Uber Aims to Jolt Portland’s Electric Vehicle Market

By Paul Shukovsky

Uber Technologies Inc. hopes an Oregon law to expand fast-charging electric vehicles stations will jump start interest in electric vehicles in Portland.

The ride sharing company announced April 12 that it will partner with Portland General Electric Co. on a program to spur the adoption of electric vehicles by providing public fast-charging infrastructure in several locations around the city. Though this is the first such venture for Uber in the U.S., it’s a no-brainer for the company, which won’t have to pay a dime in rent for its drivers to use PGE’s public chargers. The company hopes to attract more drivers to its network if the program can reduce drivers’ operational costs, which the company expects will happen.

“We have the potential of reducing the cost of driving by 10 percent from reduced fuel and reduced maintenance costs, which are cheaper on EVs than on gasoline vehicles,” Uber Oregon General Manager Bryce Bennett told Bloomberg BNA April 13.

PGE’s proposed program—currently awaiting approval by the state Public Utility Commission—is the result of a low-profile provision in what is popularly known as the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition bill of 2016, which ultimately will eliminate coal from the energy mix in Oregon. SB 1546 also requires that the Public Utility Commission direct each electric company to file applications “for programs that accelerate transportation electrification.”

‘Hundreds’ of Electric Cars on the Street

Uber’s goal is to add “hundreds of electric vehicles by the end of 2019” to its fleet, which currently stands at about 6,000 vehicles, Bennet said. The electric vehicles would be leased to drivers through the company’s leasing affiliate. But PGE could offset some of the cost to Uber drivers, dubbed ambassadors, who agree to share information with passengers about electric vehicles. The $25 per month payment to drivers exactly offsets the proposed charge for topping off electric car batteries at PGE chargers during periods when demand for power is relatively low.

Drive Oregon, a trade association composed of some 120 members including automakers, utilities, charging infrastructure makers, consulting firms and local governments, is aiding PGE and Uber in their efforts. Jeff Allen, the group’s executive director, provided to Bloomberg BNA April 12 that the Uber program could prevent roughly 8,800 tons of carbon dioxide in its first three years in what he called “a very ballpark estimate.”

PGE’s plan would add six public charging stations around the city, each with at least four fast chargers.

Ratepayers to Benefit

Uber expects adding new charging stations will boost the availability of electric vehicles around Portland, adding new cars to its network and easing wait times for its customers. But the partnership could also prove a boon for PGE.

“EVs are beneficial to our grid because people charge at times when our system is otherwise underutilized,” Brian Spak, the utility’s manager of customer energy solutions, told Bloomberg BNA. “They actually put downward pressure on all customer rates.”

Each electric car added to the system could provide a net benefit of as much as $800 to PGE customers over the lifetime of the vehicle, Spak said.

PGE’s proposal to the Public Utility Commission has garnered a range of business, environmental community and government support, including from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and, of course, from Uber.

Uber Eyes Expansion

If successful, Uber aims to export its Portland model, possibly to California and Washington where the ridesharing company sees the possibility of launching additional electric vehicle initiatives.

Adam Gromis, public policy manager for sustainability and environmental impact at Uber, said a similar initiative launched in London in September with about 60 vehicles, exposing some 35,000 passengers to EVs. The company intends to expand that initiative, he said.

Uber has also conducted EV pilots in Johannesburg, Lisbon, Madrid and Paris.

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at PShukovsky@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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