Duke plans largest utility EV investment ever in Southeast

Source: David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Duke Energy Corp. is moving forward with a $76 million electric transportation program in North Carolina that could lead to almost 2,500 new electric-vehicle charging stations in the state, as well as money for commercial fleet and municipal transit charging. Karlis Dambrans/Flickr

Two Duke Energy Corp. subsidiaries asked regulators in North Carolina last week to build $76 million worth of electric vehicle chargers, the largest investment by a utility in EV infrastructure in the Southeast to date.

The proposal cites an evolving market for EVs, including improving sales and better technology, and argues that the state’s existing chargers “cannot support the current and future pace of EV growth.” It comes months after the governor set a new statewide target for EV sales.

The slate of programs would erect almost 2,500 chargers over three years, significantly widening the scope of a separate proposal looped into a grid upgrade settlement last summer and ultimately rejected by regulators. Most would be owned and operated by Duke.

“This is a larger proposal than what we proposed last year,” said Lang Reynolds, director of electric transportation at Duke Energy.

It would bring the state about two-thirds of the way toward filling its need for fast chargers, according to the utility’s projections, if it is to reach its sales goal of 80,000 zero-emissions vehicles by 2025, as established in an October executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper (D). Sales of battery electrics more than tripled in North Carolina from the start of 2017 through 2018, according to figures from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, but the state still lags behind EV leaders along the coasts and near major urban centers.

The governor has begun to open the door to clean energy technologies in that order and elsewhere, most recently through a proposed budget that would allot money for a study into the state’s potential as an offshore wind parts manufacturer.

The utility had looked to the state “for guidance” on policy, said Reynolds. “Now that there’s a policy at the state level that has expressed support for the technology, we definitely want to come to the table with something that supports that policy.”

The portfolio includes some relatively standard features of utility charger programs, like rebates for up to 800 Level 2s in single-family homes and 160 more in multifamily dwellings and public places.

But it would also encourage authorities in North Carolina to spend more of the state’s Volkswagen settlement money on electric school buses, rather than replacing existing diesel buses with new fossil fuel-powered versions.

Up to $215,000 of utility funds could go to school districts for 85 electric buses, provided that the districts let Duke Energy build out and own the chargers, access all of the charging data, and use the buses’ batteries to send power back into the grid. Duke would also keep control over the batteries, repurposing them after they reached the end of their usefulness for vehicle propulsion.

The proposal also lacks a carve-out of chargers sited in lower-income or minority-majority communities, a feature of utility requests in most states.

Reynolds noted that Duke Energy had a 10% carve-out for low-income neighborhoods in its EV program in Florida but had found utilization low there. “You don’t want to put them in if you’re not going to use it.”

“I wouldn’t take it as backing off our commitment” to providing chargers in those areas, he added, pointing to the school bus program and another project that would build over 100 chargers for transit buses.

Used EVs were also beginning to flow into car lots. “The issue is really awareness — like for other segments.”

Duke’s filing also asks the North Carolina Utilities Commission to approve the submission within 60 days so that requests for electric school bus funding under the Volkswagen settlement can take Duke’s offer into account.

“We’ve seen progress in the market in the last couple of years,” said Reynolds. But additional investment from utilities would be necessary, he added. “It’s clear we need to make a lot more progress on transportation emissions.”