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Missouri regulators open door for utilities to invest in vehicle charging

PHOTO BY DDOT DC / Creative Commons

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The Missouri Public Service Commission on Wednesday issued a ruling allowing Missouri’s largest utility to spend $4.4 million to develop charging stations along highways in and around St. Louis. But in keeping with its history, the agency rejected the bulk of the utility’s $18 million proposal, known as Charge Ahead.

The electric-vehicle piece of the proposal would have put charging stations in businesses, apartment buildings and workplaces throughout Ameren’s service territory. Another piece of the proposal would have transitioned forklifts and other material-handling equipment, for example, to electricity.

The PSC ruling was only the latest in a series of decisions that have put obstacles in front of utilities attempting to develop a network of charging stations across the state, which has been slow to embrace electric vehicles.

“Do I think regulators are making it difficult to do this?” asked James Owen, executive director of Renew Missouri. “Yeah. I think their focus is on making this more difficult.”

Owen said his organization, after some reluctance to embrace utility proposals to develop charging stations, came to support Ameren’s proposal as a way to drive electric vehicle adoption and more demand for renewable energy.

Ameren’s manager of efficient electrification development, Pat Justis, said the company was fairly satisfied with the commission’s ruling, and hopeful that the utility can yet win regulators’ approval for a more far-reaching plan.

“We’re going to move forward with the corridors,” he said. “That’s a big win for us and our customers.” As for the rest of the proposal, he said, “The commission was supportive of the idea of EVs and advancing EVs, so I think the door is still open for us to work with stakeholders to see if we can find a good path forward for that.”

Missouri has been slow to shift to electric vehicles. According to testimony filed in the case, about 4,450 of 5.6 million registered vehicles in the state are powered by electricity. That ranks Missouri 34th in the nation in terms of adoption. One of the major factors, according to the commission’s analysis, is anxiety about a lack of charging stations and a fear of becoming stranded.

Both Ameren and Kansas City Power & Light have attempted previously to invest in charging infrastructure, only to be turned down by state regulators. Owen said he feared that that history might interfere with Ameren finding partners that wish to develop charging stations in keeping with the PSC’s ruling.

“I think anytime you see a negative decision like this, there is a concern that regulators are going to make it hard to be innovative. You wonder: Does this scare off people from doing business in Missouri?”

The commissioners indicated that Ameren should integrate its $4.4 million investment with $6 million in Volkswagon settlement money that the state plans to spend on charging stations across the state. Justis said he thought the commissioners saw that potential synergy as a strength of Ameren’s proposal. He is a member of the Missouri EV Collaborative, an entity that is trying to map out a charging network across the state using VW settlement funds.

Owen said the utility has a court ruling to back up its petition to get into the EV charging business. Last summer, the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District sided with Kansas City Power & Light, ruling that charging stations are part of a utility company’s plant, and that utilities may earn a return on investments in the stations. It said Missouri utility commissioners were wrong to say that they had no jurisdiction over questions involving charging stations.  

Sierra Club attorney Joe Halso, said he was further encouraged by comments made by commissioners about other investor-owned utilities in the state.

“Commissioner Hall said that he would support Empire (District Electric Company) and Kansas City Power & Light bringing forward proposals for similar corridor charging networks. The chairman echoed that.”

A spokeswoman for Empire said the company “is currently meeting about this,” but is not yet prepared to speak about any plans.” Kansas City Power & Light spokesman Jeremy McNeive said, “We think Ameren’s proposal is a good one and we will be looking to file a similar proposal for our service territory.”

Although regulators did not approve most of Ameren’s plan, Justis said he found plenty of affirmation in the commission’s ruling.

“The way I read it,” he said, “the commission is supportive of EV charging.”

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