Maryland wants to build an electric vehicle charger network. The question on some Marylanders’ minds is: Whom’s it for?
The state’s four biggest utilities are asking regulators to let them undertake a $104 million portfolio of plans that could end up plugging more than 24,000 chargers into the grid — the nation’s second-biggest network, behind California.
Next month, regulators are hosting a two-day "open dialogue" on the portfolio. Dozens of groups have already filed comments on the plans before the Public Service Commission, nearly all of them on the favorable side.
The proceeding, part of a wider grid-modernization initiative, is intended to help the state along on its emissions goals, which include putting 300,000 zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2025.
But some groups have highlighted what they see as the PSC’s responsibility to make sure the utilities leaven their futurism with a solid dose of present-tense egalitarianism.
"We’re trying to get the PSC to really prioritize underserved communities with this investment," said Lyn Griffith Taylor, coordinator at Marylanders for Energy Democracy and Affordability (MEDA), an 18-group coalition made up mostly of environmentalist groups.
Hatched in consultation with an EV work group convened by regulators, the utilities’ plans would put a much greater swath of the state on the map for clean vehicles.
Mixed in with other offerings are funds for plugs in multiunit residences and workplaces, as well as a five-year, $7.2 million innovation fund that would award grants for projects serving multiple users, with an emphasis on lower-income and underserved areas.
The companies would also spend $500,000 to $2.5 million on customer education campaigns in their service territories to make customers aware of EV technologies and charging opportunities.
At least two ratepayer-centric groups have dug in their heels against the plans, including the influential Office of People’s Counsel, which serves as the consumer advocate for utility ratepayers — and as a gadfly in the EV proceedings, letting few of the proposal’s assertions of need go uncontested.
Charger stations in low- and moderate-income communities, it wrote in a March filing, were little more than a "feel-good exercise." Two-thirds of cars sold in Maryland over the last decade were used cars, it noted, with the relative scarcity of zero-emissions vehicles on the roads likely to be reflected in used lots.
The OPC has said it will oppose the build-out unless regulators hold an evidentiary proceeding that would put the utilities’ proposals under an inquisitorial lens.
"We’re one of the very few stakeholders in this process that says, ‘OK,’ but you’re asking all of the customers to pay for something which, even if you’re talking about a 300,000 [zero-emissions] vehicle goal, is still a very small segment of the population," said Paula Carmody, who heads the office.
"We’re on a path of adoption for EVs in the state and elsewhere," she added. "We’re not challenging that, we’re supportive of that. But that doesn’t naturally lead to utilities and ratepayers being responsible for reaching that goal."
What you don’t know won’t help you
The Maryland portfolio’s offerings would begin to tackle what policymakers in other states with serious EV ambitions see as current barriers for adoption.
In February, University of California, Davis, researchers published a survey finding that California’s own preparations, which include a ratepayer-backed charger build-out and a zero-emissions vehicle market with more models than any other state, have gone virtually unnoticed by most of the state’s car buyers.
Last year, they found, the percentage of consumers who said they’d thought about buying a plug-in electric car was the same as in 2014. And even though the number of chargers in the state had doubled, the percentage of respondents who said they’d seen one hadn’t budged.
"The issue more broadly is that people don’t know about the vehicles," said J.R. DeShazo, director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA. DeShazo wasn’t involved in the study.
Another central policy problem is getting plugs into apartment complexes, townhouses and condos — because most EV owners prefer charging at home — as well as multi-tenant workplaces.
"Broadly speaking, it’s the case that maybe close to half of the U.S. population lacks access to off-street parking where EV charging stations would easily be installed," said Max Baumhefner, an attorney who works on energy and transportation issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "A big chunk of those are folks who live in multifamily housing.
"We need to crack the multiunit dwelling nut," he said.
Maryland’s largest electric utility, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is planning the biggest investment: $48.1 million through 2023.
It’s asking regulators to approve incentives for 15,000 Level 2 chargers for "residential" customers — a request that constitutes well over half of the new stations proposed in the entire portfolio.
But those customers don’t include people who live in multiunit dwellings, a sector that was lumped into the "non-residential" category.
Of the 1,965 units slated for incentives, said John Murach, BGE’s manager of energy programs and services, "we estimate that … up to 700 could apply to MUD [multiunit dwelling] application."
Some of those, he said, could serve lower-income customers.
Just one of the utilities, Potomac Edison, has earmarked chargers for those users, with 15 of its 50 multifamily chargers set aside for buildings where at least half of the residents are "confirmed low-income customers."
Murach said BGE had considered a similar plan. "We walked into the situation of where you tend to have lower levels of vehicle ownership and you have urban parking challenges."
The real olive branch to lower-income ratepayers comes through the millions of dollars in innovation incentives, which would field half the cost of EV chargers for projects like electric car-share hubs and public transit.
"The people that would benefit the most from better air quality and reductions in vehicle emissions are going to be low income, primarily pedestrians," said Griffith Taylor of MEDA.
The plans call for a study to be carried out into specific ways to promote electrified transportation for low-income users. MEDA wants a guarantee that programs will be implemented.
"We’re concerned that in many cases the recommendations don’t go anywhere," she said. "This is where we’re really trying to leverage public pressure on the Public Service Commission."
In filings with the PSC, the coalition called the utility programs a "critical starting baseline" but said it could go further for less affluent ratepayers.
"When you talk about expanding access, there’s expanding access to the vehicles, then there’s access to the wider benefits of vehicle electrification," she said.