In a final decision determined on December 18th, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) overturned its blanket prohibition on utility ownership of electric vehicle (EV) service equipment (such as EV charging stations) and endorsed an expanded role for utilities in developing and supporting plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) charging infrastructure.

The CPUC’s earlier July 2011 decision prohibited electric utilities from owning PEV charging infrastructure beyond what they needed for their own fleets or workplaces.  However, the CPUC pledged to “revisit” that ban on utility ownership of public charging infrastructure if utilities presented evidence “of underserved markets or market failure in areas where utility involvement is prohibited”.

Making good on its promise, the CPUC is now revisiting the role of utilities in PEV charging infrastructure deployment in a current rulemaking, which it recently joined with San Diego Gas & Electric Company’s (SDG&E) Application to create an EV-grid integration pilot program.  Rather than set a specific standard for utility participation in the PEV charging infrastructure deployment, the CPUC will evaluate utility proposals on a case-specific basis, with the consolidated SDG&E Application providing its first opportunity to do so.

In evaluating a utility proposal, the CPUC will apply a balancing test weighing the benefits of utility ownership of PEV charging infrastructure against the competitive limitations that may result from such ownership.  “[A]t a minimum” the CPUC will examine the following factors:

(1) The nature of the proposed utility program and its elements; for example, whether the utility proposes to own or provide charging infrastructure, billing services, metering, or customer information and education.

(2) Examination of the degree to which the market into which the utility program would enter is competitive, and in what level of concentration.

(3) Identification of potential unfair utility advantages, if any.

(4) If the potential for the utility to unfairly compete is identified, the commission will determine if rules, conditions or regulatory protections are needed to effectively mitigate the anticompetitive impacts or unfair advantages held by the utility.”

As a result of this decision, PEV charging infrastructure deployment becomes a significant potential investment and growth opportunity for California utilities and provides an important and perhaps game-changing ally for EV proponents.