Despite the need to remain starry-eyed and romantic about the potential of electrified transportation, it is in the end a business that will either succeed or fail based on profitability. ECOtality‘s involvement in the EV project allowed the consumer to benefit not only through installation of government subsidized infrastructure but also, and most importantly, as a result of Idaho National Labs access to the data about consumer behavior that will better inform the entire industry. ECOtality’s interest in sharing is strategic. It wants to use its early market penetration to give it first mover advantage and capture a larger share of charging station business going forward. Data is the price it has to pay.
ECOtality’s advantage has now been directly challenged in the largest, and most profitable short- and long-term market: California.
NRG, a Texas-based investor owned utility with an aggressive gameplan for its “Freedom Station” charging network, negotiated a settlement with the California Public Utility Commission that could provide it with an exclusive franchise like entry into one of ECOtality’s most profitable territories. The seed for this network, bizarrely enough, stems from NRG’s acquisition of Dynegy, Inc., a company rooted in the Enron scandal and found liable for over a billion dollars of overcharges to California consumers. Rather than having the settlement money be returned pro rata to those consumers, the CPUC negotiated an agreement with NRG. Under the agreement, the company will spend $50 million to build 200 DC fast charging stations, $40 million for electrical infrastructure to support 10,000 level 2 charging stations, $5 million for research into EV charging services, and $4 million to develop EV car-sharing programs. Here are the specifics:
NRG will also install infrastructure for plug-in units, or “make-readies”, at multi-family housing, workplaces, and public interest sites, which will over time support the installation of Level 1 and Level 2 chargers from all charging companies. Further, to meet the CPUC’s goal of ensuring that the electric vehicle charging infrastructure is available to Californians of all income levels, NRG will ensure that mixed-income housing locations are identified, evaluated, and pursued for the make-readies.
Other provisions of the settlement intended to support the roll out of electric vehicles and expand their availability include:
· In consultation with The Greenlining Institute, NRG will pay an additional $4 million to support low income car-sharing, workforce training, and related programs;
· NRG is required to spend $5 million to collaborate with researchers and stakeholders on technical demonstration projects that will test new charging and related technologies;
· NRG will solicit competitive bids for third-party services and equipment, and will provide preferences for employees that are graduates of pre-apprenticeship training programs applicable to the trade or trades to be performed, as well as provide preferences for hiring and retaining employees from the historically disadvantaged or underrepresented classes, including women, minorities, and disabled veterans; and,
· The fast-charging stations will be compatible with electric vehicles on the market today as well as new models to be introduced beginning next year. Initially they will all have a CHAdeMO charger and a SAE Level II unit; they will be upgraded to accommodate the forthcoming SAE (Combo) DC standard within six months of when chargers using that standard become commercially available.
“The lack of recharging infrastructure and the concern about the range of electric cars have been identified as a barrier for the proliferation of electric vehicles. This settlement creates that needed infrastructure, which will open the market to many electric vehicle stakeholders,” said CPUC President Michael R. Peevey. “Devoting one-quarter of the total settlement value to electric vehicle charging infrastructure is a strong, creative idea that will bring California incalculable public benefits.”
Said Commissioner Mark J. Ferron, “The settlement, in combination with the earlier settlement Dynegy reached with the state in 2004, brings closure to our case against Dynegy for its role in the energy crisis of 2000-2001. In total, Dynegy together with NRG will have returned to the people of California more than $400 million in consideration. Of this total amount, three-fourths, or $300 million, will be paid in the form of cash to offset the electric bills of customers in California. The remainder, more than $100 million, will be paid by NRG in the form of electric vehicle charging equipment. This will bring cleaner air, local jobs, and a much needed jump-start on what we expect will be an industry of the future.”
“This settlement captures significant value for California under circumstances where contentious and expensive litigation would otherwise have continued for many years and with uncertain results,” said CPUC Commissioner Mike Florio. “The CPUC is committed to ensuring that the settlement not only makes electric vehicle infrastructure available to Californians of all income levels, but that it also creates job opportunities for California’s diverse communities.”
The fast charging stations will be owned by NRG’s subsidiary eVgo, which already operates a charging network in Texas. The stations will be compatible with the CHAdeMO charging standard, and will add equipment compatible with the new SAE standard when it becomes official. They will be located in retail areas near highways around the state’s four largest metro areas. Users will pay with a credit card, and the company envisions getting between seven and 15 bucks for a charge.
The network will also include 10,000 level 2 charging station locations, or “Make Readies,” as the settlement calls them. NRG will install the necessary wiring for these sites, then turn them over to property owners. NRG’s eVgo will have the exclusive right to install charging stations for 18 months, after which the sites will be open to competitors.
After trying, unsuccessfully, to get the CPUC to re-open its decision and provide public comment, ECOtality has now filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court alleging that the PUC made an illegal agreement with NRG that gives it 18 months of exclusive rights to operate charging stations in certain locations.
“This so-called ‘punishment’ is like a restaurant failing a health inspection then being given an exclusive franchise to open and operate every restaurant in the city, subsidized by public funds,” said ECOtality CEO Jonathan Read. “This is an illegal giveaway, negotiated without public input, that will not only impede the development of the electric vehicle market in California and ultimately cost consumers more — but it also denies California rate-payers any refunds from the nearly $1 billion in overcharging that occurred during the energy crisis.”
NRG spokesman, David Knox, maintains that the settlement benefits California’s entire EV industry. “NRG is making a private investment to build an electric vehicle infrastructure that will encourage electric vehicle adoption across the state to benefit the state of California, the people of California and all the businesses that support the electric vehicle industry.”
Is the NRG’s settlement too high a price for California rate payers? Is ECOtality’s filing a misstep in the direction of enriching its own business prospects at the expense of vehicle electrification? Is the CPUC’s apparent disregard for its avowed policy favoring competitive neutrality instead a “creative solution” to jumpstart infrastructure and in the public’s best interests? Stay tuned.