California is by far the most advanced state in adopting plug-in electric cars.
Fully 45.3 percent of the country's more than 400,000 plug-in cars were sold in California, according to data from the state's Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative.
But electric cars need public charging stations, which raises the question of how they're paid for.
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Now some of California's largest electric utilities have submitted plans to install large networks of charging stations--paid for, in most cases, by their customers.
As an editorial in the Los Angeles Times last week notes, "the state's largest electric utilities are scrambling to get charging stations built over the next few years at workplaces, apartment buildings, shopping centers and other gathering spots."
It's widely accepted that public 240-Volt Level 2 charging stations are not likely to recapture the cost of their installation, maintenance, and electricity use through fees paid by drivers who use them to recharge.
Nissan unveils New Orleans' first public charging station for electric cars (photo: Richard Read)
And it remains an open question whether even DC fast-charging stations, which can recharge a battery to 80 percent of capacity in roughly 30 minutes, can pay for themselves.
If a state like California has a mandate to boost zero-emission vehicles to a majority of the cars on its roads by 2050, and charging stations are a necessary piece of the puzzle, then who should pay?
Electric-car maker Tesla Motors has funded its Supercharger DC quick-charging system itself, but it's limited to drivers of Tesla cars at the moment.
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Nissan, BMW, and Volkswagen are funding smaller networks of both Level 2 and DC quick-charging stations in limited corridors in a few regions of the U.S.
But other carmakers--notably General Motors, despite its upcoming Chevrolet Bolt EV--do not have publicized plans to contribute to charging stations, either locally or nationally.
And the Federal funding that contributed to the first few thousand charging stations starting in 2010 is now used up, and it's not likely to come back.
EV parking sign, Portland OR
Which brings us to California's electric utilities.
Two large utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric, propose to install large networks of charging stations that they would own.
And the tariffs they have submitted would require their ratepayers to cover the entire construction cost.
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The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and Southern California Edison, on the other hand, offers rebates to spur private construction of charging stations owned by others.
While its ratepayers cover the costs of that program, the ultimate owners of those stations pay for installation and operation.
The Los Angeles Times editorial comes down firmly on the side of this second model, which it notes is supported by the state's Office of Ratepayer Advocates too.
PowerPost Level 1 electric-car charging stations at Portland International Airport
"This is not good for ratepayers, and it's even worse for competition," the paper writes. "After all, who else could construct charging stations with someone else's money?"
It goes on to suggest an alternative model:
It would be better if regulators used as a model the $22 million pilot program they approved for Edison this month to subsidize 1,500 privately owned charging stations over the next two years.
Edison will offer rebates of 25 percent to 100 percent of a station's cost, with the full rebate available only for stations built in low-income communities....
That's a fairly modest incentive, and the [Public Utilities Commission] plans to review the program's effectiveness before letting Edison expand it.
EVgo DC fast-charging site in Fremont, California
Despite public hearings and comments, the politics of utility regulation are frequently impenetrable and arcane.
But we're likely to see many more such debates over coming years, as utilities both work to increase their electricity sales and become a last fallback for large-scale charger installation