Wisconsin Regulators Study Growing Use of Electric Vehicles

The Public Service Commission, which opened an investigation into legal questions surrounding the use of electric vehicles and the role of regulators, is planning a workshop next month on breaking down barriers.

by Chris Hubbuch, The Wisconsin State Journal / November 21, 2019
Downtown Madison, Wis. Shutterstock/Reel Wave Media

(TNS) — As Wisconsin regulators continue to study ways to respond to the growing use of electric vehicles, Xcel Energy is proposing programs to encourage adoption by its customers.

The Public Service Commission, which in April opened an investigation into legal questions surrounding the use of electric vehicles and the roles of utilities and regulators, is planning a workshop next month on breaking down barriers to the deployment of electric vehicles and EV charging stations.

Limited availability of public charging stations was the most frequently cited barrier to electric vehicle adoption in comments filed last summer. In a second round of comments, respondents suggested holding workshops.

“People had wanted … to come to a better understanding of where this should all lead to,” PSC spokesman Matt Sweeney said Wednesday. “We’re trying to make this more an open collaborative process than to steer it in any particular direction.”

Among the questions facing policymakers is who is allowed to own and operate public charging stations. Under some readings of the law, only regulated public utilities may sell electricity.

Coupled with a shift to clean energy sources, electric vehicles are seen as the best shot at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, now the single-largest source of U.S. carbon dioxide pollution.

They also represent unique opportunities and challenges for utilities, perhaps the greatest shift in demand in more than sixty years.

Citing some of the barriers identified in the PSC investigation, Xcel, the nation’s first large utility to commit to providing carbon-free electricity by 2050, filed an application Wednesday for two programs the utility said would “simplify and significantly lower the cost” for customers who want to charge electric vehicles.

“Our commitment to clean energy is reflected in our strong support for electric vehicles,” said Mark Stoering, president of Xcel’s Wisconsin subsidiary. “Electric vehicles are great for the environment, and as they become more affordable, we’re going to see more of them on the road.”

While battery-powered vehicles account for less than 1% of new vehicles sold last year in Wisconsin, they are a fast-growing market.

There are now more than 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts EV sales will grow 30-fold in the next decade as automakers roll out hundreds of new models and prices fall.

BNEF predicts electric vehicles will outsell gas and diesel models by 2040.

Under the proposal, Xcel, which serves about 242,000 customers in western Wisconsin, would install fast-charging stations that can monitor energy use and offer customers a different rate structure to encourage charging at night, when wholesale electricity prices are cheapest.

Xcel says by using off-peak rates, customers would pay the equivalent of just 54 cents per gallon of gasoline based on average fuel efficiency ratings.

Customers could pay for the charging stations up front or through monthly bill installments.

The voluntary programs -- for residential and commercial customers -- are modeled after a pilot tested by its Minnesota subsidiary.

“I'm really excited to see the Xcel Minnesota program brought to Wisconsin,” said Jane McCurry, electric vehicle program manager for Renew Wisconsin. “It was really successful at pushing EV load to nighttime hours when the electricity is cheap, which means the customer, grid, and all ratepayers benefit.”

In its filing, Xcel said it is seeking to address barriers identified by the PSC investigation -- including lack of customer awareness, high up-front costs and unclear signals on how and when to charge -- without ratepayer subsidies.

The program is similar to one introduced by Madison Gas and Electric in 2016. MGE spokesman Steve Schultz said the utility has installed about 70 home charging stations, though he said far more customers are using their own equipment to charge cars at home.

The PSC recently rejected proposals from several utilities, including We Energies and Sun Prairie Utilities, to offer cash incentives for customers to install home charging stations.

In both cases, Republican-appointed commissioners cited concerns about non-participating ratepayers subsidizing vehicles for people who likely would purchase them anyway.

The Dec. 5 PSC workshop will be open to the public, though the PSC is asking people who want to participate to register in advance.

©2019 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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