Want more electric vehicles? Power up more charging stations

The term of art is “range anxiety,” the uneasy feeling that hangs over many drivers of electric vehicles when they hit the road for longer trips. When and where will they find the next charging station?

Unfortunately for many of them, Wisconsin is a bigger source of range anxiety than most states — at least, for now.

Largely due to a state law that limits who can sell electric power directly or indirectly, Wisconsin ranks among the bottom tier of states when it comes to electric vehicle chargers per capita.

A private study reported Nov. 30 by Governing magazine showed Wisconsin 43rd among the 50 states with 16.3 chargers of all descriptions per 100,000 people. Of the total 949 chargers recorded statewide, only 182 were the fast-charging, direct-current variety, which add 100 to 200 miles of range for each half-hour or so of charging.

Most of Wisconsin’s neighbors weren’t ranked much better — in fact, Indiana scored a few notches lower. It’s still worth noting that all the top 15 charger-dense states stood at more than 38 stations per capita. That’s more than twice the Wisconsin density, which is far from attractive for a state that touts itself as a tourism hub.

It’s a chicken-and-egg question: Are charging stations not getting built because EV sales in Wisconsin are still low, or would more Wisconsin consumers buy EVs (and more tourists visit) if they could reliably find charging stations away from home?

In this case, it might be the “egg” of more charging stations that could help produce more and less nervous chickens. That’s where legal uncertainties are blocking the road.

As the Wisconsin Legislature prepares to return in January for a fresh session, there will be renewed debate over when and how EV chargers fall under Wis. Stat. sec. 196.01(5)(a), which says only public utilities are authorized to sell power directly or indirectly to the public.

A bill that only partly modified that rule was unanimously rejected by the state Senate in March, setting up round two.

“This uncertainty needs to be addressed in the near future by the Legislature if Wisconsin has any hope to provide the necessary charging infrastructure to meet what is almost certainly going to be surging demand for charging stations by EV owners,” said Art Harrington, a partner in the law firm of Godfrey & Kahn. Harrington is known for his work in energy and environmental issues.

That “surging demand” will stem from consumer tastes, industry retooling, and federal incentives over time, he predicted. Total EV sales in Wisconsin aren’t huge right now in raw numbers, but year-on-year percentage growth stands in the double digits.

Better to get a jump on more charging stations now, Harrington said, than wait for a bottleneck that hurts the economy.

“A lot of people are clamoring to build charging stations in Wisconsin if the rules can be clarified,” said Harrington, who will be part of a Monday luncheon in Madison on electric vehicle trends.

The policy solution may be part private and part public.

The bill defeated in March would have prohibited “third-party” private owners of charging stations from generating dedicated power on-site from renewable sources such as batteries or solar panels. That would have eliminated a power generation choice for retail stores that routinely sell other fuels.

The defeated bill would have also prohibited local governments from operating or owning charging stations, which some argued could hurt hard-to-serve areas with fewer private options.

Wisconsin’s utility laws were put in place in the early 1900s to balance the interests of consumers, utilities, and investors, as well as the economy and public welfare by promoting reliable power. Technological innovation has put pressure on that model, as the charging station debate illustrates.

Finding a sensible new balance could help relieve “range anxiety” on the long and twisting road to America’s mobility revolution.