Utilities Can Charge for Cost of Auto Fueling Sites : Pollution: PUC says they may bill ratepayers for planning stations for electric, natural-gas cars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Public Utilities Commission gave utilities a green light Wednesday to charge ratepayers the cost of preparing the state for the arrival of alternative-fuel cars.

After almost two years of hearings and debate, the PUC issued broad guidelines for electric and natural gas utilities as they draw up plans to promote construction of refueling and recharging stations.

The stations will be needed to support the cleaner-burning cars, vans and light trucks required by state clean-air rules beginning next year.

Until now, California's investor-owned utilities have not specifically been required to promote infrastructure improvements to support the new vehicles. The PUC ruling gives them until Oct. 1 to submit their plans.

Diane O. Wittenberg, manager of electric transportation at Southern California Edison, welcomed the guidelines, which will take the place of piecemeal review by the PUC of utilities' alternative-fuel vehicle programs.

"Now we're not doing a shot in the dark and asking, 'Well, how does this sound to you?' " Wittenberg said.

The guidelines allow utilities to charge their customers "reasonable costs" to help introduce and support natural-gas and electric cars. The order says utilities must avoid duplication of effort, adhere to other agencies' clean-air policies and avoid unfair competition with private enterprises that may want to provide similar services in a competitive market.

Precise estimates of how much the utilities intend to spend on development of fueling systems won't be known until they submit their plans.

But Bob Aldrich, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission, noted Wednesday that such facilities can be expensive. "The average cost of a slow-fill natural-gas fueling facility is between $250,000 and $300,000," Aldrich said. "A fast-fill facility, or one that can accommodate a lot of vehicles, can run in the millions."

At-home refueling facilities--one of the concepts under consideration for both electric- and natural-gas-powered vehicles--would be much cheaper. Electric refueling receptacles in a residential garage could cost as little as a few hundred dollars, Aldrich said.

The utilities' most outspoken critic objected to the PUC's readiness to make ratepayers pick up the development costs.

"Cleaner air is to the benefit of the general public," said Audrie Krause, executive director of Toward Utility Rate Normalization, a consumer advocacy group. "So . . . they should be willing to tax the general public to support it."

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