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Input sought on rules for charging electric carsUtility regulators want feedback on pricing practices

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Harrisburg International Airport's electric vehicle charging station, available to air travelers and visitors, is located in the cell phone parking lot, near the main terminal.
Harrisburg International Airport's electric vehicle charging station, available to air travelers and visitors, is located in the cell phone parking lot, near the main terminal. - (Photo / )

In a bid to align existing utility law with the burgeoning electric-car industry, state utility regulators have begun trying to figure out the rules for drivers who pay to recharge their electric vehicles.

It is a mission with growing relevance. The number of electric vehicles registered in Pennsylvania rose from 1,653 in 2013 to about 3,600 in 2016, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which wants to encourage even greater use of electric cars.

This summer the Harrisburg-based commission is asking for feedback on best practices for assessing fees for consumers who use vehicle-charging stations. One issue is potential discrepancies between how the state’s electrical suppliers partner with third-party vendors that install and maintain the stations and then charge consumers.

The commission is in a fact-finding mode and wants comments from industry leaders about the best ways to proceed, said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a PUC spokesman. Some questions include what regulations should be developed for charging consumers fairly and that also would encourage the growth of the fledgling industry, he said.

Consumers who power up vehicles at home are not part of the inquiry because they are are buying electricity directly. The idea is to bring consistency to stations where electricity is sold by third parties, he explained.

“This is the start of what the commission sees as an ongoing conversation,” he added.

Terrance J. Fitzpatrick, President and CEO of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, said the electric-vehicle market still is in its infancy and a number of regulations need to be worked out. Under current state law, someone — a landlord, for example, can’t buy electricity from a supplier and then resell it to tenants at a markup. The rules are intended to protect consumers from being unfairly charged for basic home uses, such as to power lights and appliances, Hagen-Frederiksen said.

As for vehicles charging stations, third-party vendors often install and maintain them, and a building or parking lot owner might stand to profit from consumers who plug in and pay. But those stations were not in place when state utility rules were developed.

In a statement, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission outlined some key points it hopes to raise during its quest to gather information about charging electric cars:

• What restrictions, if any, each electric distribution company’s existing tariff establishes on the resale/redistribution of utility service for third-party electric vehicle charging.

• The benefits and detriments of specific tariff provisions permitting unrestricted resale/redistribution of utility service when done for the purpose of third-party electric vehicle charging.

• The appropriateness, or lack thereof, of encouraging EDCs across the state to move toward a tariff design, such as Duquesne Light Co.’s, which includes provisions for third-party electric vehicle charging resale/redistribution.

• What other resale/redistribution tariff provision designs may aid in establishing clear rules for third-party electric vehicle charging stations.

Source: PUC

“I believe the future of this emergent market can benefit from review of electric distribution companies’ (EDCs) existing resale/redistribution tariff provisions,” PUC Chairman Gladys M. Brown said in a written statement. “It may be beneficial to provide more clarity regarding exactly what restrictions, if any, that each utility has, and whether regulatory consistency across the state could help foster increased investment in this maturing industry.”

In April 2016, Harrisburg International Airport set up a charging station at its cellphone lot, where people waiting for passengers could charge cars. The station was provided by a third party and the electricity comes from PPL, said Scott Miller, a spokesman for HIA.

“It’s a good test case and we are learning a lot from it,” Miller said. “It’s a case of let’s see how this is used.”

Some companies and building owners offer free hookups at stations as an amenity. At HIA, customers must pay to use the station. The same is true at Willow Valley, a Lancaster County retirement community, where residents asked that charging stations be installed, said Maureen Leader, Willow Valley’s marketing and public relations coordinator.

“Our motivation is that it is green, and it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for our residents,” she said.

Linda Brackbill, a resident of Willow Valley Communities, prepares to charge her Ford C-Max plug-in hybrid vehicle, at one of the two charging stations available at the Lancaster County retirement community.
Linda Brackbill, a resident of Willow Valley Communities, prepares to charge her Ford C-Max plug-in hybrid vehicle, at one of the two charging stations available at the Lancaster County retirement community. - ()

Like HIA, Willow Valley wasn’t directly involved in the installation of the stations. Willow Valley’s third-party vendor is SemaConnect, a Maryland-based company.

Jesus Ferro, director of marketing for SemaConnect, said the company provides the stations and the back-office support to handle billing. The company will guide building owners on setting prices, suggesting that the price translate into no more than the cost of gasoline, Ferro said.

Miller and Leader both said they were unsure how prices were set at their facility’s charging stations. as they were installed more for visitor convenience than profit. Ferro said his company typically recommends a price between 50 cents and $1 per kilowatt-hour.

Ferro wasn’t aware of details involving the PUC fact-finding mission but said that such efforts are taking place nationwide as the country grapples with increasing use of electric vehicles.

“They need a plan of attack,” he said.

He and Fitzpatrick both pointed out that state regulators, for example, must understand how increased use will affect power grids. Pricing for stations might need to be tied to peak and off-peak demand.

Various legislative efforts are underway in Pennsylvania to try to encourage the new industry while making sure the infrastructure remains sound, Fitzpatrick added.

Companies such as Met-Ed and PPL, which serve thousands of homes and businesses in Central Pennsylvania, are monitoring the PUC efforts and are eager to see what the PUC learns.

“We don’t have comments to share at this time,” said Kurt Blumenau, a spokesman for PPL in Allentown. “But we are looking forward to what the request (for comments) reveals.”

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