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An Iowa truck stop is seeking permission from state regulators to offer electric vehicle charging stations without facing regulation as a public utility.

The Iowa 80 Truckstop, about 20 minutes west of Davenport, has proposed charging customers for each kilowatt hour put into a vehicle.

Alliant Energy, its electric utility, has protested, saying that selling by the kilowatt hour would be illegal under a tariff change it made last fall.

Delia Meier, an owner and senior vice president of the truckstop company, said the company offered to help her devise an alternative: a flat charge based on the type of car, the type of charger and the time of day. Drivers would consult a chart to determine what they’d need to pay.

“I cannot imagine that’s in the customer’s best interest,” said Meier, who suspects that Alliant has another agenda: “I don’t think (Alliant) wants me to do it. I think they want to do it.”

The Iowa Utilities Board is now pondering the issue, along with other regulatory aspects of the EV-charging business in a rulemaking proceeding it launched in response to a request by the truck stop.

Rob Kelter, a senior attorney and electric vehicle advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said it’s critical that the state create a policy toward electrified transportation. Electric vehicles are bound to grow rapidly in the next five years, he predicted, and Iowa needs to know if, and how, it might regulate the process.

The Iowa Energy Plan, developed two years ago by the state’s economic development and transportation departments, listed among its goals promoting electric vehicle by fostering development of charging corridors — including Interstate 80 — to allow drivers to quickly charge their vehicles.

The plan reported that there were at least 1,000 EVs registered to Iowa drivers at that time and nearly 100 public EV charging stations.

This year, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill that, among other things, asked state agencies and the utility industry to complete a study of electric vehicle infrastructure by June 30, 2019 with recommendations to the legislature.

Jacque Matsen, spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, said it is “in the process of updating the 2016 EV report and recommendations. There isn’t anything beyond what’s contained in those resources to share at this time.”

The main policy question that needs answering at this point, according to Kelter, is whether a business that provides charging services is acting as a utility. Iowa law grants monopoly status to utilities operating within their borders, and so a charging service would be legal only if regulators determine it is not competing illegally against Alliant or another Iowa utility.

Iowa’s electric vehicle market needs a “jump start,” Kelter said, and regulation therefore should be kept to a minimum. Vendors of charging services should not be classified as utilities, in his view. “We believe in a competitive market and not in price regulation. You can always implement more regulation later.”

The clause in Iowa law that Alliant finds confusing defines a utility an entity that provides electricity “to the public for compensation.” Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant, said the company is not necessarily asking for vendors of charging services to be ruled as utilities.

“We’re agnostic about who provides charging services,” he said. “We are for helping grow EV charging and to create some clarity in the law to help make decisions easier for customers and for groups that want to install EV chargers.”

As to whether Alliant wants to enter into the charging business, he said it hasn’t come up. “You are trying to paint this picture of (Alliant) stifling others. That’s not what we are doing here.”

Should state regulators determine that selling charging service does not constitute operating as a utility, Alliant and the state’s other utilities have proposed limits they’d like imposed electric vehicle charging providers. Although vendors could, in theory, generate their own power, utilities want the state to require vendors to buy all power they sell from their local utility.

Kelter said that electric vehicles should be powered by renewable energy to reduce fossil fuel use. A time-of-use rate schedule that institutes lower rates overnight would accomplish that. This is especially pertinent in Iowa, he said, where nighttime wind energy is abundant.

Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.