Pennsylvania electric utilities develop policies for charging cars

From Pittsburgh Post-Gazette PowerSource

Pennsylvania regulators are no strangers to what happens when new technology meets old regulations.

Uber, anyone?

This time, it’s electric vehicle charging stations, an emerging industry trying to find its footing and an economic model in Pennsylvania.

In an effort to encourage the growth of the industry, at least one utility — Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Light — is allowing charging station operators to resell its electricity, sometimes at a substantial markup.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission announced this week that it is exploring how electric utilities should treat these charging stations, which pull electricity from the grid and redistribute it to a number of clients. One thing the agency wants to know is if the model developed by Duquesne Light should serve as a model for a state standard.

While gasoline stations have about a century’s head start, the electric car charging stations are just moving from people’s garages to more commercial spaces in Pennsylvania. It may be a while before signs pop up on the corner advertising a price per kilowatt hour.

The Pittsburgh utility is the only one in Pennsylvania that has a specific policy for electric vehicle charging stations — it excuses them from regulations that say a customer can’t resell or redistribute the utility’s product. Those prohibitions were designed to prevent situations like a landlord charging tenants different rates than what a utility would charge.

But a few years ago, when a company called the Blink Network wanted to put an electric vehicle charging station into the Oakmont service plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Duquesne Light had to make a decision — would it allow this company to not only redistribute its product but also charge more for per kilowatt hour of its customers than what it pays the utility?

The utility was hesitant at first, recalled Rick Price, executive director of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, an organization that promotes alternative fuel transportation.

He called up Duquesne Light and argued that it would be in the utility’s interest to clear the roadblocks for customers that would then use more electricity.

“Hey, they’re promoting this stuff,” he said.

In the end, Duquesne Light agreed. In 2014, several years before the utility would announce its plan to boost electric vehicles and related infrastructure in an effort to expand and accommodate its customer base, Duquesne Light changed its tariff to roll out the red carpet for charging stations.

It’s a balancing act, said Jamie Davis, director of rates at Duquesne Light.

“As a utility, we don’t want other people redistributing power,” he said. But, “It is something that our customers are asking us for. It’s certainly good for the environment. And we just want to make sure we’re ready for new technology.”

What might make the situation easier to swallow for utilities, at least for the time being, is that most of the 120 or so electric vehicle charging stations in southwestern Pennsylvania today don’t actually charge for their service, Mr. Price said.

Many are installed at commercial buildings or parking garages and allow free access.

“Most people are using it to draw in customers,” Mr. Price said.

At One Oxford Center, for example, employees who drive electric vehicles were asking for charging stations inside the garage, or they could take their monthly lease checks to another garage, Mr. Price said.

Even at gas stations, it’s a mixed bag. Giant Eagle’s GetGo stations don’t charge customers to refill their cars’ electric batteries, while Sheetz and Sunoco do.

Duquesne Light’s current arrangement is sufficient to create a welcoming environment for this infrastructure and provide consistency, Mr. Davis said, but he conceded that if the number of stations multiplies — and all of them start charging for the electricity they provide — Duquesne might have to rethink its model.

Across the state, there are 723 such stations, according to the Public Utility Commission’s document initiating the new study.

The agency wants to make sure that its rules aren’t a barrier to future development, said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokesman for the commission, but also that electric customers are treated fairly and consistently as the industry develops.

Different utilities have so far handled these requests in their own, standardized ways, he said.

Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy’s utilities, which include West Penn Power, don’t have any provisions for such stations in their tariffs.

Another motivation, Mr. Hagen-Frederiksen said, is to ensure protections for consumers are in place if and when charging companies move en masse to a more conventional model — actually charging for service.

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.