Green cars of the future may be costly

By Heather McGraw

Residents tired of rising gas prices might have an easier time transitioning to electric vehicles now that the Illinois Commerce Commission is on board and trying to make sure Illinois stays a step ahead of the game in planning for electric vehicles and charging stations.

At a policy meeting concerning plug-in electric vehicles in Chicago, members of the ICC agreed many questions about the future of green transportation remain unanswered.

The Plug-in Electric Vehicle Initiative was started in September 2010 by the ICC in an attempt to plan for the first wave of Chicago’s electric vehicle owners. According to a December 2010 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there are already 12,000 PEV owners in Illinois.

Commissioners are questioning how the city would handle the increased demand for electricity that will come from a higher number of at-home charging stations where consumers would plug in their vehicles.

After initial assessments by electricity providers on Dec. 15, the ICC began working with utility officials and stakeholders to better understand the overall effect of PEVs and how they could help educate consumers on electricity use.

“The objective of this initiative is to establish a statewide forum to discuss proactively how the ICC can ensure our state will be prepared for the inevitable deployment of this green mode of transportation,” said

Commissioner Erin M. O’Connell-Diaz, chair of the initiative, at a March 9 meeting.

Two panels answered questions concerning the economic and environmental impact of PEVs and potential procedures and regulations for vehicle charging stations.

The first panel—composed of representatives from four electric companies and a member of the ICC staff—was asked how an influx of charging stations would affect the electric grid.

Panel members said large numbers of PEV owners plugging their cars in at the same time—when they get home from work around 5 p.m.—might not be easily handled by utility providers and could cause a higher rate for consumers. One solution different members gave to this issue might be allowing PEV owners to pay a real-time pricing rate, encouraging them to plug in at off-peak hours, like 2 a.m., when usage is at its lowest of the day.

The panel also discussed how PEV charging stations in California are free from most governmental regulations because they are not classified as public utilities, something panel members thought would be ideal in Illinois.

“This is sometimes difficult for us to say in the Midwest, [but] I think the California folks have this one right,” said Scott Wiseman, vice president of regulatory affairs at Ameren Illinois, one of the state’s utility providers.

Representatives from environmental advocacy groups like Environmental Law and Policy Center and the National Resources Defense Council sat on the second panel along with representatives from the Citizens Utility Board and the city of Chicago.

The second panel’s discussion focused on how to implement a growth of electric vehicles and who would have authority regarding creating regulations.

“These are new challenges for everyone,” said Chris Thomas, policy director for the Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization representing the interests of residential utility customers. “The questions you’re asking are the right questions. I think you can’t expect to answer all of them up front.”

Sharon Hillman, representing Illinois Competitive Energy Association, told commissioners that Chicago already has nearly 100 PEV charging stations in place. Jonathan Goldman, from I-GO Car Sharing service, said they plan to add 36 PEVs to their program and roll out the same number of charging stations in 18 different locations around Chicago and suburban areas.

A higher number of PEVs and charging stations means the city will have to deal with regulating the price to charge the vehicles and parking at various charging locations where PEV owners may try to stay parked longer than necessary to get a charge, according to Mike McMahan, vice president of smart grid and technology at Commonwealth Edison Co.

O’Connell-Diaz said she thought the Secretary of State’s office would be a good entity to handle some of these challenges, but there were many unknowns.

“What we’re doing is we’re selling the future that our country has to move to,” she said.