Spreading Electric Vehicles Beyond Early Adopters

Opportunities Outside the Bubble

This blog is the third in a three-part series providing a snapshot of the project teams at the 2019 Mobility Innovation Lab Project Accelerator. The first blog can be read here, and the second blog can be read here. This piece focuses on advancing adoption of electric vehicles in areas less associated with early adopters.

In recent years, electric vehicle (EV) sales have increased considerably, giving the technology a firm place in the automobile market. However, this success has largely taken place in urban and affluent areas, where clusters of early adopters have intensified over the past decade—places such as Seattle; Boulder, Colorado; and the Bay Area. In addition to having high adoption rates of electric vehicles, many of these areas have efficient, low-cost transit systems and an abundance of other mobility options. But what about the rest of the country? How might increased access to electric vehicles play a role in more rural areas or in communities that spend a high percentage of income on transportation?

When considering the typical diffusion of technology, electric vehicles are still very much in the early adopter stage. However, for vehicle electrification to make a real impact on reducing carbon emissions, the industry must find ways to achieve mainstream adoption. Reaching those broader audiences can be difficult due to a variety of real and perceived barriers. Cost, range anxiety, lack of charging infrastructure, unfamiliarity with the technology—these factors remain significantly more problematic in areas with comparatively lower exposure to, and availability of, electric vehicles.

At the 2019 Mobility Innovation Lab (MIL), Rocky Mountain Institute brought together seven project teams to tackle the most pressing challenges related to mobility. Two of those teams focused on overcoming the complex multistakeholder challenges of catalyzing electric vehicles in underserved and rural communities.

Vote Solar: Energizing EV Adoption in Rural America

Most large utilities—particularly those in urban areas—have programs dedicated to electric vehicles and experience dealing with the technology. However, in most rural regions of the United States, electricity is provided by electric co-ops, which until recently haven’t had to address electric vehicle adoption at any significant scale.

Creating a strategy for EV adoption that works across co-ops presents a unique challenge due to their largely rural service territories. In addition to the diversity among co-ops, common barriers such as lack of public charging infrastructure and range anxiety are exacerbated by low population density and long travel distances. To start to address these barriers, Vote Solar brought together a group of electric co-ops, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance to identify strategies that will work for co-ops across rural America.

For those co-ops that want to encourage EV adoption, the team identified many potential opportunities. EV charging creates a new revenue stream for co-ops facing flat or declining load growth. And if managed effectively, that additional load can be added in off-peak periods, increasing utilization of the distribution system and lowering per-kilowatt-hour costs for members. Members benefit from lower overall costs of electric vehicle ownership due to much lower fuel costs, and though this is not a universal sentiment, many members would feel good about reducing reliance on foreign oil imports and having a positive impact on the environment. Both co-ops and their members can benefit from building a deeper relationship with each other, extending beyond home or business energy use to transportation.

For those co-ops that don’t believe the opportunities are compelling, the team identified significant risks to not preparing at all. If members buy EVs without engaging with the co-op, they could decide to charge at inopportune times, potentially causing or exacerbating system issues. Third parties could weaken co-ops’ relationships with their members, without concern for what is best for both parties. And there’s risk that by not supporting EV owners, co-ops could erode their member relationships and lose their status as trusted advisors.

So what should co-ops do to prepare? The team decided that actions were dependent on each co-op’s goals. Is the co-op just hoping to do the bare minimum to avoid adverse impacts from EV adoption? Is the co-op hoping to ensure that members who adopt EVs have a great experience? Or does the co-op hope to capture potential opportunities by proactively encouraging EV adoption?

The team identified a set of actions that co-ops could take to serve each of these three goals.

To prepare for EV adoption (bare minimum)

  • Conduct internal education on EVs, especially for leadership
  • Understand industry and technology trends, member views on EVs, and the interaction between current rates and EV charging
  • Designate staff to focus on EVs, start to discuss EV rates and programs, and consider EV purchases for co-op fleets
  • Explore partnerships with other co-ops, industry organizations, and others

To provide a great member experience for EV ownership

  • Conduct outreach and member education on EVs (e.g., optimal charging behavior)
  • Build visibility of where EVs are located on the co-op system
  • Develop EV charging rates to manage loads
  • Start contractor training and/or qualification for charging infrastructure installation

To proactively drive EV adoption and capture opportunities

  • Actively market to drive member EV adoption
  • Conduct deeper financial and system modeling to assess impacts of EV adoption
  • Deploy EV programs or pilots, or provide financing or incentives
  • Deploy public charging infrastructure
  • Build partnerships or programs with original equipment manufacturers or dealerships
City of Trenton: Electric Mobility Access for All

“The Mobility Innovation Lab provided a unique opportunity for the New Jersey representatives to get advice from experts; dialogue with other teams from throughout the country pursuing similar innovations; and to critically deconstruct, tweak, and reconstruct the EV urban carshare pilot concept.”
—Peg Hanna, Manager, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

Like any city in the United States, Trenton, New Jersey, faces increasing challenges providing its residents with quality transportation options and all the necessities that come with them: better access to employment, education, food, health care, and recreation. Across the country, funding for public transit has been significantly reduced, resulting in cuts to both frequency of service and geographic coverage. Meanwhile, increases in housing costs have forced families who were previously dependent on transit to move to less dense communities outside the urban core that may lack mobility options. These factors, along with many others, have dramatically increased the cost, time, and emissions associated with the basic needs of personal mobility. Today, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the average Trenton household spends 32 percent of its income on housing and transportation. Needless to say, for many people in this situation, electric vehicles are likely low on the list of priorities for mobility.

At the MIL, a group of New Jersey leaders including representatives from ChargEVC, Environment New Jersey, Isles, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and Trenton Green Team came together to explore an electrified service that would increase the availability of mobility options for all members of the Trenton community. Initially, the team sought to focus solely on lower- and middle-income neighborhoods, which tend to bear a higher financial burden related to transportation. However, given the various challenges of building a new electric mobility solution, the team immediately expanded their design space to include the entire Trenton community. For programs to be successful, utilization is crucial, so widening the net of potential users makes a great deal of sense. Going forward, underserved communities will remain a high priority and ensuring a mobility solution is capable of serving all who are interested will be a requirement.

As the team moved toward thinking about the mechanics of the solution, they determined that having community organizations and local businesses commit to using the service for either operations or employee transportation before the program starts will guarantee a base level of utilization. To make the vehicles available for a variety of uses, the team planned for one set of vehicles to be used for both carsharing and ridesharing at different times. They also explored new ways to drive vehicle utilization, including offering the vehicles to transit agencies for paratransit service.

As the team made final preparations to return to New Jersey, they had a clear set of roles and next steps laid out. In the near term, the team will focus on government and community engagement, creating a marketing plan to drive adoption, and securing vehicle usage commitments. The team is looking forward to providing an electric mobility solution that will improve access to opportunities for all who live, work, and play in New Jersey and beyond.