SALT LAKE CITY — A bill unveiled Wednesday would allow businesses or cities that provide a charging station for electric vehicles to recoup their costs without fear of being viewed as a "utility" and regulated by the Public Service Commission.
Such a concern may seem unwarranted, but under Utah law as it exists now, that worry could become a reality as electric vehicles become more mainstream in the state.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, told members of the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee that her measure would set in place assurances that someone providing a plug-in station for electric vehicles and being compensated would not run afoul of the state's utility regulator.
She said the issue has been studied by the legislatively created Economic Development Task Force as one cost-effective way to make a dent in the air quality problem that plagues the Wasatch Front by encouraging the use of alternative fuel vehicles.
The measure, if it receives the endorsement of the full Utah Legislature in the upcoming session, is anticipated to facilitate the installation of charging stations so owning an electric vehicle is more convenient.
She pointed to the circumstances of a Salt Lake-area resident who owns a Nissan Leaf with a range of 80 miles who would like the opportunity to visit rural areas of the state, but the infrastructure doesn't exist.
Vicki Bennett, Salt Lake City's director of sustainability, said the city has had six free electric vehicle charging stations for a number of years, but the 110-voltage delivered to the cars doesn't provide enough of a charge to be worthwhile. Use of the stations has been sporadic for that reason as well as the relative rarity of that type of vehicle in the city, she said.
"For us it has been a chicken and egg issue," she said, pointing to the residents' requests for the stations but the uncertainty of how much use they might receive. With electric vehicles becoming more standard fare for local auto dealers to sell and costs coming down, the cars are becoming more popular, Bennett said.
"The demand for these electric vehicle stations is increasing," she said, noting that as usage goes up, costs to the city will go up. "We also feel it is not our role to provide people free fuel."
Arent's bill received the endorsement of the legislative committee, which also had an earlier discussion on how to build the natural gas fueling infrastructure in the state.
A lengthy discussion was held on a measure passed last year by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, that allows for a $5 million infusion of money for Questar, and possibly others, to boost the number of stations that exist in the state, particularly for large, government-owned or commercial fleets.
Touted as another clean air measure designed to tackle the air pollution via the tailpipe, the bill created concerns over giving competitive deference to Questar at the expense of private providers.
Consumer advocates, too, worried that funding the measure through a monthly charge levied against rate payers was unfair — that residents heating their homes shouldn't be paying for fueling stations.
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville and House chairman of the committee, said the need for more alternative fuel infrastructure is clear in the context of the Wasatch Front's dirty air problem, but the difficulties come down to the fine details.
"It boils down to the fact of who gets this money and what it can be used for," he said.
If rate payers don't foot the bill, other options could include a vehicle per mile tax, an increase in motor vehicle registration fees, or some sort of city-levied fee.
Chris Parker with the state Division of Public Utilities said the bill includes flexibility for who can access the new stations — the public can — and it would not necessarily preclude private companies from managing or operating the new stations.
Barrus said public input received over the summer also stressed the assertion that private companies are willing to step in and build more of the stations, but the big problem goes back to the number of natural gas fueled vehicles on the road, so conversion should have some incentives.
Lawmakers are expected to hammer out more of the details on how that $5 million is funded, and where the money goes, during the 2014 session.