Peter Blake

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January 21, 2012
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Peter Blake: No need for the PUC to be a roadblock to the electric car

Since it's my duty to add to the clutter in your mind by raising issues you've never even considered before, here's a good one:

If you charge for recharging someone else's all-electric car, should you fall under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission?

Under current law, you would. After all, you're selling electricity and that's a highly regulated business. The PUC controls not only access to it, but the price you charge.

It's little more than a theoretical question now, there being so few all-electric cars, but the folks of the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association like to think way ahead the curve.

They will be promoting a bill in the just-convened legislative session that would exempt recharging businesses from the slow-moving, entry-controlling, lawyer-laden, price-setting PUC.

The Nissan Leaf is already here and most other manufacturers have all-electrics on the drawing board. Cleantech figures that many of these cars will be recharged by private companies that can afford the minimum 220-volt, high-amp posts needed to do the job fairly quickly. It takes too many hours to recharge your car using the 110-volt power available in the garage.

These companies might be supermarkets, coffee shops, auto repair shops, parking garages, movie theaters - anywhere your car might be spending a few hours. They wouldn't necessarily impose a flat fee; they might recharge the car for free or at a reduced price if you buy, say, $50 worth of groceries. But if they require a quid pro quo for a charge, they would now fall under the PUC.

The Cleantech bill will be sponsored by Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland. PUC regulation "doesn't seem right to me," he said. "When they set up the law a long time ago they never envisioned electric cars and people setting up charging stations."

Competition would keep prices in line, said DelGrosso. "If Starbucks charges $10, Dazbog Coffee might charge $5, and people can choose."

It's smart to eliminate the PUC early. Otherwise those that get the necessary certificate of public necessity early would slam the door behind them and strive mightily to keep would-be competitors out. That's how it worked out in the PUC-regulated taxi industry.

"Electricity sales for transportation should be unregulated in the same sense that gasoline and diesel fuel are," said Paul Nelson, policy director for Cleantech.

The bill, he said, would be patterned after an earlier bill in the 1990s that allows companies installing compressed natural gas fueling systems to escape PUC regulation.

But there would be "nuances" in the language because electric recharging is a two-way street, Nelson added.

Huh?

All-electric vehicles under development will have "smart software" that enables them to be "V2G," said Nelson. That means vehicle-to-grid.

"Nissan (Leafs) can not only receive power, they can give it back," explained Nelson. "If they're parked for a while and energy use is at a peaking moment, Xcel can take the electricity back from the vehicle rather than turn on another power generating plant." Obviously, one car is going to make little difference but when there are thousands out there, it will.

Of course the car's owner would get credit, and presumably the strategy would be, under a future "Smart Grid" system, to charge up when power use and rates are low, and sell it back when use and rates are high.

"We want to make sure the guy operating the charging post isn't deemed a public utility even when he's taking power back and giving it to Xcel," said Nelson.

There's a bit of irony in the fact that the Cleantech folks are now opposing PUC control over charging stations. After all, the PUC was an ally when the green community helped the natural gas industry pass House Bill 1365 in 2010, which forced cutbacks in the use of coal and gave more of the generating business to natural gas. Ex-commissioner Ron Binz even helped write the bill.

Cleantech spends a lot of time seeking federal and state subsidies for the research and development of "green" energy sources that can't compete price-wise with fossil fuels. But the DelGrosso bill is a righteous cause, even though it's unlikely all-electrics will ever gain much of a foothold in the U.S., where long drives are routine.

Will the PUC go along with it? Spokesman Terry Bote said the agency doesn't comment on pending legislation until it is introduced, which will be several weeks into the session.

Here's an idea if, for some obscure reason, the bill is killed: The various places that offer charging posts can turn themselves into a rural electric association. REA's have successfully resisted coming under the PUC.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for the Colorado News Agency. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.ColoradoNewsAgency.com


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The Summit Daily Updated Jan 21, 2012 01:49PM Published Jan 21, 2012 01:47PM Copyright 2012 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.