If you build it, will they charge? Utilities cautious in plans to spur electric vehicle adoption

Utilities are well positioned to enhance EV infrastructure, but many are waiting for a push from regulators and the market

One utility's small electric vehicle charger pilot raises a big question: Why is it taking so long to build the infrastructure that could drive the plug-in car industry?

Avista Utilities will spend $3 million to install, own, and operate 272 grid-integrated electric vehicle (EV) chargers at about 200 residential, workplace, and public charging sites in its Eastern Washington state service territory. The utility's intent is to understand and prepare for managing the impacts of a higher EV charging load on its system.

The state of Washington had over 16,000 EVs at the end of 2015 and the Washington State Electric Vehicle Action Plan targets 50,000 plug-in vehicles by 2020, according to Avista Utilities Manager of Electric Transportation Rendall Farley.

The state currently has 1,544 public charging outlets, and it doesn’t take a mathematician to divide 50,000 by 1,544 and get chaos. That is an exaggeration of the imbalance, of course, because the number of chargers will grow with the adoption of EVs. But it is emblematic of a potential national imbalance between cars with plugs and spots to charge.

The U.S. has 482,217 EVs, according to Plug-in America, and there are 14,040 public charging stations and 35,006 charging outlets, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Considering a level 2 charger’s 10 to 20 miles of range per hour of charging rate, 35,000 chargers for more than 482,200 cars is not a formula for convenience.

And, while small pilots like Avista’s are emerging, the imbalance may be growing.

“Largely funded by DOE and state programs, there was a significant EV infrastructure build-up between 2011 and 2014, GTM Research Senior Analyst Ravi Manghani told Utility Dive, "but in recent months EV sales have outstripped infrastructure growth."

To address the imbalance, the White House just announced a plan to make up to $4.5 billion in loan guarantees available to accelerate EV growth. A key goal of the plan is to stimulate public-private-utility partnerships that will drive more deployment of charging infrastructure. The Department of Energy also has a strategic partnership with the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for investor-owned utilities, to expand EV adoption.

Despite that, many utilities say they face the problem of whether to build out EV charging infrastructure now, betting on later adoption, or to wait for consumer demand to pick up, and risk slowing EV growth and being froze out of the charging market. Though the Avista pilot's numbers are small, its structure may point the way toward some larger strategies to solve the national EV imbalance.

DC Fast Charging stations can be too expensive for private vendors to install at public locations, opening an opportunity to deploy utility capital.
GTM Research


The utility charger scene

Utilities would seem to have the deep pockets to support large charger infrastructure builds and they could benefit from the increased load, but they have been hampered by regulatory constraints.

“This is a tricky market for utilities,” said GTM Research Analyst Timotej Gavrilovic.

In California, which leads the country in EV adoption, regulators scaled back Southern California Edison’s $22 million Charge Ready pilot and San Diego Gas and Electric’s $45 million Power Your Drive program in final approvals. Pacific Gas and Electric proposed the most ambitious U.S. utility charger installation program, has twice had it scaled back by regulators, and is still awaiting a final ruling.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power faces a mandate requiring electrification of 80% the city’s fleet vehicles by 2025. At present, it is focusing on its own fleet, providing technical and other kinds of support for other City Departments, and “exploring new technologies,” according to Spokesperson Amanda Parsons.

The utility’s PlugShare network of 16 DC Fast Chargers has proven to include “some of the most popular chargers in the state,” she added.

In Los Angeles, where there are approximately 20 electric vehicles for every public charger, the buildout of public and workplace infrastructure “is seriously lagging,” Parsons said. “The ratio should be more like four or five vehicles to one public charger.”

LADWP's Charge Up LA! rebate program targets growth in public, workplace, and multi-family dwellings by offering rebates of up to $4000 per charger on up to 20 chargers per site, she said.

Massachusetts is second to California in EV adoption. Both Eversource and National Grid, the Bay State's dominant electricity providers, are both working on charger infrastructure.

