The state that's home to Motor City has taken its first step into utility-backed electric vehicle charging.

On Wednesday, the Michigan Public Service Commission approved Consumers Energy’s PowerMiDrive initiative, a $10 million, three-year plan to incentivize the deployment of EV chargers at homes, apartments, schools, workplaces and other public charging sites. It also includes fast chargers along highways. 

The program, part of a settlement agreement on Consumers’ newly announced $58 million rate increase, is relatively paltry, compared to the $1 billion and counting that California utilities are investing in EV charging programs, or New York’s $250 million EV charging initiative launched last year. 

But it's an important step forward for Consumers Energy, which had to withdraw its first $15 million project proposal in 2016 amid pushback from state regulators.

Regulators in Michigan, as in California and New York, have shied away from allowing utilities to directly own the EV chargers and underlying infrastructure, preferring instead to put them in the hands of other private- and public-sector actors. Consumers’ 2016 plan called for a utility-owned network, a move that was opposed by EV charging companies and the state attorney general’s office. 

PowerMiDrive, by contrast, will provide rebates of up to $5,000 to incentivize third parties to install up to 200 Level 2 public chargers, as well as incentives of up to $70,000 for up to 24 DC fast-charging stations. That’s fewer than the 750 public Level 2 chargers and 60 fast chargers the utility sought in its 2016 plan. 

It’s also fewer than the roughly 700 workplace chargers that General Motors operates in Michigan, to highlight the important role that GM and Ford are playing in Michigan’s EV future. Consumers Energy is working with GM on its EV charging pilot, while fellow Michigan utility DTE Energy is working with Ford on its own $13 million EV charging pilot now before state regulators.  

Utilities and automakers agree that there aren’t enough chargers in the state to meet future growth. As of last year, Michigan had about 1,000 chargers to serve an EV fleet of roughly 14,000 vehicles.

The new plan will also come with low off-peak electricity rates between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., and a super off-peak period of 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., to encourage drivers to charge at night when power is cheap and plentiful, and to avoid charging during peak afternoon or summer hours. That's in line with EV charging programs from utilities in California and other states, which are trying to prevent EVs from becoming a troublesome or even threatening new load on the grid. Utilities also hope to tap EVs' latent charging flexibility for positive grid benefits.  

In addition to PowerMiDrive, regulators approved Consumers’ request to recover program costs over five years through a deferred accounting mechanism. The program was described as an “incentive for the utility to support EV charger placement throughout Michigan, avoid expensive future capital infrastructure investments when EV use is anticipated to grow, and educate consumers about the benefits of off-peak charging,” according to Wednesday’s announcement.