With a wave of new electric cars entering the auto market, policymakers in Missouri are faced with a decision about how the charging stations that power these cars will operate.
Last year, Ameren filed for approval to install six charging stations between St. Louis and Jefferson City along 1-70 in order to alleviate the “range anxiety” EV drivers suffer with the current number of stations available. Instead of approving or denying the request, the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) postponed its decision on the matter because it was unsure of whether it even had jurisdiction to regulate the emerging technology.
Some background: utilities such as electricity are often delivered to consumers through monopolies because of how expensive competing delivery infrastructure would be—it is rarely feasible for a startup to lay new pipes or string new wires. To keep current monopolies in check, regulatory bodies (like the PSC) monitor and approve the prices utilities can charge to cover expenses while still protecting consumers from exorbitant prices.
Many private citizens and businesses already own and operate charging stations, so approving Ameren’s expansion into the market is controversial. Daniel Hall, the PSC’s chairman, said “. . . it’s unclear whether or not it should be a regulated industry or whether it should be an open, unregulated, competitive market. . . . Where there is a competitive market, I’m not sure that that is a role for the commission.”
Hall’s uncertainty about the PSC’s role makes sense. If the PSC were to approve Ameren’s project, it’s possible that all of Ameren customers (whether they own an electric vehicle of not) would have to chip in to cover the cost of construction for the new stations.
Communities around the nation are debating whether the public-utility model would stifle competition, or if it is a necessary kick-start to EV adoption. Kansas’ regulatory body recently denied Kansas City Power & Light’s request to charge ratepayers for a $5.6 million charging station initiative, arguing the proposal was anti-competitive and that it would be unfair to require all ratepayers to subsidize a handful of EV drivers. Meanwhile, Oregon has ruled (see p. 8) that utilities may own charging stations and cover costs through all ratepayers if they prove an area is in need and would not otherwise receive investment.
Ameren is proposing to construct stations in an area that is currently underserved, but electric cars are relatively new, and technological improvements could soon make them more prevalent than they are today. Missouri’s PSC has been confronted with a difficult decision, and they deserve credit for not blindly jumping into the unknown. If a free-market model could improve customer choice and spur innovation, then we should be wary of expanding a monopoly where it may not be necessary.