National Grid now has over 150 public level 2 stations across its multi-state footprint and is installing three public fast-charging stations in Boston as demonstrations, according to Spokesperson Danielle Williamson.

National Grid expects that new vehicles in the marketplace, continued federal and state vehicle incentives, and increasing consumer demand will continue to drive EV adoption, she said.

The utility understands this means there will be a growing need for more public EV charging infrastructure and foresees a coming policy signal, Williamson said. Because of state Zero Emission Vehicle goals, “we expect our states to require substantially more public charging options in the next several years.”

Eversource had “about 6,500 plug-in EVs in our service territory with over 700 publicly accessible charging stations in our region,” reported Energy Manager for Research and Business Development Watson Collins.

The New England utility also began working with the State of Connecticut on the pilot Plug My Ride rate plan. The program will offer up to 105 EV owners a rate designed “to encourage off-peak charging with innovative technologies that enable charging in a grid-friendly manner,” Collins said.

“Parts of the EV charging infrastructure build-out are progressing well and other parts of the infrastructure build face challenges,” he added.

Charging infrastructure for single family homes is responding to the market, but progress on the build-out of DC Fast Chargers, of workplace and public charging infrastructure, and of charging stations for multi-family dwellings “is more inconsistent,” he said.

The Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) just got regulatory approval to install, own, and operate up to 25 EV fast chargers. The utility has installed eight, and is making plans “to locate them strategically, especially in remote locations with limited public charging,” said Spokesperson Peter Rosegg.

eHECO has one of the biggest EV fleets in Hawaii, supported by onsite level 2 chargers, and is planning a workplace charger build-out for utility employees, Rosegg added. HECO is also working with a private sector start-up that will provide mobile charging to improve access at multi-family dwellings.

Charging infrastructure and EVs in Hawaii are presently “growing apace,” Rosegg said. Though some areas are underserved and there is a growing demand for fast chargers, the state has “a relatively large number of public level 1 and level 2 chargers.”

Providing access to charging will continue to be a challenge as EV adoption grows, Rosegg added, because rising demand has to be balanced by deliberateness in finding the right sites and in using ratepayer capital.

California has by far the most EVs in the U.S., but utilities expect adoption to accelerate in other states as well. 

If you build it, will they charge?

Deliberateness aside, the question remains if enough utilities and commissions are being proactive enough to help boost EV growth. California’s IOUs have each proposed thousands of charging points, but elsewhere, most EV pilots remain closer to the size of Avista’s — a few hundred.

"The 200 or so chargers is a pretty small number,” said Chris Nelder, a manager in the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) electricity program and lead author of the recently-released report “Electric Vehicles as Distributed Energy Resources.”

“But,” Nelder said, “there need to be vehicles to justify building chargers and there need to be chargers before people will buy vehicles."

Nationwide, that chicken-or-the-egg problem of whether to build chargers first or wait for adoption to spike is a common problem for the EV sector.  

EVs are 0.16% of vehicles on the road and 0.7% of new vehicle sales per year,” Nelder said. “That is too small to attract the needed investment for chargers and if more chargers were to get built, the investor would end up asking ‘where are all the EVs to plug in?’”

“While it is true that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ it is not easy to invest millions of dollars without seeing commensurate EV growth,” Manghani said.

Traditional financial markets have been unwilling to supply the “at least $2 billion to $4 billion” necessary for adequate charger infrastructure to “move the needle,” added Gavrilovic. "Almost half of existing charging infrastructure was built with state and federal funding."

ChargePoint, the dominant private sector player to date, has invested $170 million to build thousands of public charging spots, the company reports, but a new federal financing program could open up significantly more money.

A newly-announced $4.5 billion in federal loan guarantees can connect needed levels of funding to such entrepreneurs. Gavrilovic expects the initiative to have a noticeable impact by mid-to-late 2017.

Other private sector players that could benefit from the loan guarantee opportunity include EV makers Tesla and Nissan and charger manufacturers ABB, AeroVironment, NRG/EVGO, Eaton, Car Charging Group, Schneider, General Electric, according to Gavrilovic.

