In Missouri, coal complicates the case for electric vehicle infrastructure

Source: By Karen Uhlenhuth, Energy News Network • Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2018

One of the country’s most coal-dependent utilities wants to offer electric vehicle charging station incentives.

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Building electric vehicle infrastructure has emerged as a rare consensus topic for many utilities and environmentalists — a way to boost utility sales and simultaneously get oil-burning, smog-spewing cars and trucks off the road.

In Missouri, though, that alliance has been lukewarm at best.

Ameren Missouri, the state’s largest electric company, has asked state regulators to allow it to offer incentives for electric vehicle charging stations. The problem for environmentalists: most of the electrons flowing through those chargers would come from the company’s coal-fired power plants.

“I consider it a plan to burn more coal,” said Henry Robertson, a St. Louis attorney representing the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the matter. (MPSC ET-2018-0132)

Ameren is one of the most coal-dependent electric utilities in the country, generating 71 percent of its electricity from coal in 2017. The company’s heavy reliance on coal clouds the potential climate change benefits of electric vehicles in its territory, environmentalists say.

“Electric-vehicle (EV) chargers that are powered by coal aren’t accomplishing the goal that a lot of EV owners want, which is clean energy,” said James Owen, executive director of Renew Missouri, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy and has reservations about Ameren’s plan.

A recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that, nationally, greenhouse gas emissions from an electric vehicle on average are equivalent to a conventional gasoline car that gets 80 MPG. But that estimate varies widely depending on a region’s generating portfolio. Highest is New York outside of NYC and Long Island, where EVs compare to a gas car that gets 191 MPG.

Ameren’s territory is among the worst, with electric vehicle emissions similar to cars that get 39 MPG. That means any gas or hybrid car that gets 40 MPG or better likely has a smaller greenhouse footprint than an all-electric vehicle charged on Ameren’s grid.

Dave Reichmuth, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean vehicles program, said Ameren’s approach is far from ideal, but he cautioned against waiting for the perfect generation mix.

“We need both cleaner electricity and cleaner transportation, and they go hand-in-hand,” Reichmuth said. “It’s a transition that’s going to take some time, and we need to start the process.”

Ameren’s proposal, which it calls Charge Ahead, would provide incentives aimed at defraying part or all of the cost of installing and operating chargers in four types of locations: workplaces, public places “around town,” multi-family housing and along interstates and other highways.

A separate part of the proposal would offer incentives to encourage businesses to trade in gasoline- or diesel-powered equipment for electric versions. Forklifts and ground-support equipment at airports are examples of the types of equipment that could be electrified.

Ameren is proposing to encourage others to install charging stations rather than building them itself because the Missouri Public Service Commission, in two earlier cases, ruled that utilities could not recoup investments made directly in charging stations. The commissioners interpreted the state’s definition of “power plant” to exclude charging stations.

Ameren is making some strides towards more renewable generation. Missouri regulators are considering a green tariff to cover 400 megawatts of wind energy the utility will sell to large commercial customers seeking an alternative to fossil fuels. And now pending before the commission is a proposed 400-megawatt wind farm, the first of 700 megawatts of wind that Ameren hopes to develop. The investments are small relative to the company’s total capacity of about 10,300 megawatts.

NRDC and the Sierra Club plan to support Ameren’s proposal on the condition that the utility continues moving toward a cleaner generation mix.

“We’re counting on that continuing,” Robertson said.

Reichmuth said there is a case for electrifying transportation, even in places where coal still dominates generation. Converting transportation from oil to electricity will take many years, he said, and there’s no time to wait. As the electrical system gets cleaner, over time, so will electrical cars.

“That’s not something we see with gas-powered cars,” he said. “That’s one reason we want to encourage the development of infrastructure, both in places where the grid is cleaner than average, but in places where it’s not cleaner yet, but where we are moving in that direction.”

The Missouri Public Service Commission last week held the first of three technical conferences to discuss the incentives. Hearings were scheduled for early December with a final decision due in February 2019.