Advocates of getting more electric vehicles on Colorado roads say the effort could gain even more traction if Xcel Energy and other utilities take on a larger role, and it appears that could happen.
Xcel Energy officials indicated during a public meeting last week with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that they will likely file a case this year on rates for public, fast-charging stations and for stations handling vehicle fleets. Another potential case would address providing part of the infrastructure for charging stations.
On another front, three legislators are sponsoring a bill to remove a block on investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy from owning and operating charging stations.
“Our piece of legislation is going to allow a company like Xcel and, of course, the (Public Utilities Commission), to work together in a public-private way so we can build the infrastructure to try to boost electric-vehicle usage in our state,” said Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver.
The legislation, Senate Bill 19-077, co-sponsored by Sen. Kevin Priola, an Adams County Republican, and Rep. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, would allow investor-owned utilities to own and operate charging stations as part of their regulated services, which would permit a return on their investment.
Similar bills failed in the previous two legislative sessions, but the sponsors said they think chances of passage are good this year.
Although there are different interpretations of the current law, Xcel Energy believes it is prohibited from owning and operating the charging equipment for electric vehicles, Jack Ihle, the utility’s director of regulatory and strategic analysis, said in an email.
Xcel Energy is moving forward with projects in Minnesota, which doesn’t have a law limiting investor-owned utilities’ involvement in the electric-vehicle industry.
Critics say the Colorado law, enacted in 2012, was meant to define electric providers’ roles but had unintended consequences and is now a drag on efforts to boost the number of charging stations. The law doesn’t apply to rural electric utilities, some of which are working with homeowners and businesses to install chargers.
States across the country are exploring policies to develop the electric-vehicle market and encourage the expansion of private and public infrastructure, according to a report written by a group of industry and environmental organizations as well public agencies. The group presented the report to the state utilities commission last week.
Members of the commission had sought input on the challenges and opportunities of expanding the use of electric vehicles in Colorado. Jeffrey Ackermann, commission chairman, said the panel is trying to determine what its role might be.
During his first few days as Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis signed an executive order reaffirming the previous administration’s goal of seeing nearly 1 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2030. His order builds on work by former Gov. John Hickenlooper to build charging stations across the state and to help convert fleets and public transit to electric vehicles with the state’s share of a settlement with Volkswagen.
Colorado received nearly $70 million from the deal between Volkswagen and the federal government over allegations that the auto company modified computer software to cheat on federal emissions tests. About $10 million is being used to build 33 high-speed charging stations along the state’s major transportation corridors, said Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office.
Colorado ranks seventh in the nation in the number of electric-vehicle charging stations — 710 — according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Of those, 650 are open to the public.
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is expected to consider a zero-emission standard, which would mandate that a certain percentage of manufacturers’ vehicles sold in the state be electric. The requirement would likely be between 6 percent and 10 percent and apply initially to the 2023 model year.
“There’s clearly been support for the electrification of the transportation sector (in Colorado) for a number of years,” Toor said.
The governor’s executive order doesn’t attempt to issue directives to the utilities commission, Toor said, but does “encourage the commission and utilities to work toward implementing programs and policy” supporting use of electric vehicles.
“I think it’s driven both by a sense that utilities have a really important role to play in being able to achieve a deep penetration of electric vehicles, but also that there are specific benefits to the electric system,” Toor said.
During last week’s discussion of the electric-vehicle report, the commission encouraged Xcel Energy to submit filings to start charting what the utility could do.
“That’s a really great next step. When utilities file an application, the commission and other interested stakeholders can really dig in and review what does this mean, what can utilities accomplish and do to help remove barriers to electrification,” said Gwen Farnsworth, senior energy policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates.
Farnsworth said utility customers would benefit as the number of electric vehicles increase, especially if the vehicles are charged during low-demand periods, because utilities could spread their fixed costs across more ratepayers.
A 2017 report by consulting firm M.J. Bradley & Associates said widespread use of electric vehicles could generate $43 billion in benefits for Coloradans by 2050 in the form of lower utility bills and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. Other benefits include lower vehicle maintenance and fuel costs.
While acknowledging the benefits of electric vehicles, commission members voiced concerns about ensuring that low-income and rural areas are not overlooked when building charging stations.
“We still have vast areas of rural Colorado that are unserved,” said commissioner John Gavan.() “I look at this as almost analogous to the problem that we had with broadband (internet). How are we really going to drive ubiquitous charging deployment more aggressively in the rural areas? I think that’s going to be very key.”