Clash of the (Electric Vehicle Charging Station) Titans: ECOtality v. NRG

by McCarter & English: Climate Change & Renewable Energy
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[author: J. Wylie Donald]

What do you get when the beneficiary of “the largest public/private federal transportation electrification grant provided by the U.S. Department of Energy” concludes that “one of the country’s largest power generation and retail electricity businesses” is not playing fair?  What you get is quite an interesting lawsuit filed in the California Court of Appeal.  See ECOtality, Inc. v. California Public Utilities Comm’n, et al., Verified Petition for Writ of Mandate (attached).  ECOtality, the project manager of The EV Project, filed suit last Friday seeking to upset a settlement NRG Energy, Inc. has entered into with the California Public Utilities Commission arising from the “California Energy Crisis” of 2000-01.  You didn’t think ECOtality even existed back then.  You would be wrong (it was formed in 1989), but you would be right in concluding that its present lawsuit has nothing to do with what NRG (actually its predecessor) did or didn’t do back in 2000.  The present lawsuit is all about who will dominate the electric vehicle infrastructure marketplace in California in 2012 and beyond.

NRG is settling the PUC’s claim to resolve price-gouging allegations of nearly $1 billion.  Payment of $122,500,000, combined with an earlier payment of almost $300 million “captures significant value for California under circumstances where contentious and expensive litigation would otherwise have continued for many years and with uncertain results,” according to California PUC Commissioner Mike Florio

ECOtality sees things differently.  “If the [settlement] Agreement stands, it will permit NRG, subsidized by the value of the California ratepayers’ released claims, to establish itself and its subsidiary company, eVgo … into a controlling market position for electric vehicle (“EV”) charging facilities in California. The consequence is that NRG will not only be permitted to pursue monopolistic pricing to the injury of California consumers, but also effectively destroy its competitors – including Petitioner ECOtality – in this nascent marketplace, utilizing a rate-payer subsidy.”  Petition at 4.  ECOtality charges the PUC failed to follow proper process, ignored legislative directives, acted ultra vires its authority and unlawfully failed to restore overcharges to the ratepayers.  Petition at 27-31.

What are you to make of this?  On the one hand is NRG.  According to ECOtality, NRG is a colossus delivering over 2 gigawatts of power to over 2 million customers in 16 states.  Its subsidiary, eVgo, “created the nation’s first comprehensive, privately funded electric vehicle infrastructure of home charging stations and public fast charging stations, ensuring that EV drivers have complete confidence they will never run out of power on the go.” Petition ¶ 11.  NRG’s and eVgo’s websites confirm all this.  More specifically, for $89 per month on a three-year agreement, eVgo will install a home charging station and give you non-peak electricity to charge your car at home, and anytime at eVgo network stations.  But you can only do this in Dallas-Forth Worth and Houston at about 5 dozen built and planned stations.  eVgo isn’t operational anywhere else.

On the other hand is every other business interested in electric vehicle infrastructure.  ECOtality’s Petition identifies a number of them, like Better Place, Car Charging Group, Inc., Coulomb Technologies, Aloha Systems, Incorporated, Tesla Motors, TechNet, City CarShare, and Evercharge, each of  “whose business includes participation, either presently, or in the future, in the California marketplace for electric vehicle charging services.“  Petition at 2.  And it includes ECOtality, whose residential charging operations in California include 1245 in the Bay Area, 729 in the San Diego area, and 418 in the Los Angeles area, and whose commercial facilities include 159 stations in the San Diego area (447 planned) and 177 in the Los Angeles area (214 planned).  Petition ¶ 6.

ECOtality is also the data gatherer for the Department of Energy’s EV Project, which is collecting information on the use of electric cars in a half dozen states (California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Texas, and Tennessee, as well as the District of Columbia).  The EV Project numbers don’t reflect total regional or national sales or production.  But they do give some information on the penetration of electric cars in the market.   As of the end of March California users had logged over 12 million miles.  See Q1 2012 EV Project Report at 6 (attached).  Texas users trailed every other state, at 575,000 miles barely doubling the miles put on by District of Columbia drivers.

So what bothers ECOtality about the NRG-PUC settlement?  Under the agreement, NRG is set to become a major player in California.  One aspect of the agreement is the payment of $20 million “cash consideration” to the PUC.  Another aspect is the construction and operation of 200 fast charging stations that will be available for use by the general public, at a cost of $50,500,000.  Then there is the development, funding and implementation of pilot programs for EV-related technology and EV car sharing. But all of that is nothing when compared with the massive involvement NRG is mandated to make in the California market as set out in the Joint Offer of Settlement:  “the installation of infrastructure to support ten-thousand privately-owned chargers at a total of one-thousand multi-family, workplace and public interest sites (e.g., public university).”  In the language of the settlement, NRG is providing 1000 Make-Ready Arrays, which will provide 10,000 Make-Ready Stubs, to which property owners can attach charging stations. 

This is to cost $40 million over four years with minimum numbers of facilities specified in various areas.  NRG has discretion to complete the build-out both geographically and by site-type (e.g., multi-family, retail) in the manner most advantageous to it.  If NRG builds along the lines of the minimum distribution mandated by the settlement, that translates to 5500 chargers in Los Angeles, 2750 in San Francisco and 1000 in San Diego. NRG has exclusive rights to provide service to the Make-Ready Stub for 18 months after the stub is ready for operation. In other words, ECOtality’s market dominance in California will be challenged.  Specifically, “By giving NRG an 18 month head start, subsidized by ratepayers, the Agreement permits NRG to “cherry pick” 1,200 of the most favorable California real estate locations for [electric vehicle charging stations] in a manner that will not only saturate the market, but permanently disadvantage its competitors, including Petitioner, by relegating them to much less valuable secondary locations.”  Petition ¶ 40.

Our take on all this is that this is all about timing.  Get there fustest with the mostest is poor English, out-of-context and ahistorical, but nevertheless apt. Stated differently, keep the other fellow from getting there with anything. When the cavalry is unavailable, try a lawsuit.  As the market for electric cars cranks up (ECOtality’s website reports 28 million miles driven so far in the EV Project), the difference between success and failure may come down to location, brand recognition, and market access.  The battle is joined on all three in California.  We will not be surprised by variations on this theme elsewhere.

20120525 ECOtality v California Public Utilities Commission et al, Verified Petition for Writ of Mandate.pdf (286.06 kb)

Q1 2012 EV Project Report, ECOtality.pdf (8.31 mb)


 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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