As we begin to unlock the economic and environmental benefits of transportation electrification, regulators and policymakers are facing head-on the issue of whether utilities should own and operate charging stations. When utilities own this new infrastructure they can earn a rate of return on those investments, which raises the ire of independent competitors.
The responsibilities come with these various ownership models can vary across jurisdictions and markets.
Proponents of utility ownership insist that there is value to this model where regulators can dependably ensure that utility ownership is living up to the same standards imposed on a distribution utility already. Critics, on the other hand, often favor natural market competition rather than another perceived monopolistic opportunity for utilities.
To some degree, this dispute misses the point: The underlying issue of reliability exists across all market models; namely, whether electric vehicle station equipment will charge and work when a driver gets to it. It’s up to public utility commissions to ensure that—whatever the market design—drivers can be assured that they can easily and readily use a charger when they need it.
Just as it has always been, reliability needs to be front and center for commissions.
Common issues exacerbating the concept of reliability include functionality, ease of use, site outages, payment optionality, and interoperability between plug and network types. If left unaddressed and unregulated, these issues may serve to undermine consumer buy-in and ultimately—greater electric vehicle adoption.
Given the relative newness of our charging networks, we have yet to establish uniform standards by which all charging stations should operate, regardless of ownership model. But, these early days give us the opportunity to set the correct rules of the road now.
Is It Time for Reliability Standards?
The National Electric Vehicle Charging Initiative’s (NEVCI) guiding principles speak to the notion of ensuring reliability for consumers.
The main principal—that a national EV charging ecosystem should provide a convenient, reliable, seamless, and secure experience for all drivers—focuses on reliability, safety, ease of use and consumer cost.
To the extent electric vehicle adoption is influenced by regulatory decisions, there may be an opportunity for reliability to become standardized via electrification program designs with appropriate oversight.
Where the utility is the owner-operator of such electric vehicle supply equipment, or EVSE, regulators can ensure that a utility implements its distribution reliability standards in its operations and management of charging stations.
Where the utility is operating under a business-as-usual ownership model, utilities, commissions, and stakeholders can explore how to best ensure that utilities are working with their site hosts to maintain acceptable reliability standards. For such unregulated site hosting, this can mean contractual obligations between utilities and site hosts as to minimum standards.
Public utility commissions should also mandate reliability standards. This includes protecting EVSE like critical infrastructure, emergency preparedness, interconnection processes, tracking data, and ensuring continuity of operations.
And, while this may not be under the purview of public utility commissions, the NEVCI’s guiding principles reinforce that ultimately such responsibility lies with the rest of the transportation electrification ecosystem.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directs the new Joint Office of the Departments of Energy and Transportation to develop minimum standards and requirements for reliability, as well as accessibility and interoperability, to receive federal funding.
Under any ownership model or funding mechanism, and by whatever oversight, many opportunities exist to leverage and learn best practices to ensure a reliable and seamless driving experience so that the future of transportation electrification becomes our present-day experience.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Maria S. Bocanegra is a member of the Illinois Commerce Commission, where she regulates public utilities, transportation, and telecommunications entities in complex and technical matters. An attorney, she is national chair for NARUC’s EV working group, promoting understanding of transportation electrification among more than 35 public utility commissions.