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Northwest Utilities Amp Up New Business Line Of Charging Electric Cars

Avista manager of transportation electrification Rendall Farley at his workplace charging station in Spokane.
Avista manager of transportation electrification Rendall Farley at his workplace charging station in Spokane.

Spokane-based Avista Utilities and Seattle City Light --perhaps soon to be joined by Oregon's two biggest electric utilities: Portland General Electric & Pacific Power -- are diving into a new line of business: charging up electric cars.

They have plans to buy and maintain significant numbers of electric car charging stations. These will be installed at homes, private workplaces and public locations.

It’s a bit of an automotive version of chicken-or-the-egg. If there aren't charging stations out and about, people will be reluctant to buy electric cars. Yet no one wants to build charging stations unless the users are out there.

This could describe the situation in the Inland Northwest.

Advancing electrification

Rendall Farley manages electric transportation initiatives for Avista, the biggest electricity provider in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. He sees the potential to change the equation to the company's and society's benefit.

"We have got potentially here a great opportunity to save money over gasoline, become less dependent on it, keep those local dollars in the local economies so that can have a ripple effect,” Farley said. “That’s a big deal."

Avista is recruiting homeowners, employers and scouting public locations to host more than 200 electric car charging stations. The utility has budgeted $3 million -- which it hopes to recover in its rates -- to build and maintain a charging network.

On the other side of the state, Seattle City Light has plans to deploy 20 public fast chargers next year. Separately, it's working on how to provide utility-owned home charging stations as a service.

"We would recover over time the cost of the stations" on monthly bills, City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen said. He noted the upfront cost of a home charging station is a barrier to some prospective electric car drivers.

Portland General Electric and Pacific Power face a year-end deadline to tell the state of Oregon how they plan to "advance transportation electrification."

Farley described his company's venture into electric car charging as more of a learning exercise than a profit center in the near term.

"In the next five to 10 years we don't expect a material impact from electric vehicle adoption in our area. But longer term beyond that, it could have significant effects,” Farley said. “So it's very timely and important for us to start getting ahead of that now."

A more efficient grid

Avista needed to convince the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission that the pilot project was prudent. The commissioners raised questions about fair competition and ratepayer impacts, but eventually gave the green light.

Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission Chairman David Danner wants to see if smart integration of those big batteries in electric cars could support more efficient use of the electric grid.

"The goal here isn't to give more to people who can afford Teslas,” Danner said. “From our point of view, the goal is how do we improve the electric infrastructure in this state."

Danner said even if you don't drive an electric car, you have reasons to care -- one of them is the high cost of building power plants.

"If we can do this effectively, then you're going to be able to avoid building new generation resources that are going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “That is going to save you money."

Danner foresees negligible impact for now on electric rates in the places where utilities are experimenting with electric vehicle promotion.

Puget Sound Energy Manager of Product Development Ben Farrow elaborated on how vehicle charging could bring broad benefits. He said if electric vehicles charge in off-peak hours, the existing utility infrastructure would be used more, but utility companies would not need to build any more capacity to accommodate that added demand.

"You're using what you have more efficiently, and that presents an opportunity to potentially lower bills a little bit,” Farrow said.

If you build it…

Farrow said for the past two years PSE has offered $500 rebates to electric car owners who install home charging stations. He said about 1,300 customers have applied for those rebates. Farrow said his company is open to owning charging stations itself, but does not see a need to do so at this time. He and others noted that most vehicle charging happens at home bases.

"Against the backdrop of slowing growth in the electric power industry, bringing electricity to the transportation sector is a huge, albeit long-term opportunity for load growth," reads a white paper by the industry-supported Edison Electric Institute.

"Electrification of the transportation sector is a potential 'quadruple win' for electric utilities and society, and will enable companies to support environmental goals, build customer satisfaction, reduce operating costs and assure the future value of existing assets."

Private enterprises already operate in the vehicle charging space, mainly in the Interstate 5 corridor. For example, a charging stanchion outside of the county courthouse in Olympia says it costs 50 cents per hour to charge; all major credit cards accepted. That charging stanchion is operated by a California-based company called ChargePoint, where Dave Packard serves as vice president of utility solutions.

Packard welcomes deep-pocketed competitors into the market, but discourages them from owning and operating the charging equipment.

"If utilities get involved -- because they don't move that quickly in deploying hardware that they own and operate -- I would hate to see a situation where that technology is obsolete,” Packard said.

Broadly speaking, Packard said the more charging stations there are, the more drivers will be comfortable in driving electric. And that will help overall adoption of clean, plug-in cars.

Copyright 2016 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.