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GM joins utilities for 'more concerted efforts' on electric vehicles, grid

America's largest automaker has joined forces with the nation's biggest power companies to launch a new lobbying group to promote electric vehicles along with open technical standards and utility-owned charging infrastructure across the United States.

"There definitely is a sense we need more concerted efforts," Philip Jones, executive director of the Alliance for Transportation Electrification, said in an interview. "It's a big opportunity, but you have to prepare for it."

SNL Image

A public EV charging station just off Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass, Wash.

Source: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Inaugurated Nov. 14 at the annual meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which Jones, a former member of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, once led, the group's founding members are headlined by General Motors Co. and 15 major electric utilities proposing, piloting or considering ownership of electric vehicle, or EV, charging infrastructure. Among them: Ameren Corp., American Electric Power Co. Inc., Duke Energy Corp., Edison International, Fortis Inc., National Grid plc, PG&E Corp. and Southern Co. Several EV charging specialists are also on board, including Greenlots, OpConnect LLC and SemaConnect Inc.

"We are tackling some of the most difficult issues," Jones said. "In many proceedings, certain parties are arguing against a strong utility role." That is precisely what the alliance argues is required to advance electric transportation and integrate EVs with grid operations. Utilities, however, "really have to up their game," the former regulator added. "There's a lot of work to be done."

One of the first acts of the newly formed alliance was to endorse a set of guiding principles on the future of electric transportation recently issued by advocacy groups Advanced Energy Economy, the Energy Foundation, Citizens Utility Board of Illinois, Natural Resources Defense Council, Plug-in America and the Sierra Club. The organizations worked with business groups to create the so-called Transportation Electrification Accord, which envisions a central role for utilities.

'In the public interest'

The agreement calls it "in the public interest to allow investor-owned and publicly owned utilities to participate in and facilitate the deployment of EV supply equipment and/or supporting infrastructure for residential and commercial applications ... to accomplish state and local policy goals." Given the emergence of demand response, distributed energy storage and vehicle-to-grid technologies on distribution grids, utilities are "well positioned to ensure installed [charging infrastructure], whether owned by utilities or other parties," maximizes system benefits, it added.

In addition to advocacy groups, signatories include Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Siemens AG, and electric bus manufacturers BYD Co. Ltd. and Proterra Inc., which both are eyeing an emerging opportunity to provide cities with entire fleets of electric buses. In July, for instance, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to transition its more than 2,200 buses to electricity by 2030.

Such fleets, however, will have to be intelligently managed, Jones said. "One of our concerns is locational. What part of the grid are you putting it into? Does it have adequate transformers?" While such fleets could help "soak up" excess solar generation in places such as California, grid operators around the country will need to adapt to electrification in different ways, he added. "Generally, you don't want to be aggravating the coincident peak."

In a Nov. 17 filing with the Michigan Public Service Commission, the Alliance for Transportation Electrification made a case for "a vital role" for utilities to "catalyze" the state's still small EV charging industry. The commission has opened a docket to consider electrification ahead of potential utility proposals for electric vehicle charging tariffs or programs. (Michigan PSC Case No. U-18368)

"Commissions, like the Michigan PSC, can play an important oversight role — not in setting any standard per se — but ensuring that the various firms and players in the EV ecosystem play fairly and enable such interoperability," the alliance said in the filing. The group plans to engage in regulatory proceedings throughout the country.