PG&E’s EV charging station plan would cost all ratepayers

PG&E is proposing 7,600 electric vehicle charging stations.
PG&E is proposing 7,600 electric vehicle charging stations. New York Times

In California, cars are as ubiquitous as sunshine. That’s one reason more than one-third of the emissions in our state’s air come from the transportation sector. So there’s no doubt we need to get gas-guzzling cars off the road.

One attractive solution is the electric vehicle. Powered by an electric battery that has to be charged periodically, these vehicles represent a potential shift toward a cleaner, greener energy future.

However, PG&E’s plan to take advantage of the interest in EVs and expand its business to include EV charging stations isn’t about a cleaner, greener future. It’s about using customers’ money to muscle its way into the new market from its advantageous position as a monopoly with a guaranteed income and profit stream: us.

PG&E proposes a whopping 7,600 charging stations for electric vehicles, without any data or analysis to support that there is a need for them. Customers, whether they own an EV or not, would pay the $160 million-plus in estimated project costs.

Utilities can afford to dream big on their customers’ dime. But after winning limits on overly expensive charging experiments in Southern California, The Utility Reform Network knows PG&E can limit the risk to customers by starting smaller. That will give PG&E and regulators a chance to see if PG&E can be more successful in this new venture than in some previous ones.

Not only should PG&E’s program be smaller, it should plan for the future. For example, declining battery prices and improved technology will lead to increased EV range (miles per full battery charge) in coming years. This makes it even more likely that consumers will primarily charge their vehicles at home, not in the mostly public and workplace locations P&GE is proposing. There is already a robust private market for workplace and public charging, one that is seriously threatened by PG&E’s proposal.

In addition, PG&E’s proposal does nothing to address the massive barriers to EV adoption outside of the availability of charging stations. Access to public charging infrastructure is not a magic wand that will solve other barriers to consumer adoption of electric vehicles, which include the high purchase price of EVs and the impact of low gas prices.

PG&E’s stated commitment to provide charging stations to low-income communities sounds good in theory. But when TURN investigated that claim, we found the locations PG&E has targeted as “disadvantaged” include the Google and LinkedIn campuses, Twitter’s headquarters and the Transamerica Building – wealthy workplaces that do not need ratepayer subsidy to install charging stations.

TURN instead urges that infrastructure be targeted to apartment buildings in low-income communities, and consumers that qualify for the CARE program (for low-income households in California) should receive an upfront rebate from existing low-carbon credit funds if they purchase or lease an EV.

California is truly a world leader when it comes to transforming its energy sector and achieving ambitious greenhouse gas reductions. But our progress will be impeded, at a cost to the environment and utility ratepayers, if wasteful and bloated utility programs are approved in lieu of smart, cost-effective solutions.

Regulators should not let the attraction of EVs blind them to the wasteful and self-serving nature of PG&E’s proposal. Proposals claiming to “save” the environment should actually help decrease state emissions, not just add to utility bottom lines.

Elise Torres is an energy attorney at The Utility Reform Network. Eric Borden is an energy analyst at TURN, a nonprofit that represents California consumers.