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Shifting Gears: Expanding the Role of Utilities in the eMobility Transition

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Bob Champagne's picture
Vice President, Customer Experience Innovation Smart Energy Water

Bob is a 34-year veteran of the Energy and Utilities Sector, focused on data-driven, customer-centric transformation across the energy and utilities sector. After starting his career at Entergy...

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  • Aug 23, 2022
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This item is part of the Electrification of Transportation - August 2022 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Amidst all the strategies in play within utilities around “clean energy,” eMobility has clearly moved front and center.

For energy providers, vehicle electrification presents an unprecedented combination of business, customer, and societal value. The eMobility movement will set in motion a widely distributed, highly flexible, controllable portfolio of storable energy resources---with projected impacts stretching across the entire energy value chain. At scale, it will reduce overall carbon impacts, optimize energy costs, improve grid resiliency, and create new sources of customer value. But unlike some other aspects of the clean energy agenda, eMobility will be immediately accretive to revenues (from the sale of kWh, as well as from new products and managed service offerings)---creating a new growth platform for utilities that will be welcomed and appreciated across stakeholder groups (customers, communities, and even regulators) for its positive impact on climate and society at large.  

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Despite the boldness of this overall value proposition, however, the degree to which individual utilities are embracing eMobility in their organizations varies considerably.

A few have clearly stepped up as trailblazers---aggressively stepping into the leading roles of catalysts, architects, and orchestrators of the eMobility ecosystem in their communities. Others are getting involved but have kept their role limited to supporting cast---reactive (vs. proactive) to the needs overtly expressed by customers and key stakeholders. However, most utilities today are still very much on the sidelines---learning, absorbing, and assessing the best way to add value in this transition before committing more boldly.

At the same time, the market is being flooded with countless vendors and market participants, each with their own unique business interests. These range from auto manufacturers to providers of charging/storage hardware, software, and services. But like utilities, their degree of individual involvement varies widely. Some appear content to play in their sweet spot, while others are vying for much larger and more dominant roles.

Regardless of who’s playing what role today, it’s clear that this complex network of skills, assets, and technologies will require a new style of coordination and orchestration---something that utilities, frankly, are in a great position to support and perhaps even lead.

Their breadth of access to customers and their communication preferences provides a means to educate and inform choices, and encourage adoption---and do that in a big way! They have the program planning and management infrastructure to quickly craft and deploy the kind of new offerings and pricing plans needed to optimize and manage the EV ecosystem. Many have implemented new systems that have created more granular visibility into grid assets, how they are being impacted by EV adoption, along with the tools needed to orchestrate a successful dance between the grid and these distributed asset classes. That will become increasing vital as ‘V2X’ integrations and accompanying ‘EV managed charging’ and services offers become prevalent. Not to mention the partnerships many utilities have developed with key stakeholders across their communities---relationships will be vital to coordinating across the eMobility landscape.

What would this kind of expanded leadership role look like in practice, should utilities embrace it? How far will it extend? Which activities would be provided directly by the utility, and which would they simply manage and orchestrate?

Enabling, Empowering and Orchestrating…

Here are five key roles that we believe should shape utilities’ involvement in eMobility as they take on a bigger leadership role:

Enabling the Grid

While most of our power grids are confident in their ability to ‘support’ current levels of EV adoption, that confidence is likely to drop considerably as growth accelerates and approaches critical mass. That’s why most attention today is on grid readiness---establishing an infrastructure that can support expected growth in EV’s, but can also adapt as changes emerge  in planning assumptions. Utilities must stay well connected to customers and third parties during planning and deployment of private and public charging infrastructure. Utilities must gain deeper insights into where EV’s are emerging and how EV charging is impacting grid assets. They will also need the capacity to quickly model impacts and adapt their power systems to align closely with adoption trends and charging behaviors.

Awareness and Education

Although utilities won’t always be the ‘first exposure’ that customers have to the world of electric vehicles, staying connected early and often in those journeys will be critical to capturing the full range of benefits. This warrants the development of close partnerships with third parties across the eMobility landscape to make journeys more seamless and frictionless, wherever they occur. For example, consider the synergies of working with car dealers to share data on customer inquiries, create visibility into dealer inventories, or make utility TOU rates available to dealers to support THEIR sales process.  For journeys that do start from the utility side- through their website or customer portal, it’s still important that utilities create welcoming and immersive journeys that not only deliver on their side of customer inquiries (seamlessly and without dead ends), but also engages them interactively to deepen understanding and initiate collaboration and participation with external partners.

Facilitating Adoption

Utilities are in a great position, through their existing digital engagement channels, to facilitate the various stages of the EV buying process- from providing information on vehicle choices and availability, to offering and administering incentives and exposing customers to the kind of downstream offers discussed below. There are a lot of great examples from innovative utilities, where they are facilitating large portions of the EV shopping and buying journey directly from their customer engagement channels. That’s the real benefit of today’s digital CX platforms: they allow utilities to easily integrate with a myriad of outside stakeholders (dealers, charging systems, installers, etc.), but within one seamless EV or ‘clean energy’ experience.

Empowering Customers

One of the biggest ways for utilities to fully leverage the benefits of eMobility is through the provision of innovative pricing and/or other managed services---providing the utility partial control of EV charging in exchange for different levels of incentives (similar to what occurs in a conventional ‘smart thermostat’ demand response program or broadband offerings where pricing varies depending on whether the customer allows their bandwidth to be throttled up or down by the provider). Utilities can get extremely creative about how these programs are designed, providing customers mobile control of charging activity, personalized preferences, useful alerts and notifications, journey planning, and even streamline public charging. Many of these offers can be extended and delivered straight from the utilities’ customer mobile portals and apps, with incentives and public charging costs even integrated directly with the customer’s energy bill. Frictionless, seamless, and empowered!

Orchestrating

A utility eMobility program would be incomplete if it did not establish the systems necessary for optimizing and orchestrating the dance between customers, their EV systems, and the power grid. This means viewing the design of customer programs, intelligence on charging behaviors, incentives and other aspects of the “customer strategy” as key levers in the eMobility equation. That will require better organizational alignment between customer and operations functions, as well as improved distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) capabilities to dynamically choreograph that dance start to finish.  

As you can see, the opportunities are significant for utilities to play an even bigger and bolder role in the eMobility transition---roles that go beyond what many utilities are even envisioning today.

And as mentioned before, there are a myriad of companies involved in various parts of the eMobility ecosystem that are positioning themselves for deeper involvement in that value chain. Many of them have strong value propositions, but few are in the position that utilities are to influence the full range of stakeholders and value streams at play. Even fewer have the kind of access and trust with communities and citizens needed to expand their adoption and participation in way that benefits them and society at large.

Utilities must play some role in each of the above areas to fully capitalize on the promise of eMobility and its contribution to their decarbonization goals. That doesn’t mean they need to ‘deliver’ every aspect of these functions, but they do need to stay intimately connected to all of it in order to enable ALL customers to fully participate in, and reap the rewards of, eMobility.

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