Eversource Rate Case Order Green Lights First Utility Electric Vehicle Charging Proposal in the Northeast

On November 30, 2017, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities released a major order in the large and complex rate case filed by Eversource Energy last January.  While a number of the most controversial pieces of the rate case remain to be decided in a future order, the Department’s November order dealt with several important components of Eversource’s proposal including a $45 million investment in electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure to spur deployment of EVs in the Commonwealth.

Presently there are approximately 8,500 EVs registered in the Commonwealth, representing well under 1 percent of the passenger vehicle fleet. This figure will need to increase rapidly if the Commonwealth is going to achieve its Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum of Understanding (ZEV MOU) commitment of 300,000 zero emission vehicles on the road by 2025, and if Massachusetts is going to put itself on track to achieve its longer-term Global Warming Solutions Act climate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, which will require near-complete electrification of vehicles by mid-century.

Putting more EVs on the road is not only critical to helping the Commonwealth achieve its ZEV MOU and Global Warming Solutions Act commitments, EVs also provide many benefits to drivers and residents.  Electric vehicles reduce emissions of both climate pollution and conventional air pollutants relative to gasoline-powered cars due to their greater efficiency and the mix of resources the powers the region’s electric grid.  An analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that an EV charged in New England accounts for the same climate pollution as a conventional vehicle achieving 86 miles per gallon. These pollution benefits will grow as Massachusetts and the New England region continue to clean up the power sector through renewable portfolio standards and successful and innovative programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Electric vehicles also cost less to fuel than convention vehicles, have far lower maintenance costs (thanks to having only a fraction of the number of moving pieces of a gasoline-power car), and are rapidly dropping in price and increasing in range.

One of the largest remaining barriers to EV adoption is a concern by some drivers that they will not be able to conveniently charge their vehicle or access charging stations that enable the full range of trips they may wish to take. This concern is particularly acute for vehicle owners who lack access to dedicated off-street parking where they can install their own EV charger, such as residents of many apartment buildings or condominiums.   
As part of its rate case, Eversource proposed to invest $45 million to accelerate deployment of EVs in Massachusetts by reducing the costs to prospective charger owners (known as “site hosts”) of installing EV charging infrastructure.  Under Eversource’s proposal, the company—not the site host—would cover the installation costs, and in environmental justice communities, Eversource would also rebate the cost of the chargers. By reducing barriers to installing public EV chargers and prioritizing siting of these chargers in locations where vehicles are parked for several hours (i.e., enough time to gain useful range in the vehicle) such as workplaces, apartment buildings, colleges, hospitals, and shopping centers, Eversource’s proposal—which aims to add 4,000 public charging stations—will increase drivers’ confidence that they will be able to find a convenient charging station when they need it.  In addition, Eversource will help build out a smaller number of “fast” chargers, which depending on their exact specifications are capable of charging a vehicle in 15 to 30 minutes.  Developing a robust network of these “fast” chargers is critical to enabling longer-distance travel and also can improve the convenience of charging for drivers without access to charging at their homes.

The Sierra Club partnered with Mass Energy and worked closely with allies including Conservation Law Foundation to support and improve the company’s EV charging infrastructure proposal. Thanks to our advocacy, the company’s investment will be focused exclusively on increasing access to public chargers rather than devoting money to electrifying the company’s own fleet of bucket trucks, as the company had proposed. (While we support electrification of the company’s fleet, those investments would do far less to accelerate the market for EVs in the Commonwealth than investments in charging infrastructure in public locations, workplaces, or apartment buildings.) In addition, the Department supported our recommendations on data collection and reporting, which will be critical to evaluating and making improvements to Eversource’s program going forward.

The Department’s order does have some concerning features. The Department of its own accord rejected Eversource’s proposed investments in general market education and outreach regarding the benefits of fueling their vehicles with power from the grid. Utilities are well-positioned to provide this type of information to their customers and the public and this type of education and outreach work would have amplified the benefits of Eversource’s charging infrastructure investments. The Department also declined to establish a date by which Eversource must propose electric rates for EV owners or develop other programs to help manage the new electric load from EVs.  Well-designed rates can encourage charging behavior that benefits the electric grid and ratepayers by providing incentives to charge at night when other demand for electricity is at its lowest.  We will continue to work to remedy these gaps in the order and note that the legislature could also act to remedy these gaps as they have in other states.

Despite its limitations, the Department’s order is a major step forward for electric vehicles in Massachusetts and for utility efforts to invest in EV charging infrastructure in the Northeast.  Eversource’s partner utility, National Grid, filed a similar EV charging infrastructure proposal with the Department earlier this year, which the Sierra Club and its allies also engaged on, and we look forward to the Department’s forthcoming order on that proposal. 

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