Some Utilities Are Making it Cheaper to Drive Electric Cars


Some utility companies are starting to encourage consumers to make the switch to plug-in electric vehicles (EVs). JEA, a utility company in northeastern Florida, recently began offering to its nearly half a million household and business electricity customers a rebate of up to $1,000 for the purchase or lease of a plug-in electric vehicle. That's a lot of cash toward buying a car that is already significantly cheaper to fuel than a conventional gas guzzler.

Recently, Georgia Power, the largest utility in the peach state, announced it will invest $12 million in a pilot program through which it will offer its residential customers incentives of $250 (and up to $500 for businesses) if they install certain types of EV chargers. The utility also now offers special electricity rates for EV drivers and plans to install 50 public charging stations. The company also provides a strong EV web site for prospective and current EV owners.

In Michigan, Consumers Energy currently offers a reimbursement of up to $2,500 to help customers cover the purchase, installation and wiring of a Level 2 EV charging station. If you're an interested customer, act quickly because the program will likely expire at the end of this year, and only 2,500 households are eligible.

San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDGE) offers two electricity rate options specifically for EV owners. One uses a separate meter for the EV, and the other uses the existing meter to provide a combined reduced rate for EV charging and typical household use. Both plans calculate the price of electricity based on the time of day you choose to charge your car. Through these 'time of use' programs, SDGE expects to encourage customers to "limit daytime usage of electricity, when demand for electricity is highest."

According to the Edison Electric Institute, there were at least 23 electric utilities around the US that were offering EV specific rates at the end of 2013.

Some utility companies and agencies are way ahead (and others way behind) in promoting EVs. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities is working to catch up by holding technical conferences on a number of EV topics, including electricity rate design for EV drivers, demand response programs and grid planning (this is wonky but important stuff). Ideally, they will accept public comment and create regulatory changes that will get Massachusetts utilities into the pro-EV mix in the near-term.

According to a 2014 report by the Edison Electric Institute, customers are more likely to trust their local utility than the US Department of Energy for information about EVs, demonstrating that utilities are a crucial ally in today's EV market. In addition to encouraging EV programs for customers, EEI has also requested that each of its member utilities spend 5% of their annual fleet purchase budgets on plug-in vehicles, including electric forklifts. Companies such as Pacific Gas and Electric Company in Portland are already moving in this direction, with the recent unveiling of the first electric hybrid drivetrain Class 5 truck and battery powered lift systems on bucket trucks, which eliminate the need for trucks to idle at work sites.

Environmental advocates have a long history of going to battle with utilities (and industry associations like EEI) on issues related to dirty energy sources and energy efficiency programs. Just this past summer, several Florida-based utilities presented testimony to the Florida Public Service Commission arguing they should be allowed to roll back energy-efficiency goals, and environmental groups -including the Sierra Club -- have been pushing back. These fights will surely continue.

However, EVs offer an opportunity for agreement and collaboration among strange bedfellows. More electricity used by customers is desirable for utility companies -even those where electricity has been 'de-coupled' from total profits. And more consumers switching to plug-in electric cars is sought after by environmental groups that have done the math and found that EVs are a much cleaner choice compared to conventional vehicles, even using electricity to charge them based on today's energy sources. With more renewable sources of power, EVs become even cleaner over time.

Sierra Club's online EV Guide, now updated with a short online quiz, gives a wealth of information about EVs, including location-specific utility incentive programs that may be available where you plug in.

Madison Halloran contributed to this article.