Electric Utilities as EV Planning Partners
Electric utilities are responsible for the delivery of electricity to homes and businesses, including metering, billing, and customer service. Accordingly, utilities play an essential part in the rollout of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, and they are among the first partners that should be considered for electric mobility charging installations.
Some coordination with the local utility is necessary in almost all charging station installations, as the stations will likely be reliant on electricity from the local utility. Following a new service connection request, the utility will look to determine whether the grid can meet the request based on the utility’s service capacity and the project timeline.
With all EV infrastructure projects, it is important to engage with the local utility from the beginning—even in the conceptual stage. This can avoid costly, time-consuming changes later in the process.
Utilities have a strong interest in the deployment of charging infrastructure, and they have been investing heavily in both the deployment of EVs and the rollout of charging infrastructure. In the first seven months of 2020, State regulators approved more than $760 million in proposed utility investments in transportation electrification. The majority of these programs involve either direct utility ownership of charging infrastructure installations or “make-ready” programs in which utilities pay for necessary site upgrades.
See Project Development and Scoping for more information on different ownership models.
See the figure below for an overview of roles a utility can play in a charging infrastructure project. Furthermore, the Electric Highway Coalition—which comprises 14 major utilities representing more than 60 million residential customers across 29 States and the District of Columbia—announced in March 2021 a plan to build “one seamless network of chargers from West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico and all the way up the Eastern Seaboard.”
Importance of Coordination
Partnering with a utility can be useful or necessary for:
- Addressing grid-level constraints that may arise in project planning (see Types of Charging Infrastructure Planning for a discussion of community- and corridor-level planning). A utility can also help with site selection by providing valuable information about the limitations and costs related to electricity supply at each potential site.
- Working through multiple stages of the project planning process—for example, to understand local grid limitations or needs for upgrades, to determine the best ownership model, to determine electricity rates and pricing structures, and to provide technical and programmatic support for electric mobility charging installations (see the Project Planning Checklist).
- Identifying financial opportunities, such as rebates and other forms of financial support directly from the utility, or potentially partnering with utilities on proposals (see Funding Resource Clearinghouses for resources to help identify local utility funding programs).
Types of Utilities
The nearly 3,000 electric utilities in the United States fall into three categories:
Investor-owned utilities (IOUs) are the most prevalent, serving nearly 75 percent of customers nationwide. They are owned by shareholders, and their rate structures and other operational aspects are highly regulated. IOUs originally began in larger cities—where the higher density of demand made a stronger business case for investing in electricity distribution infrastructure—and today operate in almost every State.
Publicly Owned Utilities
Publicly owned utilities (POUs) are utilities run by Federal, State, or municipal entities and, in some cases, political subdivisions. Historically, POUs began in smaller cities and towns that did not initially attract interest or investment from IOUs. While POUs are generally smaller (serving an average of about 12,000 customers each) and may lack the resources of a large IOU, they are not subject to the same stringent regulations as IOUs and may have more flexibility in terms of ownership models, rates, and other partnering opportunities.
Cooperatives (co-ops) are not-for-profit member-owned utilities that are usually located in rural and suburban areas and have a presence in 47 States. Co-ops expanded rapidly after the 1936 Rural Electrification Act to bring electricity to communities not served by IOUs or municipal utilities. Co-ops tend to be smaller (serving an average of about 24,000 customers each), but like POUs, they are not subject to the same stringent rate structure and operational regulations as IOUs.
Identifying Opportunities and Making Contact
Given that individual counties may have multiple utilities and potentially multiple types of utilities operating within their boundaries, prospective charging infrastructure site planners should become familiar with all the utilities in their region and determine which utility serves their prospective charging infrastructure site. This will let site planners identify all options for potential partnering, which could be important given the wide range of EV programs and varying levels of interest and involvement among utilities.
For information on the territory served by each utility in the United States, including basic information about each utility, see this map of electric utility service territories. To view this map, filter out (un-select) all layers except for “Electric Retail Service Territories.”
There are also State-level resources for identifying utilities, including maps or directories, such as the following examples:
To make contact with a utility, it may be best to first work through a larger coalition or regional partnership. For site planners not working with a coalition, the next best approach may be to work with charging network providers, who often have well-established relationships with local utilities (see Charging Networks).
Utility Partnerships: King County Metro and Local Utility Company Seattle City Lights Charging FacilityKing County Metro partnered with Seattle-based utility company City Lights to create a charging facility to provide accessible electric public transit for King County, reduce noise and air pollution. The facility can charge nine buses simultaneously and incorporates an “interchangeable design,” meaning that battery-electric buses can charge at any station. Seattle City Light utility company provided direct support throughout the project, working with King County Metro on the design, build, testing, expediting electrical service, and ensuring the most efficient use of the utility electric grid power. The new facility is part of King County Metro’s goal of transitioning to a zero-emissions fleet by 2035.
Another option is to contact the utility directly. As noted earlier, utilities may have widely varying interest in—and resources devoted to—EV infrastructure. Many utilities have prominent information on their websites about electric vehicles and EV infrastructure, and often this information targets entities looking to invest in charging infrastructure.
Lastly, in areas with smaller utilities, or where EV rollout has been slower and information is sparse, it may be worthwhile to contact one of the national organizations representing utilities. These larger national resources can provide charging infrastructure site planners with ideas about the types of opportunities available. Even if the local utility does not have a well-developed program, knowing what type of utility it is and how to get information at the national level might help with understanding the available partnership options. National resources might also open the door for larger electric mobility charging developers to propose new partnership programs with their utilities.
The three main national organizations representing utilities are the Edison Electric Institute, which represents IOUs (of particular interest is a portal for all EV-related programs of any IOU in any State, as shown in the figure below); the American Public Power Association, which represents POUs; and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents co-ops (serving both rural and suburban areas).
The DOE Alternative Fuels Data Center compiles an up-to-date list of utility incentives in its Laws and Incentives database. Information provided includes utility-level incentives for vehicles and charging stations as well as any special EV rate cases. This information is available at the State and utility levels.
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