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Clark Public Utilities charges up EV incentive program

Board approves rebates and grants for vehicles, equipment

By , Columbian business reporter
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An electric vehicle charging station outside the Clark Public Utilities administration building. The utility's commission approved a Transportation Electrification plan Tuesday that will include multiple programs offering rebates for vehicle charging infrastructure.
An electric vehicle charging station outside the Clark Public Utilities administration building. The utility's commission approved a Transportation Electrification plan Tuesday that will include multiple programs offering rebates for vehicle charging infrastructure. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark Public Utilities is preparing to launch a series of incentive programs intended to supercharge local electric vehicle adoption rates.

The utility’s board of commissioners voted Tuesday to approve the Transportation Electrification Plan, an umbrella program for the various initiatives.

The commission vote clears the way for the first round of programs to kick off in April, including multiple rebate or grant opportunities for electric car chargers and a rebate program for used electric vehicles. A second round of programs is planned for later in the year once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

The plan follows guidance from a 2019 state law that allows local utilities to establish a slate of electric vehicle incentive programs as long as they do not collectively increase ratepayer costs by more than one quarter of 1 percent. The local plan’s 2021 budget allocation is $800,000.

The plan passed unanimously, and about a dozen residents chimed in at the meeting to voice support for the initiative, although there were calls to include greater support for charging infrastructure at multifamily residences.

Phase 1 programs

The first five programs include three rebate options for the purchase of Level 2 chargers, which operate at 240 volts and can charge an electric vehicle significantly faster than if it were plugged into a standard 120-volt electrical outlet.

One program will offer a $500 rebate for connected chargers in residential homes, and another will offer the same rebate for connected chargers on commercial property. The equipment and installation generally cost about $1,500-$2,000 total, according to Clark Public Utilities energy services project manager Matthew Babbitts.

The “connected” part is key, Babbitts said, because it means the charger is internet-connected and will allow Clark Public Utilities to view the user’s consumption data for research and potential future “demand response” programs to ease the burden on the power grid.

The third program will offer a $100 rebate for nonconnected chargers, and the fourth will offer a $2,000 rebate for the purchase of used electric vehicles that cost less than $20,000 for qualified buyers with a limited income.

Babbitts said the utility decided not to extend the rebate to all electric vehicle purchases because of the risk that customers might buy new cars and then move, thereby depriving the county of the benefit of having more electric vehicles on the road. The $20,000 cutoff was a compromise aimed at minimizing that risk while still making electric vehicles more affordable.

“We’re hopeful that that incentive will drive EV ownership in some of the more moderate-income demographics in Clark County,” he said.

The final program, dubbed EV-GO, will offer utility grants to cover up to 50 percent of the total project cost when installing charging equipment. The program is aimed at bigger organizations or companies with facilities where installation would be complicated and costly, such as retrofitting an existing apartment garage.

Clark Public Utilities has already encountered situations where local companies or agencies wanted to add chargers but found that the installation costs were more of a barrier than the price of the chargers themselves, Babbitts said.

“When you have a parking garage that’s completely cement, trying to figure out how you’re going to lay new conduit to get electricity to individual parking spaces — depending on whether that tenant owns an EV or not — can get pretty tricky,” he said.

Future plans

The second round of programs still needs to be finalized and approved, but Babbitts presented a list of tentative concepts including EV ride-share programs, a program to target infrastructure development for multifamily structures and a pilot “demand response” program.

Some of the concepts, particularly ride-share, need to wait until late later in the year because they’re impractical with COVID-19 social distancing measures still in place, Babbitts said. The utility’s goal is to finalize the list in time to begin Phase 2 in the second or third quarter of the year.

The demand response programs are one of the most important future projects, Babbits said, because the rate of electric vehicle adoption is accelerating each year and state and federal initiatives are expected to push the market shift even faster in the next decade.

There are currently about 3,400 electric vehicles in Clark County, but the utility estimates that the number will have nearly doubled by the end of next year and there will be tens or even hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles in the county by 2039. One of the goals of the Transportation Electrification Plan is to make sure the utility is prepared to handle it.

An electric vehicle adds about 3.33 megawatt-hours to a household’s annual electricity consumption, according to the plan’s staff report. The average household uses about 15-18 megawatts per year, Babbitts said, so electric cars represent a significant increase when considered at grid scale.

The utility’s rough estimate is that total demand would rise by about 35 percent if every vehicle in Clark County went electric, he added. Meeting that demand will hinge on finding ways to spread out the load, such as by using variable pricing to encourage drivers to charge up during off-peak hours.

“The timing of when customers charge their cars is likely going to be more impactful than the total number of cars,” Babbitts said.

Some home electronic systems have already begun to tie into regional power demands. Google’s NEST brand of smart thermostats, for example, advertise an opt-in program called Rush Hour Rewards in which heating and cooling are automatically scheduled for cheaper off-peak times.

The eventual goal would be take a similar approach for electric cars using the connected chargers, Babbitts said, and the plan is to introduce pilot versions of those programs later this year.