Now that automakers are rolling out electric vehicles, players in Texas’ deregulated electric market are debating which of them should provide the charging stations to keep those vehicles running.
A central question — which could be among many that will arise if electric cars become part of the motoring mainstream — is whether infrastructure costs should be shared by all electric customers or just electric vehicle owners.
CenterPoint Energy, which operates the poles and wires that carry power to customers in the Houston area, says it’s best suited to install and manage chargers because it knows what transformers can handle and can plan accordingly for the increased loads chargers will produce.
“If we don’t know where they are, we can’t mitigate the impact,” said Charles Flynn, manager of clean air technology at CenterPoint.
But at least two major electric retailers — the companies that sell the electricity CenterPoint distributes — already are installing charging stations and argue that it should be their job.
CenterPoint hasn’t installed any electric vehicle charging stations yet, but Flynn said it would be well positioned to put them in public spaces since it is regulated and has franchise agreements with cities to place necessary equipment in public rights of way.
Deregulation separated the monopoly poles and wires companies like CenterPoint from now-competitive power generators and retail providers that sell power to consumers.
“So we’ve been wondering how to do this,” Flynn said, noting that the cost of public charging stations could be worked into base rates paid by all customers, while those installed at private homes or businesses would be paid by those individual customers.
CenterPoint has asked the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates poles and wires companies and sets their rates, for permission to develop a system of charging stations. If that is approved, CenterPoint will propose a rate structure to recover its costs, Flynn said.
The PUC is still gathering information on what its role will be, said spokesman Terry Hadley. The commission would be involved to the extent a regulated utility like CenterPoint wanted to adjust rates, but it has not yet established policies relating to charging stations.
The regulators might consider, among other things, whether it is desirable to limit the charging infrastructure to one sector of the industry.
Retailers that wanted to operate charging infrastructure would have to place stations at private businesses, such as grocery stores, and use meters at those locations to charge for the power.
The business strategy behind that would be that customers could charge cars while they shopped, since charging takes longer than filling up with gasoline.
Houston-based Reliant Energy and Dallas-based TXU, retailers less regulated than the monopoly wires companies, already are establishing a foothold, donating charging stations to cities in the state.
The retailers say they want to assuage “range anxiety” – drivers’ fears of getting stranded if their cars run out of power because there aren’t enough places to recharge.
TXU last month said it will install at least a dozen charging stations on city property in Fort Worth and Dallas and pay for the power used by public vehicles for a year. The company already is offering chargers to businesses and said it likely will offer installation service for residential customers next year.
Reliant last year donated 10 charging stations to Houston, seven of which are accessible to the public for free.
Its parent company, NRG, said earlier this year that it plans to develop a local charging system for electric vehicle owners and introduce electric pricing plans geared to electric car owners.
The company contends that stations should be privately funded and owned so people who don’t own electric vehicles won’t have to bear the costs.
“For a number of years, EVs are likely to be a second or third car for families. Making a rate-based system could result in people who cannot afford a first car buying public charging stations to support another family’s second or third car. We do not believe this is a desired public policy,” said NRG spokesman David Knox.
He agrees, however, that retailers will need to coordinate with CenterPoint and other entities operating the grid so they know where the charging stations are located.
Electric car advocates say it doesn’t matter who owns the stations as long as there are enough to encourage use of the vehicles.
Some stores, including a Half Price Books location in North Texas and a Whole Foods in Austin, already are buying chargers themselves and offering them as a free service to shoppers.
“I think it’s healthy to have a mix,” said Russ Keene, a spokesman for Plug-In Texas, a coalition of retailers, car dealers, environmental groups and others promoting the electric vehicle industry. “Any innovation – the market will sort it out.”