Public utility commission to study why Vermont drivers are slow to go electric

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Vermont has taken another step toward increasing the number of electric vehicles on its roads.

The state's Public Utility Commission said this week that it has began a formal investigation into how the state and its public utility companies can promote electric vehicle ownership without adverse impacts on non-electric vehicle ratepayers.

The investigation is a feature of the general transportation bill, H.917, which was signed into law this May. It will culminate in a report to the legislature in July 2019, andwill include recommendations for legislation to address barriers to electric vehicle usage.

Under the state's 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan, by the year 2050 Vermont must have a 90 percent renewable energy portfolio and must have reduced its greenhouse gases by 80 to 95 percent from its 1990 levels. Although the state's electricity is increasingly from renewable sources, [transportation] — the state's largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions — still relies almost entirely on fossil fuels.

"If Vermont is going to meet its statutory greenhouse-gas reduction goals, it is critical that the barriers to electric vehicle adoption be addressed and eliminated to the extent possible," commission chair Anthony Z. Roisman said in a statement Tuesday.

Vermont has the distinction of having the highest electric vehicle market share on the East Coast, but electric vehicles still make up less than five percent of new cars sold in the state, Dave Roberts of Drive Electric Vermont said. Drive Electric Vermont — an offshoot of Vermont Energy Investment Corporation — provides information on types of electric vehicles as well as federal and local purchase incentives. Roberts said barriers to electric vehicle ownership in the state include lack of awareness about affordable options, access to charging stations, and Vermont's notorious weather and roads.

"There aren't many affordable electric vehicle options today that have all-wheel-drive," he said, adding that more will be available for purchase soon.

The PUC will be looking specifically into how to address challenges of electric vehicle charging, according to the commission's initial filing. They include:

- Reducing cost of charging for electric vehicle users without increasing electricity costs for other consumers;

- Managing impacts on the state's electrical grid from increased electric vehicle charging;

- Clarifying regulations — such as charging rates and safety standards — for public charging stations.

Although most of the "interested parties" designated by the commission are electric utilities, the commission is seeking input on how Vermont can increase electric vehicle ownership beyond improving charging, said John Cotter, attorney for the PUC.

"We were given a list of very specific issues to look at, but that might not be the entire list of issues, so we want people to think broadly and creatively and come to us with their ideas," said Cotter.

Though the state does not offer currently electric vehicle purchase incentives, some Vermont utilities have started offering customers electric vehicle discounts. For example, Green Mountain Power has partnered with a Nissan dealer in South Burlington and a Chevrolet dealer in Rutland to offer thousands of dollars off certain electric vehicles, said Green Mountain Power spokesperson Kristin Carlson.

Green Mountain Power also has taken an innovative approach to in-home charging by offering customers free rapid chargers provided they charge their vehicles during off-peak hours, said Carlson.

Increasing off-peak demand can actually help stabilize the grid. "We want to flatten loads," Roberts said. "So rather than having a high peak and overnight usage that goes way down, if we can get more electric vehicles charging at night, we're bringing up off-peak usage."

The PUC is also tasked with investigating how electric vehicle drivers — who purchase no or, in the case of plug-in hybrid owners, little gasoline or diesel — can contribute to maintaining roads and highways. Currently, taxes on diesel and gasoline fund many of the state's transportation projects.

The PUC investigation is part of an ongoing effort by the state, utilities and non-profits to promote electric vehicle usage in Vermont. The Agency of Natural Resources announced last month that a portion of the state's Volkswagen funds will go to installing public charging stations and developing an electric school bus pilot program. Vermont also was among 10 states to commit in 2013 to putting a combined 3.3 million zero emission vehicles on the road by 2025.

Sandra Levine, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation who focuses on climate change and clean energy, said in an interview Tuesday that the PUC investigation provides an opportunity "to make sure that we come up with practical, real and effective incentives to promote electric vehicle ownership in Vermont."

Interested parties have been asked to submit comments on the scope of the investigation through PUC's online filing system by July 30. The PUC will review the comments and host a series of workshops to seek further input on specific barriers in advance of next year's report.

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