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Austin Energy’s Approach to Support the EV Market: Educate, Promote Equity, Act Like a Start-Up

Posted to Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)

image credit: StEVie, the EV-loving T-Rex, charges on one of Austin Energy’s new DC fast chargers. Photo courtesy of Austin Energy.

A 30-second marketing video made by municipal utility Austin Energy opens with a man standing by a regular 120-volt outlet and holding a plug in his hand. “How do I say goodbye to the gas pump?” he asks as he puts the plug into the outlet. “I just plug in.” The camera zooms out, and the viewer now sees that this man is the lead guitarist in a rock band, which is all plugged in and ready to jam in a garage with an electric vehicle (EV). The guitarist shouts “1-2-3-4,” and the band starts playing. The drummer is StEVie, Austin Energy’s EV-loving Tyrannosaurus Rex mascot, and he is wearing a T-shirt that says “Electric > Gas.”

“On the surface, the video looks whimsical, but we put a lot of thought into it,” said Karl Popham, who manages Austin Energy’s EV initiatives. “A lot of people think that you need special infrastructure to plug in an EV at your house. This video reinforces the message that all you need is a regular outlet.”

This fun video is part of a popular series in Austin Energy’s most recent EV marketing campaign, which includes the “Electric > Gas” slogan and StEVie. It exemplifies the utility’s overarching approach to electrifying transportation in the Austin metropolitan area.

“We act like a start-up company,” said Popham, referring to his 10-person Electric Vehicles and Emerging Technologies team, which runs all 30-plus of the utility’s EV-related programs. “We aren’t afraid to take risks and try new things. I’m willing to hire people from outside the utility industry, especially if they can bring experience that we don’t have.”

According to Popham, Austin Energy seeks to increase market share in electric transportation, with a goal of 5,000 new EVs on the road in 2020. “Our high-level objective with electric transportation is to benefit the environment and Austin’s diverse communities,” he said. “We want to transition the transportation sector from fossil fuel to renewable energy in an equitable way.”

About 45% of Austin Energy’s electricity supply is renewable energy, the majority of which comes from Texas wind power plants. EVs in Austin can take advantage of this wind power: Most charging in the utility’s territory happens overnight at home when wind generation is highest and electricity demand is low. By “equitable,” Popham is referring to several Austin Energy programs designed to make EVs more accessible and affordable for low- and moderate-income groups. (More on those later.)

The utility’s approach seems to be working. Between 2012 and 2020, the number of charging ports in its public charging network has grown from about 100 to more than 1,000. The number of enrollments in its Plug-in EVerywhere program—which provides subscribers with unlimited charging on the network for $4.17 per month—has doubled over the last 3 years to more than 3,000. That’s approximately a quarter of the 12,000 registered EV drivers in the utility’s service territory.

 

Plug-In EVerywhere

Launched in 2012, the Plug-In EVerywhere network has more than 1,000 Level 2 ports at nearly 300 locations including retail centers, workplaces, multi-family residential complexes, and fleet depots. (Level 2 charging involves the use of a 240-volt plug, charging at 7 kilowatts or about 24 miles per hour.)

Popham says that the $4.17 monthly subscription is similar to a gym membership model. “We chose $4.17 to capture people’s imagination and reinforce the affordability of EVs,” he said. “The point was to try a new business model, put the chargers out there, and then start gathering data on how people charge. The data has enabled us to expand our network and build credibility.”

The chargers in the network are operated through public-private partnerships. Austin Energy conducts outreach with its commercial customers to identify companies or organizations that may want chargers on their properties. The utility provides interested customers with a rebate and installs, operates, and maintains the chargers. The host owns the charger.

“The host has skin in the game, and we share the risks and benefits,” said Popham. “All the growth in the charger network has been market-driven. The hosts come to us or respond to our outreach. Rather than ‘build it and they will come,’ our approach is collaboration with stakeholders in the community. I believe that’s a secret to our success.”

