PG&E’s EV plans-oversized or visionary?

All eyes are on PG&E’s plug-in depot plan which is set to be the country’s largest deployment.
Published: Tue 06 Sep 2016

Pacific Gas & Electric Co, California’s biggest utility is aiming to install 7,600 electric vehicle charging stations to the grid over the next three years. This includes 7,500 Level 2 charging ports and 100 direct-current (DC) fast chargers. Level 2 charging stations can fully charge a car in four to eight hours. These are to be placed primarily at workplaces and multifamily dwellings. The DC fast chargers will be put in locations like shopping areas or near highways. Those can power up an EV in 20 to 30 minutes. In comparison, Tesla Motors Inc., developer of luxury EVs, owns about 4,000 DC fast charger stations, which its vehicle owners can use free of charge.  

This would be the country’s largest deployment of plug-in depots. While exciting for the EV industry, it is causing a great deal of controversy as the utility’s proposal is set to cost ratepayers $160 million and there are those who say the deployment is too big.  

Although the utility will build and maintain the infrastructure mostly, it will also partner with charging companies. PG&E would prioritize placements at workplaces and multifamily housing, including apartment buildings and a portion of will even go to disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

EV project oversized?

Before the utility can go ahead with the charging infrastructure, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) must sign off on the plan. PG&E's proposal has won support from environmental organizations, automakers, labour unions and some in the charging business. A few charging companies are opposed to it because the ‘competition is too large’.

Some consumer groups have their doubts as to whether the deployment will encourage EV sales. "This is an experiment, and in our view it's an oversized experiment," said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman at consumer group the Utility Reform Network (TURN). "We don't know that these stations will be used, or will increase EV adoption.”

All eyes on California’s EV and clean energy plans

The CPUC's decision has wide implications. There are a number of states outside of California including Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Missouri which are actively reviewing the utility’s role in EVs. If successful, California will be setting a precedent for programmes in other states.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) wants 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) — which include plug-ins — on the roads by 2025. Right now, there are an estimated 216,000 plug-in cars in California, according to the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative. That's out of an estimated 28 million cars in the Golden State, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The CPUC already has approved EV charging plans from the two other big utilities. It ordered the agency to get utilities to enact plans that would increase EV usage, indirectly helping cut petroleum use.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E) will spend $45 million and put 10 chargers at each of 350 locations, for a total of 3,500 units. It will use rates to test whether people will charge at desired times. Stations will be placed at businesses and multifamily homes. Los Angeles-based Southern California Edison (SCE) will develop the infrastructure leading up to 1,500 EV charging stations, but will let other companies build and operate the stations. Ratepayers will pay SCE's $22 million cost.

Utilities closing the EV charging gap

The utility's region stretches 70,000 square miles (181289km2)  from Humboldt County in Northern California to Bakersfield in the Central Valley. Currently, the utility has 5,000 public chargers in its territory. Supporters say that this large deployment is much needed as it will boost EV purchasers, thereby cutting greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.

Utilities need to get involved in charging to make EVs mainstream, said Max Baumhefner, an attorney for clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He explains: “There’s a growing charging infrastructure gap, and a widening recognition that we won't be able to fill it unless we have utility-scale investment," Baumhefner said. "It would help move the electric vehicle market beyond the suburbs," he added. Right now, "if you can't plug in at home, you're not going to buy a plug-in car."

Another reason why utilities need to be involved in EV charging is because it is not profitable enough for private industry to build public stations, says Baumhefner and Tom Ashley, senior director of government affairs and public policy at Greenlots, a San Francisco-based company that sells software for charging stations and energy management. The biggest cost is digging trenches to run electricity to the various locations, and installing electrical upgrades. This can cost several thousands of dollars.

Adding EV stations owned by utilities would bring in additional revenue which is advantageous for ratepayers in the long run. It will put downward pressure on rates which will be passed onto customers and utilities will hire providers to install the charging stations, as well as to perform maintenance and run the billing. The utility will own the infrastructure, with ratepayers paying the costs.

California takes its clean energy goals very seriously so there is no surprise that large EV plug in depot deployments are kicking off there. Whether or not this will boost EV sales is anyone’s guess but based on the market trends, (the latest prediction is that annual plug-in electric vehicle sales in the US are expected to exceed 1.1 million by 2024) the state is preparing for the inevitable.

 

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