Emotorwerks has built thousands of mostly residential charge spots but is now focusing its efforts on adding software to its own and other suppliers’ hardware to make them "smart." It is also pushing for more such efforts.

“The build-out of public level 2 chargers is going slow because there is no viable economic model behind it,” said emotorwerks CEO Valery Miftakov. “The hardware is too expensive, installation is too expensive, and there is no grid service revenue to capture.”

Though his smart charger company is ahead of most utilities at building out EV infrastructure,  “the move to electricity as a dominant transportation fuel is an enormous opportunity for them,” Miftakov said. “They should be at the forefront of stimulating EVs and smart-grid charging, while allowing the competitive marketplace to perfect the technologies.”

The Avista pilot’s importance

In its two year pilot, Avista hopes to lay the groundwork to help it be at the forefront of EV adoption and management. The utility will build residential level 2 chargers and workplace and public location chargers, including seven level 3 DC fast chargers.

It is “something of an experiment for where we are now and to stay a little ahead of the curve,” Farley said. It is the beginning of “a strategic long-term play.”

The cost of driving electric is presently under $1 per gallon nationally and at 60 cents per gallon in Avista’s territory, Farley said. “It will always be lower than gasoline-fueled vehicles even at low gasoline prices.”

The utility’s expectation is that EV adoption will grow because they will become even more affordable, performance will get better, and the public’s concerns about the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel powered vehicles will grow, Farley said.

When adoption reaches a significant penetration, a large number of EV owners coming home in the evening and plugging in could add a problematic load spike in the middle of a utility’s peak demand, according to RMI’s Nelder. But smartly deployed charging stations and the right price signals to customers can manage EV charging so that the load does not worsen peak demand and “could reduce the unit cost of electricity by eliminating the need to invest in peaking capacity.”

Learning how to manage a system’s EV charging load is a big part of the purpose of the Avista pilot, Farley said. Being prepared for what an EV expansion would mean to its system is part of a utility's core obligation to provide safe reliable electricity at the lowest possible cost.

“This industry is in its infancy and adoption in Eastern Washington is much lower than in other places,” Farley said. “But driving electric is coming and this is our opportunity to learn and to help shape something that will benefit all our customers when adoption increases.”

Avista will use Greenlots’ hardware-agnostic SKY platform to integrate a range of charging station technologies into its system. Vendors include Siemens, BTC, EVSE, Efacec, and others.

A number of other utilities, including Southern California Edison, Hawaiian Electric, and the Southern California Public Power Authority, have already used Greenlots’ software for EV charger, demand side management, and energy storage management programs.

“It is not just more EVs, but EVs with bigger batteries that makes pilots like Avista’s important,” said Greenlots CEO Brett Hauser. “The 2017 and 2018 EVs will have 200 mile or more ranges. The highest output chargers now are 50 kW but in the not-too-distant future it will be necessary to have chargers of at least 100 kW to 150kW.”

A number of those at a workplace could represent a 1 MW or more demand on the grid, Hauser said. “The best way to handle that is to think of it as a distributed energy resource and couple fast-charging with storage in the same way they are planning to couple solar and storage.”

That kind of planning will increase utilities’ grid flexibility, reduce infrastructure costs, and provide the charging services EV drivers need, Hauser added. “Utilities can be proactive or reactive. With this pilot, Avista and its commission are being proactive.”

Can utilities lead a collaboration?

Utility involvement in the charger build-out is double-edged because they have the balance sheets, but they don’t have the expertise, Gavrilovic said.

Both emotorwerk’s Miftakov and Gavrilovic said they see infrastructure deployment as a broader stakeholder process. Utilities can build “the pipes and wires to the charging outlet and let private sector providers take it from there," Gavrilovic said.

Funding through state and federal sources will continue to be “key,” he added.

If utilities were to focus on home and workspace charging, it would drive the market, Miftakov added. They should “build stub-outs, enable sub-metering through stations, and give customers incentives to buy smart-grid enabled charging stations instead of the dumb stations.”

