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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Solving the EV chicken & egg problem

As part of a settlement over the 2001 California energy crisis, NRG Energy promised to spend $100m to build EV charging stations across the state. On Friday a rival charging station company sued to block the settlement.

The settlement itself was fraught with ironies, since many saw NRG as the next most “evil” big business (after Enron) in the whole crisis. The settlement was trumpeted March 23 by Governor Jerry Brown, while the brownouts and blackouts brought the forced retirement (through recall) of his protegĂ©, Gray Davis, who’d been chief of state (and a stabilizing influence) on Brown during his infamous “Governor Moonbeam” days.

According to the GTM coverage of the deal, NRG’s $100m would fund “a statewide infrastructure of at least 200 public fast-charging stations and another 10,000 plug-in units at 1,000 locations.”

There are other aspects of the plan that belong in la-la land, such as the Governor’s vision that (again according to GTM) “California’s personal transportation is to be essentially all-ZEV by 2050.” Fortunately for the state (and the governor), Gov. Moonbeam will be at least 20 years in the ground at that point, with his fanciful promise long forgotten. (For a whole range of reasons ± starting with batteries — electric vehicles will remain a niche product through the first half of this century.)

Still, EVs face a crucial chicken-and-egg problem: they will only get limited adoption without charging stations, and nobody wants to spend big bucks to install charging stations before there is an installed base of EVs. The governor’s settlement of his predecessor’s screw-up allows him to take credit for solving this (very real) “green” problem without spending any taxpayer money (which makes it a rare opportunity indeed). Or, as Michael Peevey, the head of his Public Utilities Commission, noted in the official press release
The settlement will launch a virtuous circle in which ever more Californians will feel comfortable driving EVs, and growing EV sales will in turn attract ever more investment in charging infrastructure to our state.
On Friday, San Francisco-based Ecotality sued the state over the governor’s deal with its competitors. As the Merc reported
Ecotality argues that the agreement "punishes" NRG for price gouging during the energy crisis by allowing it to invest money into its own business.

"Such 'punishment' is equivalent to a motorist settling his speeding citation by simply being required to buy a faster car, subsidized by the public," reads the lawsuit, filed Friday in the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
I loathe crony capitalism as much as anyone, but the Ecotality suit seems to be minimizing the very real risk that NRG is running of owning a fleet of white elephants. (If the suit says California should take its lawsuit settlements in cash rather than business investment, that seems like a more promising argument to make.)

Not everyone share’s Ecotality’s pessimism — or fear — about the impact of NRG’s buildout. As the other Bay Area newspaper, the Chronicle reported:
Jay Friedland, legislative director of an electric car advocacy group, said California's market for charging equipment should grow big enough, fast enough for multiple companies to thrive.

"We think this market is going to expand out pretty rapidly," said Friedland, with Plug In America. "And NRG could be a viable player, just like Ecotality and Coulomb could be."
Ecotality is right that NRG will have a leg up if this turns out to be a good business investment, but it’s lying to claim this will create a “monopoly.” (Electric charging stations are no more monopolistic than gas stations — the national market will support at least 3 competitors.)

Yes California is a desirable market to dominate, but if Ecotality wants to build its own stations, it is free (in a free market) to do so. It just needs to find a deep-pocket source of funding — a problem it had before March 23, and a problem that is solvable by selling itself (earlier, at a low valuation) to a major energy company like Edison, Exelon or PG&E.

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