GCEA program introduces members to clean transportation

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 added the Chevy Spark-e to its fleet of company cars in 2016. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one reason people don't buy electric vehicles is that they have never had the chance to drive or ride in one.

GCEA added the Chevy Spark-e to its fleet of company cars in 2016. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one reason people don’t buy electric vehicles is that they have never had the chance to drive or ride in one. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

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.

Fueling up
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.”

GCEA's Chevy Spark-e refuels at the charging station the co-op installed in Lake City , Colorado. The model has a range of up to 80 miles from a full charge.

GCEA’s Chevy Spark-e refuels at the charging station the co-op installed in Lake City , Colorado. The model has a range of up to 80 miles from a full charge. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

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.

Making inroads
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.

 

Lake City, Colo., installs weather station from Equipment Loan Program

Western Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann (left) and GCEA Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison talk to Lake City Community School students about the town’s new weather station. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

Western Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann (left) and GCEA Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison talk to Lake City Community School students about the town’s new weather station. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

Gunnison County Electric Association Redirecting to a non-government site (GCEA) has joined the list of Western customers who have borrowed a weather station from our Equipment Loan Program to teach students and their parents about the weather in their community.

Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann traveled to Lake City, Colorado, in November to deliver the unit and help technicians from GCEA install it on a theater. The station collects data on temperature, humidity, wind speed, rainfall, solar energy and more. The information is available on the Weather Underground website Redirecting to a non-government site .

Lake City Community School students, teachers and district officials attended an unveiling event for the weather station organized by Philip Virden, the theater owner. Teachers plan to incorporate the weather station data into science lesson plans. The data will help the next generation of consumers gain a better understanding of how the weather relates to energy use and renewable energy generation.

When school is out, GCEA will continue to use the weather station data to monitor conditions for service calls in the Lake City area. GCEA Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison hopes the data can help cooperative members to better understand their utility bills, as well. Both Garrison and Virden are observers for the National Weather Service, so they appreciate the value of accurate weather information.

We look forward to following GCEA and the community as they put their weather data to use in the coming year. You can read more about the weather station in the GCEA News (Page 9). To learn more about education tools available from Western’s Equipment Loan Program, contact Gary Hoffmann.

New marketing assistant learns utility ropes at GCEA

A utility energy-efficiency program can only help customers save money and help control operation costs if customers participate. Getting the word out is a perpetual struggle for many power providers, and one that is even harder for small rural cooperatives. Gunnison County Electric AssociationRedirecting to a non-government site (GCEA) in Colorado is meeting that challenge with new blood and a fresh perspective—and a crash course in energy-efficiency programming.

GCEA Marketing and Communications Assistant Logann Peterson received a degree in strategic marketing from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

GCEA Marketing and Communications Assistant Logann Peterson received a degree in strategic marketing from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

Logann Peterson, who graduated last year from Western State Colorado UniversityRedirecting to a non-government site with a degree in strategic communication, recently made the leap from marketing intern to marketing and communications assistant. In her new career as a utility professional, Peterson faces the double challenge of engaging younger customers while learning about her new field. “I didn’t really know anything about the utility business when I accepted the internship,” she admitted. “Working at GCEA has been an eye-opening experience. A cooperative is more like a big family than a corporation.”

Lots to learn
The opportunities available at a utility also surprised Peterson. “Alantha’s job is a whole new concept for me,” she added.

“Alantha” is GCEA Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison, who administers GCEA’s customer energy-efficiency programs. Part of Peterson’s internship included helping to market rebates on LED lighting and Energy Star appliances, and free energy audits for residential and commercial members. GCEA also offers rebates for electric thermal storage heaters and ground-source heat pumps, as well as discounts to members on Convectair room heatersRedirecting to a non-government site.

During an energy audit, Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison explains to a GCEA member about air leakage around windows. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

During an energy audit, Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison explains to a GCEA member about air leakage around windows. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

To get up to speed on the topic of energy efficiency, Peterson immersed herself in literature Garrison recommended and did plenty of research on her own. She also accompanied Garrison on an energy audit. “I didn’t know there was so much equipment involved, like blower doors and infrared cameras,” she said. “It was fascinating to see how the tools show what is going on in a building.”

Peterson assists with production of the newsletters, bill inserts, web content and radio ads, while Garrison provides technical expertise and direction for stories on energy-saving measures and related co-op programs. “We don’t expect Logann to learn all the details about our incentives and energy-efficiency programs, but she is very interested in learning about the technologies,” Garrison noted. “She went to the DOE site to research LED lights for an article on lighting.”

GCEA has relied on the traditional formats to promote its programs, and having someone trained in marketing to polish the material has been helpful, Garrison observed. However, “Those avenues are not really building the customer participation we have hoped for,” she said.

Updating strategy
Garrison’s goals for the coming year include improving member feedback and increasing outreach to younger members. That dovetails nicely with Peterson’s first-year goal of establishing a social media presence for GCEA. “Social media is the number-one way businesses communicate with customers today,” Peterson pointed out. “Up to now, the co-op’s online profile has been very low.”

GCEA recently gave its website a makeover and launched a Facebook page and Twitter account, which Peterson will maintain. In addition to announcing outages, Garrison hopes Facebook and Twitter can be used to share energy-efficiency tips, get the word out about energy audits promote co-op events.

Peterson has her work cut out for her, attracting visitors to GCEA’s social media sites and establishing metrics for that outreach effort. “Right now, most of our ‘likes’ are from GCEA employees,” she admitted.

Tale of two demographics
Part of the challenge in marketing GCEA programs is finding ways to reach two distinct groups of members.

Unlike many rural areas, Gunnison attracts young people because of the college, many of whom stay after graduation to enjoy the Western Slope lifestyle. Those residents are more likely to pay attention to social media, but less likely to own their homes. “Most students are renters, and it is tough to motivate them to change their energy use habits,” Peterson observed.

Outside of town is a decidedly older, more settled demographic of ranchers and farmers, which is changing too, but more slowly. “I’d classify them as the ‘over 30’ crowd,” said Peterson. “The internet doesn’t reach into some of the more remote corners of our service area, either, so we still have to communicate with those members in the ‘old-fashioned’ way,” she added.

Low-tech bridge-building
Partnering with organizations in the community is another old-fashioned way to engage members, and one that is proving effective for GCEA. A fellowship student for a master’s program at Western State has set up a few member events and is working with the local housing authority to promote weatherization. “He going door to door to identify members who are income-qualified for the program and telling homeowners what is available to them,” Garrison said. “The personal touch may be low-tech but it works—our goal is to upgrade 12 homes this year and we are on track to meet it.”

Garrison and other GCEA employees have also taught a class on utility business and science at the university. The class not only educates younger and future members about energy use, it serves to position GCEA staff as experts on the topic, another marketing goal.

Forward to the future
Times are changing for utilities—even in rural areas like Gunnison and power providers have to keep up. Fortunately, GCEA is preparing for the future by investing in young employees who are up to the challenge.

Crafting a modern marketing strategy to reach members with the programs that will keep the lights on and the economy strong is going to take a certain amount of trial and error, as Garrison and Peterson readily acknowledge. Energy Services Bulletin wishes Logann Peterson good luck in her new job. We look forward to covering GCEA’s marketing and energy-efficiency successes as they work out the formula.