Biz & Tech PG&E wants ratepayers to foot bill for 25,000 car chargers

As more Californians switch to electric cars, the state’s biggest utility — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — sees a new potential role for itself:

Gas station owner.

PG&E on Monday announced plans to install 25,000 electric car chargers across Northern and Central California, in what the company billed as the nation’s largest charger deployment project yet. The utility, based in San Francisco, described the $653.8 million effort as an important step toward reaching Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of having 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the state’s roads by 2025.

California already has more than 100,000 electric cars on its roads, a greater number than any other state or country. And 60 percent of those cars reside in PG&E’s territory. But many potential buyers still suffer from “range anxiety,” the fear of running out of juice on the open road. More public charging stations would soothe that fear.

“There is some growth in EV adoption, there is some growth in (charging) infrastructure, but the growth is nowhere near where we need it to be to reach the state’s goals,” said James Ellis, director of electric vehicle programs at PG&E.

While other companies — including automakers such as Tesla Motors, BMW and Volkswagen — are deploying charging stations as well, PG&E’s plan comes with a significant difference. The program’s cost would be paid by all 5.1 million of PG&E’s electricity customers, whether they own electric cars or not.

In California, utility profits are based largely on the value of the equipment they own — the substations, wires, meters and poles. The cost for the charging stations would be passed on to PG&E customers in the same way, adding about 70 cents to the monthly bill of a typical residential customer, starting in 2018.

As a result, PG&E’s plan requires the approval of the California Public Utilities Commission, which sets utility rates. PG&E submitted its proposal to the commission on Monday.

The idea of passing on the program’s costs irks consumer advocates. Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, noted that charging-station technology is advancing quickly. And it’s still not clear, he said, that electric vehicles will win in the looming head-to-head competition with fuel-cell vehicles, championed by Toyota, Hyundai and several other automakers.

“It’s way too early in this technology to know what’s going to be around for the long term,” Toney said. “The last thing we want to see is to invest millions of ratepayer dollars into a technology that’s going to be obsolete in five years.”

By collecting a stable rate of return from its existing customers, PG&E would profit from the deal even if fuel-cell vehicles emerge victorious.

The utility does not, however, want to get into the business of running the stations. PG&E would own all of the chargers, but would bring in other companies to install and manage them. Electric car drivers would have to pay those companies to use the chargers.

As envisioned by PG&E, the chargers would be deployed at offices, multifamily buildings, shopping centers and other public locations. Most of the stations would feature “level 2 chargers,” which add about 25 miles of battery range for every hour of charging. But 100 would be “DC fast chargers,” which can largely fill the batteries of most EVs in a half hour or less.

The fast chargers would be strategically placed between cities, to facilitate long-range travel. BMW, Volkswagen and ChargePoint of Campbell recently announced plans for a similar fast-charger network on the West Coast, linking San Diego with Portland, Ore.

PG&E insists it isn’t trying to crowd out businesses such as ChargePoint that are already deploying charging stations. By the utility’s estimate, reaching Brown’s 2025 goal would require roughly 100,000 charging stations in PG&E’s territory, which covers 70,000 square miles.

“PG&E is not looking to control the market, by any means,” Ellis said.

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @DavidBakerSF

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