San Francisco Chronicle
By David R. Baker

Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the largest utility in a state with America’s greatest concentration of electric cars, will spend $130 million to install 7,500 charging ports for plug-in vehicles across its territory under a program California regulators approved Thursday.

Some of the charging stations will be deployed at workplaces, others in multiunit apartment buildings.

At least 15 percent will be installed in economically disadvantaged communities, part of a concerted push by California officials to make electric cars more accessible and affordable to lower-income families. The PG&E program won unanimous approval Thursday from the California Public Utilities Commission.

“The savings that people can harness from using this type of vehicle, as opposed to a gasoline-powered vehicle, it’s a very real per-month savings,” said Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, shortly before the vote. “Having the infrastructure available so people can make those choices is critical.”

PG&E will be allowed to own up to 35 percent of the charging stations, while the rest are owned by building owners or third parties.

The owner of each charging station location — whether it’s a residential building or an office — will have the choice of paying for the electricity as a perk for workers or tenants or making drivers who use the stations pay as they go.

PG&E also will own the wiring and other infrastructure that supports each charging station installed under the program, regardless of who owns the station itself.

The utility will spread the program’s cost across all of its more than 5 million customers, most of whom do not own plug-in cars. The program is expected to add less than 22 cents to a typical PG&E customer’s monthly bill.

“We look forward to partnering with charging service providers to increase access to EVs to drivers and communities that haven’t previously had the option,” said company spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen said in an email. “This critical infrastructure will jump-start the EV market with greater access to safe, reliable, affordable and clean electricity.”

The program is the country’s biggest utility-backed deployment of electric vehicle chargers to date.

And yet, PG&E initially wanted it to be far larger, asking the commission to let the company spend $654 million to install 25,000 charging ports across its territory. California Gov. Jerry Brown, who sees electric cars as a potent weapon against climate change, has set a goal of having 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the state’s roads by 2025. To reach that target, PG&E estimates that it will need roughly 100,000 public chargers in its service territory, which covers most of Central and Northern California.

Consumer advocates, however, balked at the program’s size and questioned its basic fairness. About 100,000 PG&E customers drive electric cars or plug-in hybrids, according to the company. That’s more than any other utility, but it still represents a small fraction of PG&E customers.

“PG&E should not be spending ratepayers’ hard earned dollars to finance a risky business experiment that won’t improve anything for most consumers,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network consumer group, in an email.

The program’s final version represents a delicate balancing act by the commission, which wanted to minimize costs and encourage competition among the companies that install charging stations. In one major compromise, the final version excludes funding for expensive fast-charging stations that can replenish an electric car’s battery in 20 to 30 minutes, compared with four to six hours for a lower-cost, standard charger.

The program specifically targets lower-income communities, where electric vehicles remain scarce. Even the most modest plug-ins still cost more than comparably sized cars that burn gasoline.

But California has launched several experimental efforts to make electric cars and advanced hybrids more accessible to families with limited incomes.

One such effort gives qualifying families in the Central Valley vouchers worth up to $9,500 when they trade in older, polluting cars for a new or used EV or plug-in hybrid. And since EVs tend to lose their value quickly, as newer models improve on battery range and performance, such incentives might finally make electrics affordable to a wider range of families, said Joel Espino, legal counsel with the Greenlining Institute racial justice group.

“I think we’re going to see a huge jump in EV adoption in low income communities and communities of color,” said Espino, whose group backed the new PG&E charging program.