Electric cars fighting for fuel in Michigan

By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s automotive future is looking more electric.

Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the state’s two largest utility companies, have announced pilot programs in the coming year that will study the number and efficiency of charging stations and consider improvements to promote the adoption of electric vehicles.

The Public Service Commission has held two conferences  on “alternative fuel” vehicles to encourage public discussion of the state’s role in electric vehicle charging, said Nick Assendelft, the media relations and public information specialist for the commission.

Participants raised questions about the regulatory framework, such as whether users would pay directly for charging stations or through utility companies, Assendelft said.

Pilot programs discussed included initiatives by Consumers Energy and DTE Energy to partner with automakers and charging station companies in places like Ann Arbor and Detroit, Assendelft said.

At the latest conference, Consumers Energy presented its “Electric Vehicle Strategy.” The utility plans to seek opportunities such as streamlining home charging equipment installation, working with General Motors to improve at-home charging and beginning a three-year pilot program on infrastructure.

DTE presented a plan to start six pilot programs in 2018, including charging “showcases” in Detroit and Ann Arbor and “extreme fast” charging on highways.

Consumers Energy press officer Brian Wheeler said the company is    interested in doing what it can to promote development of electric vehicle infrastructure.

The company’s hope is that Michigan will be a leader in electric vehicle technology, just like it became a leader when the auto industry  started up, he said.

Part of building a network for charging will include home, public and highway stations. Also, Consumers Energy will look into encouraging installations through methods such as rebates, particularly for homes, Wheeler said.

No formal plan for the upcoming pilot project has been submitted yet and there’s currently no timetable, Wheeler said, but a plan should be submitted to the Public Service Commission soon.

“This is really an exciting time because while electric vehicles don’t make up a large portion of what you see on the road now.  It’s growing and it’s going to continue to grow,” Wheeler said.

Michigan Electric Auto Association President Bruce Westlake said electric cars are becoming more popular because the economics are becoming more viable: The last few years’ worth of electric vehicles from Tesla and other automakers  are much more affordable, he said, and cost less to operate than gas-fueled cars.

The association just completed two Earth Day events, Westlake said. In the 10 or more years such events have taken place, Westlake said he saw the most electric engines this year, potentially double past interest.

Michigan sits in about middle-of-the-pack for the number of electric cars in the state, Westlake said.

While some states have incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, Michigan in some ways punishes drivers for purchasing electric cars. As of Jan. 1, Michigan electric car owners  pay an additional $135 to register their vehicles, and hybrid car drivers pay an extra $47, the Secretary of State’s office said.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center says there are 362 public stations for electric vehicles in Michigan, including older “legacy” chargers. Michigan has the 17th-most public charging stations, although it’s the 10th most populous state, according to the U.S. Census..

According to Consumers Energy, there are no utility, state or federal incentives for public or home charging stations for electric vehicles.

When it comes to charging infrastructure, it might not have a large impact on electric car ownership. Charging stations are a “chicken or the egg” kind of situation, Westlake said: Most people want to know if there’s charging infrastructure available before they buy, but the vast majority of the time they’ll be charging at home.