As electric vehicles go mainstream, companies spar over who will charge them up in NC

With electric vehicles expected to quickly multiply in North Carolina, Duke Energy and private companies are sparring over who will provide the charging stations to keep them humming.

In March, Duke asked the state Utilities Commission for approval to launch a three-year, $76 million pilot program that would install 2,500 charging stations and collect data for use in expanding its EV infrastructure.

The proposal drew broad support from EV businesses, automakers, public agencies including Charlotte’s Centralina Council of Government and clean energy advocates.

But the N.C. Clean Energy Business Alliance, a trade group that includes companies that install charging stations, says the plan by one of the largest U.S. electric utilities would squelch competition and “represent a major encroachment of monopoly activity into an an active and rapidly growing competitive market.”

Duke also faces a more formidable opponent: The Public Staff, an independent but influential arm of the Utilities Commission that advocates for utility customers, says the commission should deny Duke’s request. The agency says Duke is asking for advance approval to bill customers for the program’s cost — Duke insists that’s not the case — and questions what new data it would glean.

Duke says the program would leave ample room for competitors to grow. The company maintains it’s only asking the commission to deem the program prudent to go forward with, not to guarantee reimbursement.

“We think the proposal we filed is an appropriate and robust proposal, and we’re interested in seeing this approved by the Utilities Commission as soon as possible,” Lang Reynolds, Duke’s director of electrification strategy, said in an interview.

Duke and other companies are laying the groundwork for what advocates hope will be a burst of EV growth in just a few years.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes automakers who build 70 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S., and endorsed Duke’s plan, says EVs now account for just 7,320 of North Carolina’s 8.9 million registered vehicles. About 3,300 electric vehicles were sold new in the state in 2018, it says.

But Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order on climate change last October that sets an ambitious goal of increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles to at least 80,000 statewide by 2025.

“We’re trying to determine where are the right places to install infrastructure, how to encourage market growth and which segments are ready for that,” Reynolds said. “The only way to get that data would be to do this program, which is why we proposed it.”

The program would offer rebates or funding for charging stations to be installed for homes and commercial fleets, and for school districts and transit systems that buy electric buses.

Duke says most of the charging stations it would install would be in homes and businesses, but that it expects to install about 640 public charging ports and 120 fast-charge ports along highways. The Clean Energy Business Alliance says about 1,100 such ports are now available in the state.

Smaller competitors swamped?

At least nine charging network vendors, including Tesla, operate in the state, the N.C. Clean Energy Business Alliance says, citing Energy Department data. Duke could undercut its smaller competitors and seize the most lucrative charging locations, the alliance says.

“The commission’s decision in this case will set the foundation of this emerging market, and great weight should be given to the adverse impacts that the (Duke) proposal could have on the prevailing conditions of the EV charging market,” the alliance said in written comments this month to the Utilities Commission.

While Duke says its proposal would leave “ample room for third-party investment,” the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association maintains that the plan would leave open only one-third of the market for fast-charging stations and “entirely flood the market” for other public stations.

The association asked the commission this month to direct Duke to propose a program in which it only provides electrical service to the point where a charging station could be installed. It also asked the commission to open a separate, broader proceeding on EV charging.

Duke says its program would leave ample room for growth by competitors.

“In no way does this give us any kind of outside influence on the market and ultimately it will create a healthier market in my opinion,” Reynolds said. The program would be limited to three years, he said, and install public charging stations in locations that private companies might avoid.

The Public Staff, in recommending the commission’s denial, said Duke’s proposal asks for approval of EV infrastructure costs in advance. That would reverse the normal practice in which utilities spend on capital projects and then seek the commission’s approval to recover the costs in rates.

Duke says it’s not asking the commission to decide now whether it can recover its investment in the program, which the company says it will seek in a future rate case. Rather, Duke says, it wants the commission to signal whether it views the program as a prudent one to undertake, providing some assurance that the commission views it favorably.

Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.