The Michigan Public Service Commission’s EV/CNG technical conference this summer thus provides a key opportunity for getting the various parties together and finding common ground for an approach going forward. The Commission has established a date of August 9, and is asking for stakeholders to help them answer a range of key questions about the role of utilities and the Commission itself in setting policy on this issue.
We will be there, and hopefully you will too if you have ideas to share. The Commission will be accepting comments through 5 PM on July 31st.