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Who should control Florida’s electric vehicle charging stations?

Should gas stations and others have more of a chance to compete with Florida’s utilities?
 
Reese McGuire, 26, who recently moved to Dunedin from Kent, Washington, plugs in his 2015 Model S Tesla at a charging station Wednesday in Clearwater.
Reese McGuire, 26, who recently moved to Dunedin from Kent, Washington, plugs in his 2015 Model S Tesla at a charging station Wednesday in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Feb. 15, 2022|Updated Feb. 16, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — During Sunday’s Super Bowl, the nation’s auto industry sent the message that the future is in electric vehicles. That future comes with a catch — if you’re on a long drive, you’ll need to recharge your car’s battery.

The issue gets to the heart of what is emerging as an electric vehicle charging war in the Florida Legislature: Should the state’s investor-owned utilities — Florida Power & Light Co., Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. — own the charging stations or should gas stations and charging manufacturers be allowed to compete?

There are an estimated 58,000 electric vehicles in Florida and, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, Florida has the third-largest electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the country, behind California and New York.

Current electric vehicle models have typical driving ranges of 150 to 300 miles and, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there are only 954 registered charging stations available for public access.

Competition for public charging stations

A House committee on Tuesday approved House Bill 737, by Rep. David Borrero, a Miami Republican, that would require state regulators to issue rules “that facilitates the deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure in a competitively neutral manner.”

Under the bill, and a companion measure sponsored by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Alachua, the Florida Public Service Commission would be required to end the current practice of letting the electric utility companies make customers pay for the financing of charging station development in 2024 and write rules to encourage competition and private investment.

“In other words, it makes sure that you and I as homeowners, as residential customers of electricity, don’t have to pay the costs of (electric vehicle) charging stations,” Borrero told the House Tourism, Infrastructure and Energy Subcommittee on Tuesday.

The bill has the support of Chargepoint, a California-based electric vehicle infrastructure company, and Racetrac, the gas station chain that operates primarily in the South.

A Tesla vehicle is seen at a charging station Wednesday in Clearwater.
A Tesla vehicle is seen at a charging station Wednesday in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Under Florida law, the third-party sale of electricity to a retail customer is not permitted but, in 2012, the Legislature created an exemption for electric vehicle charging.

Since then, the state’s investor-owned electric utility industry has been the primary investor in the emerging market.

As part of its 2021 rate case, Florida Power & Light won approval for its customers to finance a $175 million expansion into the vehicle-charging arena. The Public Service Commission allowed the company to expand its electric vehicle charging pilot program to include “a public fast-charging program, a residential (electric vehicle) charging services pilot, a commercial (electric vehicle) charging services pilot as well as new technologies and software, and education and awareness,” the House staff analysis states.

The Public Service Commission also allowed Duke Energy Florida to spend $63 million in developing its electric vehicle charging business, and Tampa Electric Company is allowed to spend $2 million.

Who should pay, electric vehicle owners or everyone?

Borrero argued that the arrangement allows people who can afford more expensive electric vehicles to be subsidized by those who operate gas-powered vehicles. He compared it to the argument the utilities are making against net metering, the billing program that allows owners of rooftop solar systems to sell their excess energy back to the grid.

Related: Florida House offers compromise to more rooftop solar users

“Right now in Florida, roughly 6,000 gas stations provide fuel to vehicles,” Borrero said. “That’s a good thing for Florida and it provides a lot of competition that has the effect of driving down the costs.”

But when the utilities are allowed to pass on the cost of building charging stations to their customer base through increased rates, “that gives the investor-owned utilities a significant unfair competitive advantage over third parties like gas stations, or other electricity pump-station manufacturers from being able to enter into the field,” he said.

“So the current framework has the effect of preventing other companies from also participating in this field.”

Under the bill, the installation of utility-owned charging stations will continue to be paid by ratepayers until January 2024 but after that, it would be prohibited and regulators would be required to encourage “innovation in competition.”

Tesla vehicles are seen at charging stations in Clearwater.
Tesla vehicles are seen at charging stations in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

None of the state’s utilities spoke up in opposition to the bill but a lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida, the business lobbying group heavily funded by the investor-owned utilities, did.

“They’ve been leading the way in (electric vehicle) development and investment, and they’re the best suited really to continue that moving forward,” said Adam Basford, Associated Industries of Florida lobbyist. “We believe that this prohibition would slow down that investment and that the EV infrastructure will be limited to their ability to manage the grid.”

The bill was approved 13-3.

Senate may not go along

However, the bill may face obstacles this session. In addition to the opposition from the powerful utility industry, the Senate version of the bill made it through only one committee and “time may be running out,” said Perry, the Senate sponsor.

But he said he is not ready to give up.

“Competition breeds the best practices as well as the best prices,” Perry said. “We have to make sure we have a market open to anybody.”

Right now, the Public Service Commission has jurisdiction over energy policy but the Department of Transportation has authority over transportation policy. In 2020, legislators asked the transportation department to produce a master plan for how to handle the growth of the electric vehicle market in Florida.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has set aside $198 million to develop electric vehicle charging in Florida.

But in order for Florida to get that money, it has to put together a plan by Aug. 1 for how to handle the injection of those funds, including a coordinated and strategic approach to facilitating electric vehicle travel for residents, tourists and emergency evacuations.

In a news release issued Tuesday, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried urged the state Department of Transportation to use the Florida Electric Vehicle Roadmap developed by her office as a starting point.

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