Though National Grid has supported deployment of public charging infrastructure through a range of funding, “revenues paid by EV drivers at the stations or via membership fees do not appear sufficient to support the payback of capital invested,” Williamson observed.

“We do not yet see a viable independent business model emerging for public charging operations,” she added.

Until pilot programs demonstrate how utility involvement can enable the EV charger market, she said, collaboration between state agencies, automakers, EV charging manufacturers, installers, utilities and others stakeholders will be required to provide the charging infrastructure needed to support EV growth goals.

Cost and permitting barriers to residential charging infrastructure have been driven down in Eversource territory by robust competition, Collins said. But the “lack of alignment of interests” is blocking the public build-out needed.

Large commercial property owners who might install charging don’t have the incentives that provide the “economic motivations” that EV drivers have, he said.

A utility coordinated program could overcome that barrier, but Eversource, like National Grid, is waiting for regulators to indicate it should become more proactive.

EV charging infrastructure is “the next opportunity” and utilities’ “scope and scale” can grow it by making it easy for site hosts and drivers, Collins said. “It is what we do; build, own and operate large-scale infrastructure to move electricity.”

HECO sees many of the same opportunities in EV adoption that Avista’s Farley described. Smartly deployed and managed, chargers can increase overall load while reducing overall fixed utility costs, Rosegg said. They can also be “a great use for excess electricity from the growing grid-scale and customer-sited solar.”

There are opportunities for both utilities and private providers, Rosegg said. The cost of DC fast chargers may make installing them unprofitable for private providers. But because of the advantages charging offers the utility, HECO’s program is entirely publicly-sited DC fast chargers and it purchases equipment and services from private sector providers through a competitive bidding process.

“Electric transportation is the only program that has the potential to lower the cost of electricity for all LADWP customers, both those that drive electric and those that do not,” Parsons said.

If customers charge off-peak, the electricity can be delivered with minimal capital investment. “Electricity cost is based on cents/kWh,” Parsons explained. “If we make the kWh large with very little cents, it makes the cost of electricity cheaper.”

EVs will also add night time load for contracted wind power and, eventually, will be critical to mid-day solar over-generation.    

But the build-out continues to be obstructed by “a lack of a business case” because “there is a difficult financial return on investment for the cost of the charger and installation,” Parsons said.

There is also a lack of education about both EV charger infrastructure and about how customers can obtain them. “Utilities need to do a better job helping customers,” she said.

Various models for utility participation have emerged, but “in an ideal world, LADWP would prefer not to own or operate chargers or anything downstream of the customer’s meter,” Parsons said. “Our desire is to support and make our customers successful, no matter what their business model is.”

LADWP is likely to evenutally own "some" infrastructure but "our preference is to take away some of the barriers to EV charging and support those that choose to be in this space," Parsons said. "Working together with customers and installation companies, we see a greater opportunity for success."

Charging for the public interest

The logical progression of EV adoption, RMI’s Nelder said, is that people will buy vehicles and charge at home until there is a critical mass that drives the deployment of chargers at workplaces and public parking places.

Next, mandates by municipalities like the one LADWP faces will grow economies of scale, bringing the cost per charger and per installation down, he said.

If regulators allow it, utilities will “step up,” Nelder said. They know the sites that will provide the most value to their systems at the lowest cost. That will spur further cost-effectiveness.

“But the utility does not necessarily have to own or operate or install the infrastructure,” he said. “That is a different question.”

The one thing that is clear to him, however, is that utilities’ strong balance sheets, access to low cost capital, and deep knowledge of their systems would allow them to grow more public charging infrastructure faster.

“The more difficult question is whether that is in the best interest of the public,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

It is not inevitable that utilities would push out private sector players because regulators can impose whatever restrictions and requirements are necessary to prevent that, Nelder said.

“The right times and places to charge EVs will vary, depending on the type of grid and the type of resources,” Nelder said. “In sunny places, charging can absorb mid-day solar over-generation. In other places, it can alleviate wind curtailment at night. There is no one-size-fits-all answer."

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