Government

Method used to bill electric car owners in Iowa could shape future for vehicles in the state

Cars are plugged in Wednesday to electric vehicle chargers in the Convention Center Ramp in Cedar Rapids. In Iowa, energy for electric vehicles can be sold by an increment of time or provided free with the purchase of a parking place. The latter is most common locally, with free charging available for the purchase of parking in several Cedar Rapids parking ramps or at The Eastern Iowa Airport. Advocates of fast-charging stations say that rule is stifling Iowa’s electric vehicle infrastructure. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Cars are plugged in Wednesday to electric vehicle chargers in the Convention Center Ramp in Cedar Rapids. In Iowa, energy for electric vehicles can be sold by an increment of time or provided free with the purchase of a parking place. The latter is most common locally, with free charging available for the purchase of parking in several Cedar Rapids parking ramps or at The Eastern Iowa Airport. Advocates of fast-charging stations say that rule is stifling Iowa’s electric vehicle infrastructure. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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How owners of electric vehicles are billed to recharge their batteries may seem like a minor matter — but a disagreement brewing between some advocates could shape the future of Iowa’s budding electric vehicle infrastructure.

Currently, fuel retailers cannot sell energy by the kilowatt-hour — only by increments of time or, commonly, by giving it away free if a driver pays for a parking spot.

Delia Meier, senior vice president of the Iowa 80 Truckstop in Walcott, said the prohibition is holding up plans to install some of the market’s fastest chargers at the truck stop.

“This needs to be settled,” Meier said. “I think you’re going to see very little infrastructure in Iowa until it’s resolved.”

Following a request by the truck stop, the Iowa Utilities Board, which regulates state utilities, last month opened an investigation into Alliant Energy’s 2017 energy tariff, which prohibits the sale of energy by the kilowatt-hour for electric vehicle charging. The board also is considering if the sale of energy by a retailer for electric vehicle charging should be allowed by the kilowatt-hour statewide.

Don Tormey, the Iowa Utilities Board spokesman, said input will be gathered from state electric utilities and interested parties before the board’s ruling. A workshop is scheduled for Oct. 17 on the issue.

In Iowa, energy for electric vehicles can be sold by an increment of time — commonly by the hour — or provided free with the purchase of a parking place. The latter is most common locally, with free charging available for the purchase of parking in several Cedar Rapids ramps or at The Eastern Iowa Airport.

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Gilbert Nuñez, manager of business support for Alliant Energy, said Alliant’s tariff follows state rule and, for customers, the sale of energy needs to be easy to understand.

“When you pull up to a station, if a station says it’s going to be $5 to fill your battery up, it’s easy to understand vs. having something by the kilowatt-hour. Customers really don’t understand kilowatt-hours and what they mean,” Nuñez said.

Meier argues the opposite — that customers would be better served by a measurement of quantity, not time.

“Kilowatts are something we all kind of know, just like gallons,” she said. “We all post our price per gallon and you know it driving down the street. ... For electricity, the common measurement is kilowatt.”

Meier said Iowa 80 Truckstop officials wish to add electric vehicle charging stations to the truck stop, but Alliant’s energy tariff has put the plan — which she said would add six fast-charging stations — on hold.

For the purposes of her business, Meier said she needs fast-charging stations, which can provide up to an 80 percent charge in about 20 minutes. Level 1 charging stations — often in workplace parking lots or at residences — take hours to reach a full charge.

In the electric vehicle industry, a fast charge comes with a price.

Level 2 or faster Level 3 high-speed stations — called DC Fast Charging — cost more than their slower counterparts.

Meier argued that current rules prohibiting the sale of power by the kilowatt disenfranchises retailer investment in fast charging stations.

“Fast charging is going to be penalized. ... It just seems completely counterproductive,” she said.

A 2016 report by the Iowa Economic Development Authority entitled “Advancing Iowa’s Electric Vehicle Market” notes that allowing owners of charging stations to bill directly for electricity opens the door to increased investment in Iowa’s fast-charging infrastructure.

“By implementing a model that sells electricity on a watt-for-watt basis, there is more transparency and a perception of fairness that will allow consumers to see exactly what they are paying for when using these charging stations, similarly to how the average consumer pays a per-gallon price at the pump to fill their cars,” the report notes.

Alliant’s Nuñez said that, by state rule, the sale of energy by the kilowatt-hour is allowed only for utilities.

That means if Iowa 80 were to do so, it technically would be acting as a utility infringing on Alliant’s exclusive service territory, which is established in Iowa Code.

“At this point it’s really more of a state change that we — utilities and customers — would have to come to an agreement,” Nuñez said.

Mark Schuling, Iowa’s consumer advocate, said energy sold from an electric vehicle charging station already has been purchased from the utility at retail cost, so the measurement for sale by the retailer shouldn’t really matter.

“So there is no loss of sales as a result of electric vehicle charging stations,” he said. “People need them out there along the roads for traveling, so I don’t understand why any utility is throwing up a roadblock for electric vehicle charging.”

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According to the economic development authority’s report, at least a dozen states have passed laws allowing retailers to sell energy for electric vehicle charging without acting as a utility.

In addition to the Iowa Utilities Board’s review, other state agencies including the economic development authority and the Iowa Department of Transportation are taking part in a study of electric vehicle infrastructure for commercial and non-commercial vehicles.

The study follows legislation signed earlier this year by Gov. Kim Reynolds to evaluate the costs and benefits of different electric vehicle infrastructure support. Recommendations are to be made to the Legislature next year.

Outside of Tesla Motors’ growing network of supercharger stations — available only to Tesla owners — in the state, Iowa’s electric vehicle charging network remains underdeveloped.

All told, the state has 105 public charging stations, only seven of which are considered DC Fast Charging stations, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center.

In Burlington, outside the PZAZZ! Entertainment Complex, Alliant this weekend will open a Level 3 charging station to provide free charges to the public.

Nuñez said it’s important to expand Iowa’s stock of electric vehicle charging stations, but added that it needs to be done carefully.

Alliant offers customers rebates on both electric vehicle and charging infrastructure investments.

“We have to ensure there is enough capacity and reliability in the grid before these things are just put anywhere,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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