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Utilities: A Trusted Advisor For Transportation Electrification

Despite the glut of EV-related media coverage, a recent study from Plug In America shows that a lack of consumer education and engagement tools are hindering EV adoption. Switching to an electric vehicle requires a behavioral shift, and many consumers understandably have questions and harbor misconceptions around total cost of ownership, vehicle range, and charging experience.

“One of the biggest barriers to greater adoption of these clean vehicles is education and awareness of the vehicles to consumers, regardless of whether that consumer is the owner of a light-duty vehicle or the manager of a fleet of heavy-duty transportation equipment. Not only is education and awareness of EVs as a purchase option needed, but also education on how, when, and where to charge, how much charging costs, and other maintenance and battery related issues.” — Plug In America & the Alliance for Transportation Electrification

With the new electric vehicles (EVs) entering the market this year, more consumers are researching available models and beginning to wrap their heads around the nuances of the electric fueling experience. While high-level comparisons of EV models are available online, detailed information critical to answering consumer questions about total cost of ownership, and how and where to charge in their area, remains widely dispersed.

The Plug In America study highlights another interesting trend among prospective EV buyers. When seeking information, EV buyers are increasingly looking to utilities for answers. Why? Utilities have established trusted relationships with their customers. Furthermore, they are brand agnostic and knowledgeable about personalized electricity usage, charging options, and costs. Utilities have an opportunity to deploy effective EV consumer education tools and solutions that support their goals.

Transportation Electrification
Source: Plug In America

Conversely, a lack of initiative by utilities to engage customers and steer adoption of electric vehicles may lead to negative outcomes for utilities and their customers. Examples can include peak charging surges, which jeopardize grid reliability and increase system cost. In addition, a lack of visibility into charger deployment and usage can complicate utility grid planning efforts.

While utilities can easily engage with high-profile, last-mile delivery fleet customers, many smaller companies are also considering electrifying their fleets. As more of these smaller fleets invest in electric vehicles, such as repair contractors or service providers, utilities can identify and engage these customers to proactively guide investments to manage their impact.

Customer Engagement Supports Vehicle-Grid Integration
A recent SEPA report, A Regulatory Roadmap for Vehicle-Grid Integration highlights how utilities can ensure EVs are highly synergistic with the grid through a customer-centric approach and investments in vehicle integration initiatives.

Some utilities, such as Madison Gas & Electric and the Salt River Project, have already seen vehicle-grid integration success via the accelerated rollout of residential time-varying rates, a form of passive managed charging. Utilities and regulators should continue to leverage residential time-of-use rates as a valuable tool to manage future charging load. Utilities are also beginning to include similar rate programs  in their regulatory filings to steer fleet charging.

However, utilities will not prevent avoidable costs, or realize the full benefits of EVs, solely through rate programs. The infographic below illustrates how utilities may leverage vehicle batteries for grid benefits today with one-way charging (V1G), and in the future, using bidirectional energy flow (V2G). Direct load control can also minimize the challenges posed by the formation of new ‘timer peaks’ on the distribution system, which occur when many EV drivers or fleet operators program their charging to start when the off-peak time-of-use period begins.

Transportation Electrification

Capturing Critical Data
The collection of customer EV interest and adoption data is an underappreciated benefit of customer engagement. These data are valuable inputs to utility planning, when collected in a platform that integrates with utilities’ distribution and grid planning tools. Using this data, utilities can make better-informed planning decisions to effectively manage peak load and reduce system cost. Utilities can also use this data to achieve key operational efficiencies by focusing their investments on specific programs, and feeders with high EV adoption rates.

“By helping customers make wise energy choices and take advantage of off-peak hours, they’re not only saving money, but helping us manage peak demand and use our existing energy sources more efficiently.” — Denise Richerson, Director of Customer Care at Tucson Electric Power

Capturing the right customer data can also influence customers’ charging habits by encouraging managed and off-peak charging from the outset of their EV ownership. With fully-integrated systems, utilities receive real-time feedback on their customers’ priorities and needs, setting the foundation for a data-driven EV planning process. At the same time, consumers receive personalized, unbiased and easily accessible information from utility education and outreach efforts.

Now is the Time
Transportation electrification is the opportunity of the century for proactive utilities. All utilities should aim to expand their position in the community as a trusted voice providing reliable information on EV purchasing and charging. Proactive utilities that strategically engage customers on EV adoption and influence charging behaviors from the beginning of their ownership experience will be best positioned to boost customer satisfaction and earn better returns on their transportation electrification investments.

Do you have questions about EV program strategy, management or customer engagement?  If so, experts from the SEPA Electric Vehicle Working Group and Clean Power Research can help.

The SEPA Electric Vehicle Working Group focuses on the role of utilities in the deployment of electric vehicles by identifying trends, business models, and strategies to roll out ‘smart’ charging infrastructure. The group tracks trends and examines opportunities for light-duty, medium-duty, and heavy-duty vehicle classes, fleet vehicles, and charging infrastructure.

Clean Power Research is helping more than 20 utilities address their EV challenges with scalable, secure cloud software solutions. Based on the company’s proven PowerClerk® and WattPlan® services,  evAPP™ delivers an integrated software platform to utilities and agencies for comprehensive EV education, enrollment and program administration.

About the co-author
Andrew Price is a business development manager at Clean Power Research, where he helps utilities shape and implement their transportation electrification strategies. He also serves as a co-chair of the SEPA Electric Vehicle Working Group Subcommittee on Managed Charging and Vehicle-to-Grid. He can be reached at [email protected]