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A major investor-owned utility in Michigan is planning to install more than 800 charging stations as part of a $15 million statewide electric vehicle infrastructure program that could make it a leader in the Midwest in pushing EV adoption.
As part of a broader rate increase request, Consumers Energy’s program is under consideration by the Michigan Public Service Commission. While clean-energy advocacy groups hope to work with the utility on refining some of the plan’s details, they overall support its move to drive EV adoption for both climate and grid benefits.
“The charging station program that we propose would help residents be more comfortable with purchasing an electric vehicle and promote Michigan as a leader in renewable transportation,” Consumers spokesperson Brian Wheeler said in an email.
The utility is looking to install 60 direct current fast-charge stations and 750 alternating current stations across the state. The fast-charging stations — which would allow drivers to recharge up to 80 percent of their battery in about 20 minutes — would be “strategically located along major highways at approximately 50-mile intervals, creating connected thoroughfares across the Lower Peninsula,” Wheeler said. Each of those locations, 30 in all, would have two chargers and would be installed over 2 to 3 years.
“Installation of the 240V AC chargers will begin in higher-populated metropolitan areas and expand to smaller cities,” Wheeler said. “The intent is that charging stations would be metered and the energy would be paid for by the station host business owner.”
Wheeler added that the lack of available public charging stations nationwide — with “approximately one public charger available for every 10 EVs on the road” — “presents a clear problem for increases in EV sales. Continued adoption of EVs can help boost our automotive state and the economy of Michigan as a whole.”
In addition to the network of public charging stations, Consumers also plans to provide its electric customers who purchase an electric vehicle a $1,000 “reimbursement incentive” toward the installation of a 240-volt home-charging station, Wheeler said.
Advocates say the Midwest has lagged behind other regions of the country in promoting EV adoption, though groups point to a program launched recently by Kansas City Power & Light as well as a proposal by Commonwealth Edison that’s being held up amid broader energy discussions in the Illinois legislature.
“Consumers is kind of the first out of the box in our region,” said Charles Griffith, director of the climate and energy program at the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center.
Clean energy groups are so far optimistic about Consumers’ plan, saying it would make the utility a leader in a region that lags states like California in establishing electric-vehicle infrastructure.
“We’re very pleased to see Consumers taking this step, essentially getting into the EV game,” Griffith said. “Utilities have a business incentive to get into this game, but they also have significant financial resources to invest. The part that is becoming more clear is there are a lot of potential grid benefits from EV use.”
Particularly, charging vehicles during off-peak times can help manage the grid’s load and ultimately lower the fixed cost of using the grid for everyone, Griffith said.
“The overall reason groups like us are interested is the climate mitigation opportunity from electrifying transportation,” he said.
General Motors — which plans to launch the 200-mile-range Chevrolet Bolt EV this fall — has also filed testimony with the MPSC in support of the plan, which it says “will propel Michigan into an EV leadership position nationally.”
Noah Garcia, a Schneider Fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council based in Chicago, said his group is “extremely supportive of the premise behind utilities getting interested in EV charging infrastructure investment. We see it as a critical strategy to adopt electric vehicles in Michigan and the Midwest.”
A question of fairness
Despite overall support for Consumers’ plan, advocates say the location of potential charging stations still needs refining. Particularly, they believe Consumers should place an emphasis on installation stations at multi-family homes or apartments and that charging rates are structured in a way in which “drivers see fuel savings relative to gasoline-powered cars,” Garcia said.
“We see incredible value in having the charging done during off-peak periods to keep the cost of electricity low for EV owners and maintaining the sustainability and reliability of the grid,” he said.
Others have also lodged concerns about the ability of third-party developers to break into Michigan’s market and whether it’s fair for utilities to have investments paid for by ratepayers, signaling a larger debate about the role of utilities and the private sector in building out EV infrastructure.
“If you are subsidizing with ratepayer dollars the charging stations that Consumers Energy would own and operate then you are potentially giving them an advantage that other companies wouldn’t have the ability of taking advantage of,” Griffith said. “We’re appreciative of that as well.”
California-based charging equipment manufacturer ChargePoint, Inc. — which says it has 539 charging “ports” already in Michigan — has intervened in the case before the MPSC. James Ellis, the company’s director director of utility solutions, said in recent testimony that Consumers’ plan is “of interest” because “it will determine whether or not a regulated monopoly utility will be able to enter into a currently competitive market, offer products and services at no cost to customers in that market, own and operate equipment on the customer’s premises, and usurp the roles currently played by the network service providers and site hosts.
“The Commission’s decision on this proposed program will significantly impact the future of the EV charging market in Michigan. In our view, the Consumers plan to use ratepayer money to enter into and inundate the EV charging market space could slow rather than accelerate adoption of EVs in the near and long term in Michigan.”
Griffith called it a “chicken or the egg” situation because the business case isn’t quite established in a place like Michigan, but without a network of charging stations, “It’s a little harder for that market to be stimulated.
“That’s the underlying issue we’re trying to solve: What’s the proper amount of support we should get from general ratepayer dollars versus contributions from either the site owners or owners of the equipment or EV drivers themselves.”