Electric cars cannot operate without electricity. Duhh. And electric vehicles can’t operate without the ability to recharge their vehicle either privately at home or publicly through public electrical vehicle charging stations. So who regulates that most critical ingredient for electric vehicles, electricity?-The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission – (“WUTC”). However, the WUTC only regulates investor-owned electric utilities (“IOUs”) like Puget Sound Energy. It does not regulate electricity provided by public agencies like the Snohomish Public Utility District, who serve over half of the state. So while the WUTC really can influence the rates and practices of only about half of the providers of electricity in the state, nonetheless it can play a major role in developing a regulatory policy and/or rules that will encourage the deployment of electric vehicles in for the entire state.
To date the WUTC has taken a laid back approach regarding regulation of matters affecting electric vehicles, preferring to wait until market forces further broader deployment. In late 2010 it did open a docket (Docket #UE-121521) to look at regulatory issues relating to electric vehicles, but closed it two months later. In that docket, on October 28, 2010, it held an open meeting to hear from some IOUs like PSE and others interested in promotion of electric vehicles in Washington. The only result from that docket was a Commission-initiated bill in the 2011 legislature bill (SB1571) that clarified that private companies offering battery charging facilities to the public for hire would not be subject to WUTC regulation. Entities that are subject to the WUTC’s jurisdiction can offer these facilities as long as they are not subsidized by any regulated service. Governor Gregoire signed this bill on April 11, 2011 (Ch. 28, Laws of 2011). The Commission pushed this bill because it was not clear if the WUTC would have jurisdiction to regulate private entities selling electric vehicle charging services to the public. Theoretically, under RCW 80.04.010, such entities might be considered a regulated “electric company” because they would offer “electric plant” (the charging station) that would be used for the transmission of electricity for power to the public. The WUTC wanted to get out of the way of private investment in battery charging stations, so it proposed SB 1571.
The WUTC’s only rule on electric vehicles simply requires electric utilities to submit periodic reports evaluating certain smart good technologies including electric vehicles. See WAC 480-100-505.
Because the WUTC can control how the electric utilities that are subject to its jurisdiction charge customers it has the capability of setting important policies that impact the development of electric vehicles. For instance, it can decide that electricity purchased for electric vehicles should be regulated the same way as electricity purchased by consumers for other common household needs or appliances. Some IOUs argue that electricity for an electrical vehicle should be treated differently, without a sound basis for doing so, because use shouldn’t matter unless electric vehicles suddenly blow up electricity demand—and there is no evidence of that at this point. If anything, electric vehicles use less electricity than some legacy household appliances. A home with the oven turned on uses approximately 6.0 kilowatts of electricity and an electric vehicle charging uses only 3.5 kilowatts of electricity for the same time period. To date there is no evidence that charging attributed to electric vehicles has had any negative impact on the electrical network that might require regulatory intervention.
Yet some advocates are pushing for rules that require electric vehicle owners to install separate metering for electric car use. This would erect a substantial bottleneck that would discourage deployment of electric vehicles because separate metering requires costly installation, coordination and creates billing issues. If electricity is electricity is electricity then an electric vehicle usage should not be monitored any differently than an air conditioner, hot tub or electric oven. The WUTC has not taken any action on the issue of separate metering.
Another thing that the WUTC could do is to require IOUs to offer time of use, time of day, off-peak prices for electricity. This would send a pricing signal to customers that would incent them to use electric vehicles if their power is cheaper at certain times, reducing overall power costs in a household and balancing the load on the electrical grid. The commission clearly can encourage IOUs to send this powerful pricing signals to consumers that will drive them towards, rather than away, from electric usage for electric vehicles.
The WUTC certainly has an ability to evaluate its policies and regulations to eliminate obstacles to private sector investment that would further the development of a charging network, but at the same time it has to heed its responsibility to adopt fair, just, reasonable and sufficient rates for all electricity stakeholders. This requires careful balancing of sometimes conflicting policies. However, as with any nascent technology, like the internet, less regulation of electric vehicle matters may be best. Onerous regulations from the WUTC could impede investment necessary to electric car deployment. That does not mean that the commission should abdicate the authority to enact necessary consumer protection rules and to ensure that services provided by private vendors are both reliable and safe. The WUTC needs to simply use a cautious regulatory touch, which it appears to have done so far.
But, given the rumblings on the horizon of substantial activity in electric vehicle deployment, it may be just a matter of time before the WUTC revs its regulatory engine for further regulation impacting electric vehicles, the energy that fuels them and their infrastructure.