Austin Energy recently added to its network 26 DC fast chargers (which use a 480-volt plug to provide an 80% charge in 30 minutes) at 9 sites, with the utility owning, operating, and maintaining them. The hosts, which include retail centers and city agencies, provide the land at no cost. The stations are not included in the unlimited monthly charging subscription. Customers pay 21 cents per minute. For comparison, Tesla charges its drivers 24 cents per minute for fast charging at its Supercharger stations in Austin Energy’s service territory.

“Customers have higher reliability expectations with DC fast charging so it’s important to maximize availability,” said Popham. “To bring down your outage times for the chargers, you need a good service provider that does root cause analyses of every outage, instead of just being reactive to outage reports.”

Customer Education: Beyond Early Adopters

Popham emphasizes the importance of well-conceived customer education and marketing. For utilities with limited resources, he recommends starting with education.

“The number one barrier to EV adoption is people’s perceptions of EVs,” he said.

The T-Rex mascot StEVie can be found across the social media universe, generating viral moments while promoting the benefits of electrification. In another fun, 30-second video, a woman leaves her boyfriend for StEVie and an EV because they are “low maintenance.” The “Electric > Gas” slogan appears on T-shirts and banners at public events.

“We did focus groups and other market research on why people buy cars, and the number one reason is that they are fun and cool,” said Popham. “Number two was price, and a distant third was the environment.”

Instead of focusing only on affluent early adopters, Austin Energy’s educational activities target broader audiences. To help launch the “EVs are for EVeryone” initiative—which brings EV programs to low- and moderate-income communities—Popham hired Amy Atchley, who worked for more than 12 years at Austin’s largest non-profit organization, Meals on Wheels and More.

“We were able to tap into Amy’s network as we developed those new programs,” he said.

As part of the EVs for Schools Program, Austin Energy has provided four schools with charging stations while handling operations and routine maintenance. Students use the charging stations as a laboratory for collecting data and measuring electricity use. About 795 teachers at 122 schools in Central Texas use the program’s EV lessons focused on the connections between EVs, renewable energy, clean air, and climate. More than half of the 6,000 participating students are economically disadvantaged. A Spanish-language version of the curriculum is available.

“The teachers and administrators who are charging at these schools are leading the students by example,” said Popham.

The utility has individual and fleet e-bike rebates (up to $400 per bike) and has conducted e-bike safety trainings for hundreds of people, with a focus on underserved communities. It has deployed charging ports at multifamily properties (many of which are affordable housing) totaling approximately 11,500 units and more than 25,000 residents.

“An unexpected benefit of the equity-focused projects has been the significant amount of joy and good will that has come out of them,” said Popham. “They have led to innovative new partnerships. We now have regular meetings with community stakeholders to discuss their needs and how we can best partner together.”

Improving Customer Experience in Car Dealerships

Another group that Austin Energy has targeted for education is prospective EV buyers. In 2019, the utility launched an initiative to engage with local car dealerships to enhance the EV shopping experience.

“We were hearing reports of poor customer experiences with EVs at local dealerships,” said Popham. “Our research showed that while it takes 35 minutes for a salesperson to sell a gas-powered car, it takes 2 hours for an EV because there is so much more to explain. We started talking with sales managers and staff about improving the experience.”

Popham’s team realized that if customers could educate themselves about EVs before going to the dealership, they would need less education from the salesperson, streamlining the sales process. Working with EV mobile app developer Chargeway and software company ZappyRide, Austin Energy created an online EV Buyer’s Guide where customers can browse EVs available locally, find dealerships, compare models by price and range, and learn about available federal, state, and utility incentives. They also provided dealerships with informational kiosks that explain charging and other aspects of EVs.

“Partnering with local dealerships and providing the online EV guide and marketplace have translated into more informed customers visiting the dealerships for a more streamlined and improved experience,” said Popham.

Another factor that is likely to improve the customer sales experience is the growing availability of EVs. According to EPRI’s Consumer Guide to Electric Vehicles, approximately 125 EV models are expected in the U.S. by 2023.

