Electrifying the American Road Trip
- Jan 22, 2021 3:23 am GMT
This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-01 - Predictions and Trends, click here for more
In August 1996, my parents, older brother, younger sister, 3-year-old 60-pound dog, and I rented a 20-foot RV and set out on a 10-day road trip from Chicago with the primary destination being Yellowstone National Park. In addition to hiking through the park and observing wildlife, we saw Old Faithful, the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River, and were up close and personal as a wolf ate our dog’s dinner (but, that’s a story for another time). Our trip took us through South Dakota where we stopped at Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the Black Hills, and Sturgis. We saw the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, drove through Colorado and saw the Rocky Mountains, elk in Estes Park, and walked across the Colorado River (did you know that in the Rockies the river is only about 20 feet wide and 2 feet deep in some areas?). We even drove through Brady, Nebraska on the way back home, which five-year-old me thought was very cool. Who doesn’t want a city named after them?
Fast forward to 2021. As air travel remains a potentially risky way to take a trip during our pandemic reality, many Americans have turned to road-tripping to take socially distanced vacations (to mix it up from bingeing Netflix and making banana bread). From 1996 until now, the road trip looks very similar. You use your family vehicle or rent one, plan your route, and stop along the way to refuel your vehicle and yourself. But the future starts now with a push towards electrification-- and that includes vehicles. Going forward road trips to national parks and national monuments will include parking spots with charging stations at your destination. We’ll drive past fields of solar panels and wind turbines and stop at local farmers markets for snacks and picnic dinners. Okay, so maybe this won’t be the new standard road trip, but a hippie girl can dream. I predict that we’ll eventually come to call 2021 “The Year of the Electric Vehicle” and I expect more energy-efficient EV-related programs from utilities to go along with the trend.
At the end of the month, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. As he stated in his campaign, and as his cabinet suggests, climate change is a high priority for his administration. In December, he nominated Pete Buttigieg as the Secretary for the U.S. Transportation Department. Their plans are not only dedicated to infrastructure (my tires thank you) and additional rail projects (about time!), but they also plan to expand the number of charging stations around the country. By one account, they plan to build more than 550,000 stations. Utility Dive reported that Buttigieg’s proposed plan will set aside $6 billion for cities and states to be able to support building additional charging stations in their areas. I’m sure as the newly minted richest man in the world, Elon Musk will also have something to contribute to how quickly these changes are rolled out. This is all to help reach the Biden admin goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
With D.C. making plans to recharge the effort for electrifying transportation across the country, auto manufacturers are also making moves. And thank goodness because as the EPA reports, the transportation sector of the United States is responsible for 28.2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, the largest share for all sectors. As I sit here watching the NFL playoffs, I can’t help but notice that during every commercial break, there’s at least one ad for an electric vehicle. Some commercials are from manufacturers I’ve never heard of—looking at you Lucid—and some from manufacturers I was surprised to see with a new EV, such as Chevrolet. Based on a report from Reuters, Ford and General Motor’s plan to spend billions of dollars and dedicate their plants to new EVs that will be ready this year with larger plans to release more models by 2025. As a millennial watching her friends continue to move away from the city, and into homes in the burbs, we all often talk about our next car being electric. In fact, sales from the beginning of 2020 showed that Millennials made up 34.9% of people purchasing EVs, following the Gen Xers who made up 39.8%.
This current environment of an administration with its eyes set on dedicating America to solutions for carbon reduction and energy efficiency, auto manufactures rolling out new electric vehicles (many of which include parts being produced in the United States), and more of the largest set of customers looking to purchase EVs only leaves one question to ask: How do utilities and implementors join the party? This brings me back to my 2021 trend prediction of more EV related offers. Here are a few trends we’re already seeing that I predict will become more widespread in 2021 based on their initial success.
Trend #1: Offer EV Chargers (at a rebated price, aligned with electrification goals)
Utilities, cooperatives, and municipalities will expand efforts to offer low-cost, instantly rebated EV chargers to their customers and members. At the very least, residential rebates for EV chargers are expected, since about 80% of drivers charge their vehicles at home. A business case can also be made to offer this for commercial customers as well, especially those where employees and customers stay for long periods of time, such as offices, schools, hotels, and hospitals. Doing a quick search using the U.S. Department of Energy’s search tool for state incentives, I found 14 incentives for customers with an EV for personal use in the state of Wisconsin alone (and my home state isn’t exactly progressive on this front as it ranked 26th on the 2020 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard). I predict that this number will only increase here and has already done so in states like New York and California. Leading the charge (no pun intended) is California, as 11 states have implemented the Golden State’s zero-emissions standard in 2020. They’re going a step further than other states by looking to completely move away from the sale of standard gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.
For utilities with marketplaces, an easy win would be to offer EV chargers on your store. Reviewing the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuel Data Center, customers can search by their state for utilities offering incentives. Utilities in states such as Arizona, Minnesota, and yes, California, have already added EV chargers, at a rebated price, to their utility marketplaces for their residential and business customers. In many cases, this is complemented by an additional program that customers can enroll in for additional savings. Many more progressive utilities have already taken this step, adding both EV chargers (some at no cost whatsoever) to their marketplace and installation services to the checkout process.
Trend #2: Integrate Demand Response
With the impending boom of at-home charging stations, utilities will need to be prepared to manage the overnight charging electricity usage. Just as DR programs offer incentives for customers who opt-in to have their thermostat adjusted during peak periods, be that for extremely warm or cold days, utilities can look to incentivize charging during non-peak hours. Many progressive utilities have already taken this step, adding DR enrollment to the checkout process for EV chargers within their marketplace.
A utility in New York is even using gamification to encourage their customers to charge their EV during non-peak times with an incentive of up to $500 each year for their participation. Utilities in Texas are offering a similar type of program where they will install the charger for the customer, allowing them to charge their vehicle during weeknights and any time during the weekend for a flat monthly charge. This program in Texas builds grid management into a standard schedule for the customer to understand before enrolling.
Trend #3: Offer Education Tools & Resources
When a new technology comes out, what’s a typical first reaction? We call a knowledgeable friend or Google it, and once all matter of trial and error have failed, we look up directions. When customers are ready to admit defeat and come to the experts for the answers, their utility can provide an easy to find, easy to understand guide to understanding EVs and their chargers. Many forward-thinking utilities have already taken this step to aid customers. From adding the cost of ownership calculators, how-to guides, infographics, maps of their service area where charging stations are found, and installation videos to their marketplace, they put customers in the driver seat of their decision-making process. Once these resources exist, they can be used for organic search engine optimization, lead generation, and nurture campaigns to expand their impact. Additionally, the natural next step would be to expand these resources into the utility’s smartphone app. I for one would love to have these resources at my fingertips so I can quickly and easily find the nearest charger when I’m out running errands.
The trend I’m predicting looks like a domino effect of government funding new programs, manufacturers developing new options for customers, and a need for utilities to respond with products and resources. I happen to believe that while it looks like it starts at the top, all this stems from customer demand. 2021 is the year to take responsibility, to come up with and support sustainable solutions that solve problems without needing to sacrifice the luxuries that we grew up with, like road trips to national monuments and parks. As we progress further with solutions like EVs, utilities and implementors will need to respond with new offerings to help make them more accessible and continue us on the journey of electrifying the road.
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