PUC mulls role of utilities in EV charging

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is putting his name on a bill that would fund and support electric vehicle deployment.

The Oregon Public Utilities Commission is considering whether utilities should should be allowed to develop electric vehicle charging infrastructure. At issue is whether utilities, which can roll the cost into power rates, would have an advantage over third-party developers.

A debate about whether utilities will be allowed to build and maintain charging infrastructure for electric vehicles may soon be settled, even while rapid deployment of EVs has yet to take hold.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission has considered the matter since December 2009 and could resolve it later next month.

At issue is whether utilities in Oregon should be allowed to develop charging infrastructure at all. Because they routinely roll the capital cost of building infrastructure into the rates charged for power, utilities could have a clear advantage over third parties building in charging stations, if allowed.

The commission could still decide not to take action on the issue. Yet while any decision may not become public for weeks, it is being closely watched by utilities, automakers, ratepayer advocates and companies poised to deploy their own charging infrastructure in Oregon.

Any decision will come on the heels of a recent ruling in California, in which the California Public Utility Commission opted to keep utilities out of the charging infrastructure market unless they demonstrate, through a separate process, a lack of charging services in a particular area.

The PUC staff in Oregon, however, is recommending the state open the door to utilities to own and operate charging stations, provided they shoulder the capital cost of doing so outside of rates. The proposal is aimed at creating a level playing field between utility and private sector competitors.

The matter may not be of import for years, until electric vehicles deploy en masses all over the state. But if and when it does become critical, it may prove most important for travelers and in rural communities, where utilities might be the best option for charging infrastructure while private companies target urban areas more likely to show returns.

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Lee van der Voo, lvdvoo*at*gmail.com, is a freelance writer for Sustainable Business Oregon


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