Though state regulators signed off on $4 million in fast-charging stations along Interstate 70, plans to move ahead with an $18 million incentive program were stalled.
Missouri utility Ameren will soon be able to proceed with installation of electric vehicle charging stations along area highway corridors — a goal the St. Louis-based utility has eyed since 2016, when it first pitched a plan to see if charging stations along Interstate 70 would help boost adoption of electric vehicles in surrounding counties.
But broader, newer aspirations from the company will have to wait, after Missouri regulators ruled this week that Ameren could move forward with about $4 million of fast-charging station projects but would not be able to pursue the remainder of $18 million in proposed incentives that highlighted its “Charge Ahead” program for electric vehicles, announced last year.
The regulatory decision touches on key questions about the emerging frontier of electric vehicle charging technology: To what extent do monopolized utilities, such as Ameren, belong in an industry where independent competition exists? And if Ameren does throw its weight behind efforts to help serve or accelerate the shift to electric vehicles, should it be able to have ratepayers cover its investment, despite the competitive — and not siloed — landscape of the charging station industry?
For years now, the Missouri Public Service Commission has been weighing those quandaries as the state’s utilities try to figure out how they fit into the evolving picture of electric vehicle, or EV, charging. It has been a dizzying sequence, at times, tracking the PSC’s interpretation and re-evaluation of its role as a regulator of the technology.
In early 2017, for instance, Ameren backed off its initial proposal to launch a pilot project for charging station installations along the I-70 corridor, after the commission determined that it should not regulate charging stations, thanks, in part, to charging services provided by competitive companies, such as ChargePoint.
“We should only be regulating where there’s natural monopolies, not where there is competition,” then- PSC Chairman Daniel Hall said in April 2017. “And there is very clearly competition.”
The PSC also voiced skepticism about whether EV charging stations legally qualified as “electric plants” that it was authorized to regulate. Its decision not to oversee the arena would not have prohibited Ameren’s involvement in the industry but would not have assured the company of recovering related costs by passing charges through to its customer base — making it a riskier investment than usual.
An appeals court, though, said in August that the PSC “erred when it held that (Kansas City Power and Light’s) electric vehicle charging stations did not fall within the statutory definition of ‘electric plant,’” wrote Judge Alok Ahuja from the Western District Court of Appeals. The ruling asked to “reverse that aspect” of the PSC’s position “and remand the case to the Commission for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
The move was seen by some as a court-ordered blessing for the PSC to help pave the way for greater utility investment in EV charging stations.
But last week’s proceedings show that there is still some uncertainty about how Missouri should move forward with the technology. PSC commissioners voted 4-1 on an order to grant partial approval to the proposed investments in Ameren’s Charge Ahead program introduced last February, when the utility resurrected its plans for EV charging.
“I think that this is going to be a good step in the right direction as we look to build out EV infrastructure across the state,” said PSC Chairman Ryan Silvey, adding that the charging corridor targeted by Ameren was the only aspect of the company’s plan worth advancing “at this time.”
Though it did not grant Ameren’s other requests to incentivize electrification of commercial vehicles, including forklifts, and install about 1,200 plugs for charging, Hall said the PSC approval closely mirrored what Ameren had sought with its first charging station proposal.
“What we have approved here is really similar to the program that Ameren brought to us originally,” said Hall, who now serves as a PSC commissioner. “They emphasized the corridor originally. When they came back a second time, they had a whole host of other programs but this is what they told us before was the most important thing to do, and I agree.”
But Scott Rupp, the lone dissenting commissioner, felt that the commission did not go far enough, fast enough.
“We’re going to have a pilot program, so we’re going to have to wait several years to find out and analyze the results to — in my opinion — to find out that we should’ve just had a more robust program in the Ameren service territory,” said Rupp. “So I can’t support this based off of I don’t think it’s strong enough, I don’t think it’s viable enough, I think there should be the non-corridor programs included.”
Rupp’s stance was echoed by some electric vehicle proponents and environmental activists, such as the Sierra Club.
“It was a mix of good and bad news. It could’ve gone a lot farther,” said Andy Knott, a representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Missouri. “They rejected a significant part of this proposal that would’ve incentivized putting charging stations at apartment buildings and businesses.”
He believes that strong utility involvement is necessary to help drive the electrification of the transportation sector — a shift with enormous potential to reduce carbon emissions.
Those in the private sector, including Ameren, said that they were encouraged by the PSC’s overall sentiment on electric vehicles, even if the utility did not get what it sought.
“We did achieve some really constructive outcomes. ... I don’t know that it’s completely back to the drawing board,” said Steve Wills, Ameren’s director of rates and analysis, who touted the corridor plans as the biggest win for advancing EVs regionally.
“The second biggest win in it is the commission’s recognition of EV benefits for our customers,” he added. “They want to try to accelerate those benefits.”
Independent charging station operators, including ChargePoint, echoed that optimism. Rather than seeing utilities as competitors in the space, the California company — which has 60,000 public charging locations in the U.S., and 1,400 in Missouri — sees them as allies.
“There’s no doubt that utilities have a critical role to play in EV charging infrastructure,” said David Schatz, ChargePoint’s director of public policy.
He thinks the latest dialogue from the PSC signals that they feel similarly.
“I think it’s clear that the commissioners see the value of EV charging as a part of the grid of the future,” said David Schatz, ChargePoint’s director of public policy. “That is definitely an encouraging sign.”
©2019 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.