What Will Drivers Buy at Car Charging Stations? Not Electricity

Imagine yourself a few years down the road, driving an electric car up to a charging station provided by a company like Better Place, Coulomb Technologies or ECOtality. When you plug in and juice up your battery, are you buying electricity? No, these three companies say in comments recently filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, you’re paying for an electric vehicle service — and that needs to be crystal clear in the regulators’ decisions on how to handle this nascent market.

The CPUC has been debating whether it will regulate electric vehicle service providers as though they are utilities, and late last month the commission proposed to decide against it. Commissioner Nancy Ryan explained (among other things) that owning or operating a vehicle charging station and selling the electricity from that station for the exclusive purpose of charging vehicles does not necessarily make the provider a public utility under state utility codes.

The decision is important because defining EV charging providers as entities that are reselling electricity could open up a hornets nest of legal and regulatory issues for this young market and could potentially stifle innovation.

Better Place, Coulomb and ECOtality, through their group the EV Service Provider Coalition, weighed in with formal comments on the proposal last week and generally praised the decision, while calling for some changes in the explanation. The Coalition writes that ambiguity in the regulators’ wording still leaves room for a “presumption that EV service providers are selling electricity when they are not.” This misunderstanding could potentially box EV service providers into the category of reselling electricity, the Coalition suggests.

Better Place urges the commission to clarify that “it is not clear at this point whether any EV service provider would, in fact, ‘sell’ electricity,” adding that many providers will themselves buy (rather than sell) electricity “at retail” for the purpose of charging batteries. This is a point that Better Place has been making throughout the CPUC rulemaking process, so it’s interesting that the proposed decision took this linguistic turn, but it could still change. Ann Bordetsky, who works on policy for Better Place emphasized to us in an interview earlier this year (GigaOM Pro, subscription required) that the CPUC proceedings represent a move to avoid problems down the road.

This is a huge issue for infrastructure providers. As the EV Service Provider Coalition explains, “The industry is poised to take off in California, but this will only happen if there is at least a measure of assurance that an EV service provider will not be treated like an electric utility.”

Better Place’s VP of North America Jason Wolf told us in an interview earlier this year that one of the biggest reasons for a slower, more cautious electric vehicle infrastructure environment in California compared to some other markets has been a lack of clarity from the CPUC on this question of regulating charging service providers like utilities. Wolf said this uncertainty has made investors — the kind that put $350 million into Better Place in January for its efforts — less eager to move quickly to back a Bay Area network.

Photo courtesy of Better Place

Related content on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

California Rules Show Opportunities in EV Charging

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