We’ve been covering the struggles between the electric-vehicle charging industry and Pacific Gas & Electric over the California utility’s EV-charging pilot proposal. Now there's an alternative industry proposal for state regulators to consider, which could decide the outcome for the last major California utility in the state without support for an EV charging infrastructure plan.

In recent filings with the California Public Utilities Commission, groups including the Electric Vehicle Charging Association (EVCA), EV charging companies ChargePoint and Volta, and consumer and environmental advocacy groups, have laid out a plan they say would allow PG&E to boost EV adoption in Northern California, while avoiding what they called the most anti-competitive aspects of the utility’s proposal.

In particular, they’ve highlighted how PG&E, unlike fellow California utilities Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, is asking for a lot more ratepayer money to fund a rollout that could lock in utility control over an infrastructure that’s required by law to be open to third-party competition and innovation.

While SCE and SDG&E got broad EV industry buy-in for their plans, PG&E saw its first $650 million plan rejected by the CPUC last year. Unfortunately, its second proposal, filed in March, contains many of the same problems as the first, EVCA spokesperson Damon Conklin said in an interview last week.

And because PG&E operates in Northern California, where one out of five of the country’s EV owners live, “It will set an example, a very dangerous precedent, for many other states that have adopted EV programs, and inform policies in other states,” he said.

The groups’ alternative plan differs from PG&E’s latest in two key categories. First, it asks PG&E to spend a lot less money and install far fewer chargers. The alternative proposal would limit PG&E’s pilot to no more than $87.4 million, or about half of the $160 million it’s seeking in its latest revised proposal, and keep the number of Level 2 chargers to 2,500, or one-third of the 7,500 it eventually wants to install.

Even with these reductions, it’s still more than the $45 million and 3,500 EV chargers that SDG&E is rolling out, or the $22 million for 1,500 EV chargers that SCE saw approved early this year, Conklin noted. But it’s still in line with a proposal submitted by PG&E last year as an alternative to its larger-scale plan.

But PG&E’s plan has problems beyond its scope and cost, these groups say. Specifically, their alternative proposal would change the structure of the pilot in several ways its backers say will be critical to ensure it doesn’t become a utility-controlled and innovation-constrained deployment.

Indeed, under PG&E’s current proposed structure, companies like ChargePoint and Volta may not be able to participate in the utility’s rollout at all, unless they ditch their current business models, according to government affairs directors at the two companies.

Take Volta, a startup that’s installing EV chargers with local partners that charge nothing for EV drivers to top off their batteries, by leveraging advertising revenues and the value of drawing EV drivers to their locations. “It’s free to the site host, and it’s free to the users,” Abdellah Cherkaoui, Volta's vice president of government affairs, said in an interview last week.

But PG&E’s proposal would require all EV charger hosts to charge their customers based on prescribed time-of-use rates, a rule that would preclude Volta from making use of its free charging model, he said. “They say they have an inclusive model where all vendors can come in,” he said. “But we’re not included at all.”

Similarly, EV-charging market leader ChargePoint uses different pricing models in different settings, based on the needs of the government agencies, businesses and other “hosts” of its EV charging systems. But under PG&E’s proposed plan, “you can’t participate in this program unless you agree you’re going to accept this time-of-use rate,” Colleen Quinn, the startup’s vice president of government market development and public policy, said last week.

The groups' alternative proposal would change that, by stating that "the site host may determine the rate structure and amount charged to drivers for EV charging services, subject to the obligation to implement a load management plan reflecting best practices."

Quinn pointed out other differences between PG&E’s plan and those of its fellow California utilities that could prevent EV-charging companies from playing a role. For one, “the PG&E proposal requires separating the procurement of the hardware from the network services,” Quinn said -- in other words, buying the charging systems themselves separately from the technology and services that manages them as a fleet of assets.

But many EV-charging companies, including ChargePoint, don’t do business that way, Quinn said. What’s more, “there are no standards right now for the industry to establish the interchangeability of hardware and networks,” she noted. While efforts are underway to create these standards, they aren’t ready yet -- so PG&E's proposal amounts to demanding a feature that is, “right now, not even achievable in the market.”

“The other thing they’re doing, which is not like SDG&E or SCE, is they’re requiring the companies that provide these network services separate from their hardware to become the ‘customer of record’ on the site,” she said. The state’s other two utilities, by contrast, make the owner of the property where the chargers are installed the customer of record.

That seemingly technical difference is important, because a 2011 state law, AB 631, precludes utilities from imposing pricing of EV-charging services on any EV-charging site host. But it doesn’t specifically include EV network services as a group that’s free of utility pricing requirements -- and to Quinn’s view, that indicates that PG&E is “doing an end run around the requirement in California that you cannot regulate EV charging services by host.”

The groups' alternative proposal would change that by stating that "at all sites, the site host rather than a third-party service provider will be PG&E’s customer of record." 

The CPUC is now reviewing the proposals of PG&E and other parties, and it is expected to come up with a proposed decision in late August or early September, she said. Given that PG&E’s pilot has already been delayed by the previous rejection of its plans, she said it’s unlikely that the CPUC will force the utility to go back to the drawing board yet again. But “I think the commission will have a strong hand in what ends up being the final proposal, which is why we’ve proposed an alternative,” said Quinn.