Focused federal, state policies needed in order to advance EVs

Published on February 10, 2021 by Tom Ewing

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Electric utilities are in a strong position to help advance the adoption of electric vehicles in 2021 as they invest in charging infrastructure, but an unfocused patchwork of federal and state transportation electrification (TE) policies could pump the brakes on growth, stakeholders said.

Utility regulators joined electric companies and auto industry representatives to discuss EVs on a panel at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Winter Policy Summit on Tuesday.

Maryland Public Service Commission Chairman Jason Stanek cited recent announcements from U.S. automakers as one of the strong new signals for a boost in EV sales. General Motors stated it plans to be carbon-neutral by 2040 and aims to sell zero-emission light-duty vehicles by 2035, and Ford plans to invest at least $22 billion in EVs through 2025. Stanek said 2021 could be a banner year for EVs, although currently EVs make up less than 1 percent of the private U.S. auto fleet.

Stanek noted wide variance among electric utility policies that could serve to advance EV ownership. Maryland and New Jersey, he said, are among the top 10 states that allow utilities to spend ratepayers’ money on TE investments, from charging infrastructure to fleets to special rates making charging economical.

Dan Bowerson, director of Environment and Energy at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said the current 50-state patchwork of EV policies and incentives impedes the pace and direction of large-scale change. He commented that states with no mandates show no increase in EVs. A more singular federal program, he said, would help move the market. Work is needed in three areas, he said: charging infrastructure, consumer costs and customers – just getting more people into dealers’ showrooms. He said there is an opportunity now for manufacturers and utilities to work together.

Kristy Fleischmann Groncki, manager of Strategic Programs at Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, noted that utilities have a great chance to connect with customers about EVs. People turn to BG&E to ask about charging rates, for example, or installing a charging station. “We receive a lot of inquiries about questions that dealerships are sometimes not answering,” she said. Regarding EV costs, she said BG&E’s website has comparative calculators – EVs vs. internal combustion engines (ICE) – answering many questions, from commuting to fuel to maintenance.

Rohan Patel, senior global director of Public Policy and Business Development at Tesla, said this concern about a focused, federal approach has led to the development of a new federal advocacy effort among EV-related businesses. The new group, the Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA), is composed of a range of companies from electric utilities and auto and equipment manufacturers, to mining and raw material operations. If EVs are going to succeed at a national scale, Patel said, ZETA members, too, want to avoid a 50-state patchwork of standards and practices.

The discussion led to questions and comments about TE and social equity issues, getting EVs and related services in lower-income and rural areas and densely built neighborhoods with multi-use dwellings.

Patel said this remains a difficult set of issues for utility commissions and other policymakers. He said there isn’t a strong business case just to spend money on expensive charging infrastructure. Tesla, does it, he said, because the company knows that if they want customers throughout urban and rural areas, the residents there need to see fueling services.

Fleischmann Groncki said BG&E is placing recharging stations in frequently visited places: community centers, neighborhood shopping areas, libraries and parks. These familiar locations will reinforce the idea that an EV can fit smoothly into current travels and commuting.

The issues of charging and “range anxiety” generated considerable discussion from the panelists. Bowerson said he was encouraged by President Joe Biden’s goal to establish 500,000 high-speed chargers. While welcome, he noted that California officials estimate the need for 1.5 million chargers just in that state, when EV numbers reach planned levels.

Tesla’s Patel took a somewhat different take. Although additional charging stations are needed, he added that as people become increasingly familiar with EV performance dependability range anxiety issues will decline. Adding to this is the fact that batteries are getting cheaper and better, which will further allay fears about power. He also noted that peoples’ concerns about range and power decrease as they come to understand that they can always fuel their own vehicle with a plug and an outlet; service doesn’t have to come from a Level 2 or high-speed charger. He suggested that in the long run, because of better batteries and smarter customers, an EV nation could get by with fewer high-speed chargers, not necessarily the highest estimated amount.