Plan to expand charging stations in Wisconsin for electric vehicles turns sour in fight for profits

The current version would prohibit government entities from owning or renting charging stations and only allow stations to charge for electricity from utilities, not on-site solar installations.

Clean energy supporters, including Renew Wisconsin, now say they want Gov. Tony Evers to veto the bill if it passes the Legislature with those provisions intact. The Assembly’s version of the bill has passed through committees and could be heard by the full House in the coming days.

Dozens of private companies in Wisconsin currently own electric vehicle charging stations and charge customers for energy. But supporters fear opposition utilities could shut them down at any time, particularly if utilities decide to build their own charging networks, potentially earning a rate of return in the process.

As the shift to electric vehicles seems increasingly inevitable, the Wisconsin debate highlights the growing struggle across the country over who will control and benefit most from this transition.

The situation has much in common with the state’s longstanding angst over third-party solar installations. Utilities have argued that such agreements infringe on their exclusive rights to supply electricity to customers. Therefore, third-party solar power is essentially impossible in Wisconsin, even though no law prohibits it.

A bill currently before lawmakers would clarify that third-party solar ownership is legal, and another bill would facilitate community solar power with third-party ownership. The electric vehicle bill in the state Senate was introduced by Senator Robert Cowles, a Republican who is also the leading sponsor of the third-party solar bills.

“The common thread running through all three bills is that the utility wants to make sure that no one can sell any type of electricity in any form,” said Jim Boullion, director of government affairs at Renew. Wisconsin. He noted that at least 34 states have laws that specifically differentiate electric vehicle charging from utility service. He said only five states — Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia — have policies restricting ownership of electric vehicle charging stations beyond utilities.

“We’re talking about a different industry than the utility ‘obligation to serve’ – it now extends to 380 public charging stations (level 2 or DC fast charging) transportation fuels,” Boullion continued. “We think the regulatory system is good and we need it, but the way things are changing in the world, having these strict limits is really hampering the growth of this clean and affordable source of energy. There has to be some flexibility in the model we’ve had for 120 years to recognize this new technology.

Clarity, with strings attached

Accompanying bills SB573 and AB588 explicitly allow private entities to own EV charging stations and charge customers to connect to (or “park nearby”) them. The bills also specify that billing can be done based on time or the amount of energy used. Clean energy advocates want to clarify that kilowatt-hour billing is indeed legal, because time-based billing disadvantages customers with cars that charge more slowly or customers who charge in cold weather (which slows the speed of recharge).

Legal clarity can help charging stations spread across the state, advocates say, especially since the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could mean up to $79 million on five years for EV charging in Wisconsin, according to Renew analysis. There are currently 380 public charging stations (level 2 fast charging, or DC) in Wisconsin, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center. They are most heavily concentrated in the southeast and touristy Door County, with relatively few in the northern half of the state.

As eager as they are for clarification, advocates say the status quo is better than a law banning sales from government-owned charging stations or solar-powered charging stations. (The bill would still allow both types if they don’t sell electricity.)

The bill would mean that cities and towns could not build chargeable charging stations in municipal parking lots or along commercial strips, for example. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities, representing nearly 600 cities, notes in a letter to lawmakers that it will revoke its initial support for the bill if the amendments remain intact.

The League’s Director of Government Affairs, Toni Herkert, framed it as a matter of fairness in her December 2021 letter:

“A complete ban on municipalities owning, operating, managing, leasing, or controlling electric vehicle charging facilities does not allow all areas of the state to be reliably served with charging facilities. charging. By limiting the entities that can provide charging facilities, the most profitable areas, where the market dictates successful investment, will simply be reliably served. We do not want EV charging opportunities to reflect the lack of market incentives to invest in broadband in rural areas, it will still be the smaller and more rural communities that will be the most impacted and under or unserved.

Flo, a company that develops roadside EV chargers, also opposes the provision. In a letter, Flo’s senior public affairs specialist Cory Bullis said such curbside charging stations are often built by local governments to encourage local business patronage.

“Companies are not motivated to spend their own money on an asset that will benefit their competitors on the same block, nor to take responsibility for owning a licensed asset on public property,” Bullis wrote. “City governments can step in to deliver this value to multiple businesses simultaneously, ensuring that everyone benefits.”

Bullis noted that Montreal has nearly 1,000 curbside chargers, while New York has 120 and Los Angeles has 200.

“The electric vehicle charging industry is still young and evolving rapidly; this provision picks winners and losers among electric vehicle charging business models by expressly excluding us from the state,” Bullis wrote.

Electric, solar and storage vehicles

Proponents fear the bill will exacerbate drivers’ ‘range anxiety’, as banning government-owned or solar-powered pay-charge charging stations would make it more difficult to locate stations in remote and rural areas.

“If I go to the northern state park and I have solar plus storage (powering an EV charger), I don’t need to run any power lines there” to install a charger, Boullion said.

The bill would also prevent companies with their own solar panels from receiving payment for charging EVs unless they install a separate meter to ensure that no power from the solar panels goes to the charger. of VE, explained Boullion.

This could discourage the proliferation of solar installations and electric vehicle charging stations, and curb rather than encourage the ideal clean transport solution: vehicles powered directly by solar energy.

Bergstrom Automotive, a Neenah, Wis.-based company, has an onsite microgrid capable of generating and storing up to 23 megawatt hours of solar energy per year, enough for nearly 500 electric vehicle recharges. The development was carried out by EnTech, a Wisconsin-based company that also installed solar EV charging and storage at a Madison mall.

Even if companies or governments sell behind-the-meter or off-grid solar power to electric vehicles, without utilities getting a discount, advocates say the proliferation of electric vehicles is bound to be a boon to utilities. Solar-plus-storage arrangements helping to power electric vehicles can reduce peak demand and stress on the grid, and even power emergency vehicles or provide supplemental power during outages, Renew said in submitted testimony. in the legislature.

And the more charging stations available, the more people will feel comfortable buying electric vehicles. In most cases, the entity charging for the use of charging stations will first purchase that electricity from the utility. Meanwhile, utilities are also expected to see increased demand as more cars are charged at home.

“Utilities will get a lot of business out of it,” Boullion said. “They will sell a lot of extra energy.”

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