Cali Rulemaking Offers Glimpse of Future Electric Car Charging Biz

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Among the key uncertainties facing players in the nascent market for electric vehicle charging infrastructure — companies like AeroVironment, Better Place, Coulomb Technologies, eTec, and their potential investors — is the question of how utility regulators will deal with providers of charging services. But in California, expected to be one of the earliest and largest markets for plug-in vehicles and a model for other markets, the state’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has stepped closer to answering that question in recent weeks.

Over on GigaOM Pro (subscription required), we’ve taken a deep dive into the latest comments filed with the CPUC by utilities, environmental groups, infrastructure startups and others weighing in as the commission considers what authority it has over companies providing access to charging (and thus, electricity), and how it should use that authority. The ongoing back-and-forth over the issue offers a glimpse of how the upcoming rules will shape opportunities in the market for electric vehicle infrastructure and services, and what types of business models and partnerships are likely to take off in coming years.

Potential business models in the EV charging sector fall into two basic categories, according to the environmental groups Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The categories include the utility model, in which charging companies “procure electricity directly, instead of purchasing electricity from local utilities” — and could face heavy regulations —  and the utility customer model, in which companies provide electricity purchased from local utilities and could enjoy a relatively light touch from regulators.

Better Place’s Ann Bordetsky, who works on policy for the startup, emphasized in an interview with us for the GigaOM Pro article that the CPUC proceedings illustrate not a challenge for startups like Better Place, but a move to avoid problems down the road. The commission, she said, “hasn’t done anything to foreclose any doors. This will keep doors open.” EV service providers currently face “the opposite of regulatory hurdles” in California, she said.

Still, the rulemaking process itself (and the time it takes) can be a challenge for young ventures in some ways. Better Place’s VP of North America, Jason Wolf, explained to us recently that one of the biggest reasons for a slower, more cautious electric vehicle infrastructure environment in California than in Israel and Denmark is that there’s been a lack of clarity from the CPUC when it comes to how and if the state will regulate companies like Better Place. The CPUC may be racing to keep doors open for innovation and new business models, but in the meantime, Wolf said the uncertainty has made investors less eager to quickly back a company that needs to raise money for the buildout of an EV infrastructure network in the state’s San Francisco Bay Area.

Image courtesy of Coulomb Technologies.

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