Iowa utilities don’t want rooftop solar panels to charge cars

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2018

Iowa utilities are happy to let their customers resell electricity for charging vehicles, as long as the energy is generated from a utility power plant and not the customer’s solar panels.

A coalition of Iowa investor-owned utilities, rural cooperatives and municipal utilities made the distinction in joint comments in response to a rulemaking initiated by the Iowa Utilities Board.

The rulemaking was prompted by a recent case involving an eastern Iowa truck stop that sought to advertise and bill customers for vehicle charging on a per-kilowatt-hour basis — terms prohibited under a utility tariff approved last year (Energywire, Sept. 4).

The three-member board denied the petition by Iowa 80 Truckstop Inc., choosing instead to take up the issue as part of a broader rulemaking on issues involving vehicle charging infrastructure. More than a dozen parties filed comments, including utilities, environmental and consumer advocates, and Tesla Inc.

In their joint comments submitted Monday, Iowa investor-owned utilities MidAmerican Energy Co.; Alliant Energy Corp.; and Iowa co-ops and municipal utilities, which aren’t regulated by the board, joined together to indicate they’re supportive of policies to help drive EV adoption as long as they’re the ones being called on to serve this burgeoning new electricity demand.

But if customers generate electricity with solar panels and resell it for EV charging, they may be deemed a public utility and in violation of Iowa law, the utilities said.

Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, disagrees and hopes regulators will act swiftly to clarify that the resale of electricity by a third party for vehicle charging doesn’t make it a public utility.

Mandelbaum said he believes the utilities “went a little bit too far” in making the distinction about how the electricity is generated.

“It doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the service they’d be providing,” he said.

The issue of who provides energy to charge vehicles in Iowa is just one of many that regulators are being asked to consider as part of the proceeding. The next step will be a workshop in Des Moines on Oct. 17.

Parties including Tesla, which has 48 superchargers in Iowa and works with businesses to deploy Level 2 chargers at commercial sites, urged the board to clarify that vehicle charging is exempt from resale regulation to enable businesses to price the service however they choose.

The company said pricing the service by kilowatt-hours instead of the length of time cars are plugged in is not only more transparent but also fairer, because not all car batteries charge at the same rate.

“Battery technology, vehicle state of charge, power sharing algorithms, and even the weather can influence the rate of charge of a vehicle in a specific period of time,” Tesla said in its comments. “Therefore, two drivers parked at identical charging stations (with same level of electrical service) may have a different amount of kWh delivered despite charging for the same amount of time.”

Another party, the Office of Consumer Advocate, questioned whether the board has jurisdiction to regulate vehicle charging at all.

“Put simply, the board has no legal authority to impose rules or regulations on providers of electric vehicle charging services,” the consumer advocate said in a filing. “A transaction at a commercial electric vehicle charging station does not ‘cry out’ for utility regulation any more than a transaction at a gas station.”

Other parties, including the Alliance for Transportation Electrification, said the board should exercise jurisdiction and that utility involvement in planning for and building out charging infrastructure is vital.

The alliance, a group of utilities, automakers and other parties formed last fall to accelerate EV adoption, encouraged regulators to swiftly remove barriers to development that could, in turn, hamper EV deployment.

Iowa 80 Truckstop had a similar message in its formal comments to the board. The company asked regulators not to wait to clarify that the sale of charging services doesn’t violate utility franchises and to allow pricing by the kilowatt-hour.

“Electric semi-trucks and automobiles are no longer a distant future vision but a reality today,” the truck stop said. “Iowa’s rules on servicing those trucks and automobiles must address that reality now.”