 

“You Don’t Have to do Everything Yourself”

According to Popham, a significant proportion of the funding for Austin Energy’s EV initiatives comes from federal, state, and even philanthropic grants. For example, an infrastructure grant in 2012 from ChargePoint America funded the utility’s launch of the Plug-In EVerywhere program with 113 ports. Funding from the U.S. Department of Energy ($4.3 million) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality ($1 million) is supporting the Austin SHINES Project to help integrate solar, energy storage, and EVs into Austin Energy’s grid.

“You don’t have to do everything yourself,” said Popham. “There are many programs that are willing to help with EV initiatives. Here’s the secret about grant funding: Although the money helps, there are other benefits. When you receive grants, you agree to complete projects in a specific timeframe—and that helps to accelerate the partnerships and work.”

 

This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of EPRI's Efficient Electrification newsletter. To sign up to receive future issues, visit: https://www.electrificationcommunity.com/contact-form.

Discussions

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Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Dec 23, 2020

Austin Energy is putting a lot of effort in their program.  Their ideas show they know people respond to many different things. I think they will do very good. 

mark wilkinson's picture
mark wilkinson on Dec 28, 2020

Austin Energy's creative drive certainly raises awareness and positive perception for EVs, and Austin will certainly become the EV hub for Texas.  In fact, 5000 EV goals should quickly appear in the rear-view mirror with Tesla and major tech companies starting or resettling in that market.  Austin rocks their EVs.

But, price, range, and fuel costs remain substantial and prohibitive barriers to EV adoption in addition to public perception, I suspect.   My own community experienced a wave of EV buying when rebates and tax incentives made the price of vehicles like the Nissan Leaf amazingly affordable. Sales declined swiftly and dramatically when those benefits expired because EVs remain very pricey for their vehicle class.  

Texas has a lot of open space, so commuters face difficult range limits if workplaces lack charging stations.  Utilities across the US can make every day range a non-issue by promoting workplace charging stations either privately or in partnership with builders and charging network brands.

And, with some of the lowest fuel prices in the US, Texas has a cost ratio that favors petro-vehicles, at least for now.  Peak EV sales in virtually all markets happened when the odd confluence of tax incentives, rebates, and high fuel prices spiked demand and supply could reach the local dealerships.  I'm sure that Austin will soon see a wave of EV adoption based on the changing demographics, influx of new tech centers and jobs, and a population interested in those vehicles.  Austin will show the state the value of EV's, and hopefully the legislature will do some creative work of their own to match Austin Energy's innovative spirit.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 28, 2020

Peak EV sales in virtually all markets happened when the odd confluence of tax incentives, rebates, and high fuel prices spiked demand and supply could reach the local dealerships. 

No doubt these types of financial drivers create bursts in sales, and hopefully that will soon translate into more adoption even without the rebates. I think as drivership in a region grows, so too will the build out of infrastructure, the visibility of the cars and chargers that make people less nervous about diving in, etc. 

Benoit Marcoux's picture
Benoit Marcoux on Dec 29, 2020

Austin Energy experience with EV charging mirrors that of other utilities: real-world experience by utilities in markets with relatively high penetration of EVs shows that EV charging brings additional utility revenues that vastly exceed the costs to generate and deliver the additional energy.

Also, for reference, according to the ChargeHub database, here is the public charging infrastructure in Austin:

Charging Network: Ports

Level 2

ChargePoint: 724

Tesla: 94

Non-Networked: 39

EVgo: 13

SemaConnect: 7

Unknown Network: 3

Blink: 1

Level 2 Total: 881

Level 3

Tesla: 42

ChargePoint: 27

EVgo: 5

Non-Networked: 1

Level 3 Total: 75

Levels 2 & 3 Grand Total: 956

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 29, 2020

Interesting to see the Austin charger stats-- though I would think even more important than city-specific chargers (especially in the vast state of Texas) is having them be reliably spread out to allow for longer trips. I find I rarely plug in and charge my EV at chargers in my city since I can always make it back home without doing so, but it's the road trips across the state that leave me looking for the charging infrastructure

Daniel Bowermaster's picture

Thank Daniel for the Post!

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