Electric Vehicle Strategies for Electric Cooperatives

By Jonathan Susser | February 21, 2017

Electric vehicles (EVs) continue to grow in popularity, and for good reason: they save money on gasoline, benefit the environment, require less maintenance and offer a quiet, smooth ride. With their reintroduction to the U.S. market just about seven years ago, some people are also intrigued by the possibility of being on the cutting edge of technology. In the United States, there are currently more than 570,000 registered EVs, with growth expected to continue. Interest is coming not only from consumers but also from electric cooperatives, which are becoming the new vehicle-fuel providers.

Electric cooperatives provide reliable, safe and affordable energy services to more than 42 million people in 47 AnnualKWHGrowthstates. Their concern for community and their members is a core principle of their business model. To this end, they are often looking for new developments and technologies that will benefit their members. This is where EVs fit in perfectly. As market penetration increases throughout the country, cooperative communities will likely see more and more EVs, and distribution cooperatives will be the new fuel provider for many drivers. This development will enable cooperatives to become a trusted EV resource for their members.

Along with the benefits of driving electric mentioned above, EVs offer additional advantages to cooperatives. For example, they create an opportunity for increased member engagement and satisfaction, provide flexible load growth that can benefit members, and positively contribute to the environment. Because EVs are still a relatively young technology, a lack of awareness and education appears to be one of the primary factors limiting their adoption. Therefore, cooperatives are looking to take steps to stay ahead of the curve and help usher in this new wave of travel.

Although the increase in electric load growth associated with EVs is beneficial, it can be problematic if not managed effectively (i.e., if it occurs during peak periods). Fortunately, load produced by EVs is flexible. Vehicle charging is adaptable, and rate structures, charging station technologies and consumer education can help manage when EV charging occurs. For example, time-of-use (TOU) and discount power rates use higher costs for electricity consumed during peak periods to encourage off-peak charging, such as overnight. Furthermore, EVs and charging units can often be programmed to charge during specific hours, for example, when electricity prices are lower. A shift to off-peak charging can avoid the need for new generating capacity and help engage underutilized capacity, which will flatten out the demand curve and reduce rates to benefit members. Therefore, educating members about off-peak charging opportunities and schedules is important.

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In addition to encouraging off-peak charging, cooperatives should keep track of how many members are purchasing EVs. Tracking and forecasting EV data will ensure quality service, as well as a better understanding of potential grid and financial impacts. A number of ways to gather the relevant data exist. For example, Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation asks members to inform them about an EV purchase and note charging preferences (where and when) to preempt any potential grid issues. Additional options include partnering with dealerships or tracking TOU rate subscribers to obtain information.

Another benefit of the load associated with EVs is that it is environmentally friendly, even when taking into account the electricity generation needed to charge the cars. This benefit leads to cleaner air for your community. For a truly emissions-free drive, charging stations can be powered by or off-set by renewable energy.

To help electric cooperatives encourage and prepare for electric transportation, Advanced Energy partnered with the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation to develop a strategic planning report. The report provides an overview of EVs and charging stations, details their impacts on cooperative functioning, and offers strategies for how cooperatives can get involved and become their members’ go-to resource for information. The strategies include both short- and longer-term ideas.

Because cooperative members often look to their co-op for guidance on EVs, having knowledgeable employees and easily accessible information is important to encourage adoption and answer questions. Cooperatives can also set an example themselves by having electric fleet vehicles for staff, which will raise awareness and prompt curiosity about the technology. Adding public charging stations is another undertaking that cooperatives can consider. Charging stations offer a number of benefits. First, they show a clear commitment to electric transportation. Second, they reduce range anxiety: with average EVs traveling around 100 miles per charge, people worry about being stranded far from a charging location. And third, they can provide an economic boost and bring more people into businesses. Installing stations around frequented attractions, recreational sites and other hotspots is known as destination charging.

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Wake Electric has installed charging stations for employees and visitors.

The advantages of electric transportation are prompting cooperatives to examine other ways to support EV adoption as well. Incentives and rebate programs, for example, can go far. EnergyUnited offers a residential charging station rebate that both benefits customers and provides key EV data. It allows the cooperative to know where charging stations are being installed to better monitor potential negative impacts to the grid.

Electric cooperatives throughout the United States are well underway with implementing strategies to increase EV adoption and take advantage of its benefits. Public charging stations are going up, member education events and workshops are being hosted, and incentives are available. The Cooperative Research Network and Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) each released reports in the last couple of years that document policies, programs and approaches being used by cooperatives across the country.

These reports, along with our strategic planning report, stress the need for education about EVs and charging infrastructure. Education can combat EV myths and give potential drivers the information they need. It can also inform current owners about incentives and charging behavior. There are numerous ways to increase education and awareness, from fact sheets to bill inserts, Facebook groups, public events and test drives, and more. Providing EV information on your cooperative’s website is an easy way to reach individuals who may not have otherwise searched for it. Likewise, highlighting an EV owner in your newsletter is a great idea to share experiences and get the word out. This outreach does not have to be exclusive to residential members, though. It can be spread to other entities as well, including commercial and industrial members and local governments to support charging station installation and development.

PiedmontEMC

Piedmont Electric has purchased electric vehicles as part of their fleet.

When it comes to handling the additional load brought on by EVs, cooperatives appear to implement TOU and EV-specific rates as a solution. Fortunately, these rates seem to work: consumers do shift their charging patterns based on the cost of electricity. Many cooperatives offer both a whole-house and EV-specific TOU rate; however, installing a separate meter for the EV rate can be costly. Other rate structures used to support more efficient charging include fixed rates, which represent a fixed, separately metered monthly cost for charging, and tiered rates, in which the cost of electricity fluctuates depending on how much is consumed. Implementing EV rates will likely be more feasible for some cooperatives than others; therefore, running an initial pilot program may be a good way to test out their success.

One barrier to EV adoption continues to be the cars’ price tag. Despite dropping prices and money saved on gasoline, EVs’ upfront costs are still often steeper than traditional gas-based cars. Federal- and state-level incentives exist to ease this burden, and a number of cooperatives throughout the United States are providing rebates, as well. These rebates can assist members with purchasing an EV or installing a charging station. Another approach, which has been employed by the Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, is to offer low-interest EV financing rates. These incentives have another added benefit of acting as a way to gather critical EV and charging station data.

The surge of EVs is exciting for consumers, automakers and cooperatives alike. These vehicles offer a variety of benefits to both cooperatives and the members they serve. A number of approaches exist to encourage adoption while also effectively navigating potential grid and financial impacts to ensure that electric service remains reliable, safe and affordable. It is clear that cooperatives across the country are starting to take appropriate steps to welcome this form of transportation and drive the future.