Electric vehicle (EV) technology has come such a long way in a short time that Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) has included member education in its marketing plan to promote this promising new load.
GCEA offers members a rebate on EV chargers and a time-of-use (TOU) rate to encourage EV owners to shift their charging to off-peak times. The program has been in place for almost two years and now supports an estimated 40 vehicles—about a dozen all-electric—in the cooperative’s service territory. That is an impressive uptake rate for the new technology, especially in a largely rural area with harsh winters. It points to the importance of laying the groundwork with customers to help them embrace innovation.
Expanding the supporting infrastructure for EVs was the first step GCEA took to launch an EV program. A January 2016 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) exploring barriers to EV adoption found that awareness of charging stations was the biggest factor in public acceptance. “We were already gearing up the program when the NREL report came to our attention,” recalled GCEA CEO Mike McBride. “It mostly just confirmed what we already suspected.”
Working with the nearby ski resort town of Crested Butte, Colorado, GCEA energized the first public EV charging station in Gunnison County in late 2015. A grant from the Colorado Energy Office assisted with the purchase and installation. Crested Butte dedicated two parking spots in the middle of town to the charger, a generous gesture considering the shortage of parking in the ski town. “We were understandably nervous about letting a parking space go unused,” McBride observed. “Fortunately, a member who likes to ski there bought a Chevy Volt in December 2015, which certainly helped with utilization early on.”
Another grant from the Charge Ahead Colorado program supported the installation of another public electric vehicle charging station in Lake City in October of 2016. The station is the same model as the Crested Butte charger, so EV owners enjoy ease of use and familiarity with the equipment.
Meet the EVs
The NREL study also asked if respondents had been in an EV, and most answered that they had not. That hands-on experience is central to convincing people that an EV is a viable choice for personal transportation, noted McBride. “Few people have actually driven, or even ridden in a plug-in electric vehicle,” he added.
By the spring of 2016, two GCEA staff members had their own plug-in EVs and GCEA acquired a plug-in hybrid for its CEO’s use: GCEA got a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid, a lineman bought a Nissan Leaf and McBride got a Fiat 500 E. Co-op employees had the chance to drive the vehicles at a company meeting, and “People were surprised by the performance,” said McBride.
GCEA board members decided that it would be great for members to have the same opportunity to test drive an EV at the open house for the Crested Butte charging station. McBride began to look for a rental car but couldn’t find a company that carried EVs. “It seems they had trouble renting them out, so they just phased EVs out of their fleets,” he said.
Not to be deterred, board members authorized the purchase of an EV for the GCEA fleet. Saving gas costs, using the company product to fuel the car and showing members that their co-op walked the walk seemed like a win all the way around, so GCEA bought a Chevy Spark EV.
The company EV has made appearances at open houses, member meetings and even a car show in Gunnison, along with a couple of the employee-owned EVs. One particularly savvy market strategy has been to loan the car for a week to members who are community or thought leaders or who show some interest in the technology.
These efforts have resulted in a slow but steady change in GCEA members’ perception of electric vehicles. “People would say, ‘It’s great but it won’t work for me—I live 20 miles out of town.’ But that is well within range of a charged vehicle,” McBride said. “They worry about not being able to drive an EV in the winter, but now they are seeing EV owners driving their cars year-round.”
Challenges remain, including those specific to a Colorado mountain town. While familiarity tends to ease drivers’ “range anxiety” over time, “When the temperature drops below 32 degrees, the range does go down,” McBride acknowledged.
The relative lack of charging stations between GCEA’s stations and neighboring communities still presents a barrier, too. “If it is cold and snowing and the nearest charger is 65 miles away, that is a real problem for an EV owner,” said McBride. He added, however, “In many two-car households, there would be no inconvenience if one of the cars was electric with the other capable of longer trips.”
Raising awareness, gathering data
As EV ownership becomes more common among GCEA members, the marketing—and education— messages are shifting to focus on time of use.
Most consumers are only vaguely aware of concepts like on-peak rates and demand charges. “But we don’t want them to fuel their vehicles with the least-efficient resource or wind up paying more than necessary for cleaner transportation,” McBride explained.
By requiring members who apply for the charger rebate to sign up for TOU rates, GCEA is encouraging consumers to be more thoughtful about when and how they use energy. The charger rebate has also created a ready-made sample for a case study on TOU rates. “EVs are a great subject because they are a discrete load,” said McBride. “Members know when their vehicles are charging and can clearly understand how that affects their usage pattern.”
Therein lies the difference between a good customer program and a great one. A good program helps customers save money and energy and helps the utility control its load. A great program teaches customers about energy use and creates a dialogue between consumers and their power provider. By that measure, GCEA’s EV program is on track to achieve greatness.