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How Utilities Can Drive the Customer Experience Around EVs

Nathan Shannon's picture
President & CEO Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative

Nathan Shannon is the President and CEO of the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative, whose mission is to advance consumer-friendly, consumer-safe smart energy through research, education and...

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  • Oct 11, 2021
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About one year ago, President Biden welcomed auto industry leaders to the White House for the announcement of a national goal for half of all new cars and trucks sold to be zero emissions by 2030. While largely a symbolic move, as the executive order is non-binding, it does accurately reflect the immense momentum that has been building within the electric vehicle (EV) industry over the past couple of years.

General Motors, for example, has announced that it will shift to only selling EVs by 2035 and “has already committed to spending $27 billion to introduce 30 electric vehicle models by 2025”. Ford, likewise, recently upped its investments into EVs with a $5.6 billion manufacturing campus that will build its electric F-Series trucks and advanced batteries.

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As the EV market continues to mature and more EVs come on the market, including trucks, SUVs and lower-priced models, all with longer battery ranges than in days past, electricity providers and other energy industry stakeholders are well-positioned to provide accurate, easy-to-understand information to consumers and help improve the overall customer experience with EVs.

During a recent webinar on September 21, we heard from two providers – Austin Energy in Texas and Great River Energy in Minnesota – about ways that they’re helping individuals in their communities learn more about EVs and whether they’re a good fit for their individual needs and wants.

In the Texas capital (recently named the future headquarters for Tesla), the municipal utility Austin Energy is now seeing a larger number of monthly EV registrations than before the pandemic, and the utility’s Electric Vehicles & Emerging Technologies team, now celebrating its tenth year, has been instrumental in helping Austinites learn more about EVs. 

The utility’s outreach and education efforts have largely centered around their EV Buyer's Guide, which can be found at ev.austinenergy.com. The digital guide is partially a reaction to less-than-stellar experiences of prospective EV buyers at Austin-area car dealerships, where the time to purchase an EV can be over twice as long as that to purchase a gas-powered vehicle and the commission for the salesman can be much lower.

The team at Austin Energy wanted to lessen the time at the dealership and, somewhat similar to the Tesla experience, allow EV buyers to do much of the groundwork online. The EV Buyer’s Guide has real-time inventory of EVs in the area and gives consumers information on the different models, battery ranges, available rebates/incentives, how charging works, charging apps and more. This allows consumers to contact the dealership with a specific model in mind and arrange for a final ride-and-drive before buying.

The utility also has partnerships with local dealers to put interactive kiosks at dealerships that explain how EVs and charging both work and showcase the specific EVs that are currently available on the lot. Not only does this kiosk help customers, but salespeople can also use it to increase their knowledge of electric vehicles.

Due to a high interest in EVs and creative marketing strategies (including radio ads and digital marketing in local publications) from the Austin Energy team, the EV Buyer’s Guide has proven to be very popular with Austinites. In the first two quarters of 2021, ev.austinenergy.com averaged over 10,000 unique visitors per month, helping to add more than 2,100 new electric vehicles to their service territory.

About 1,200 miles north of Austin, Great River Energy (GRE), a wholesale electric power cooperative that provides electricity to 28 distribution cooperatives across Minnesota, has developed a comprehensive EV strategy that focuses on addressing the top barriers for consumers, namely low consumer awareness, the convenience of the technology (battery range and charging time) and a perceived lack of charging infrastructure.  

GRE and their distribution co-op members have moved the needle on EV adoption in Minnesota through several campaigns, including the Revolt program, which was their first major success around transportation electrification. To address consumers’ concerns about whether plugging into the electric grid would actually be better for the environment than a gas-powered car, the Revolt program offered consumers 100-percent renewable energy for the lifetime of their EVs at no additional cost. This helped alleviate consumers’ concerns without them having to do any carbon calculations.

Another campaign, Plug Into MN, was developed to specifically address range anxiety among Minnesotans. Through several initiatives, including a partnership to add EV chargers to Minnesota’s state parks, GRE has helped with the significant expansion of EV charging infrastructure in Minnesota in recent years. The Plug Into MN campaign highlighted strategic electric corridors throughout the state where consumers could travel without having to worry about finding fast-charging stations, showing consumers that road trips could be worry-free even with an electric vehicle. 

In addition, GRE created a website, somewhat similar to Austin Energy’s guide, that provides consumers with accurate, easy-to-understanding information about EVs, including questions about potential savings, environmental benefits, home chargers, tax credits and rebates, public charging and more. Consumers can also compare the specifics – price, range, tax credits and more – of various all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

These initiatives are just a cross-section of GRE’s comprehensive EV market stimulation strategy that also includes ride-and-drive events, instant rebates on EV chargers through an online marketplace, electrification initiatives for local businesses, internal fleet electrification, a battery electric school bus pilot and more.

Given the tremendous momentum toward electric transportation over the past few years, more consumers will be soon considering an EV than ever before. But many of these consumers are still going to have plenty of questions about what may be to them a new and unfamiliar technology. As these efforts from Austin Energy and Great River Energy demonstrate, electricity providers have a critical role to play in educating consumers about EVs and, ultimately, improving the customer experience around EVs.
 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 11, 2021

Not only does this kiosk help customers, but salespeople can also use it to increase their knowledge of electric vehicles.

This is still so much more important than people realize-- I had someone try to sell me a car that wasn't Level 3 charging capable, but when I asked if it had fast charging assured me that it did. I count myself lucky that I could recognize the difference in the ports, but many would be EV drivers would not!

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Oct 13, 2021

Nathan, a great topic. But didn't mention Tesla who was not invited to the Biden meeting yet sells 70% of all electric vehicles. Or that Texas won't allow Tesla to sell direct to customers so they have to order one in a neighbor state. 

    Also Tesla has the best most complete charging system in the world. The other vehicles don't have any charging network and rely on others like Electrify America who was forced to build a network yet charges more than double for the electricity that Tesla does.

     The best thing the utilities can do if offer low cost Off Peak power to all customers. They can show how charging at home is less than 1/4th the cost of gas. No oil changes is a great deal. The true cost of ownership is much less.  

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