The coming wave of electric vehicles presents both opportunities and challenges for the electric utility industry, a panel of experts said at an online seminar Monday.

“Now, it’s not a question of if they’re coming, it’s when and how quickly can we adapt,” said Rob Chapman, senior vice president of energy delivery and customer solutions at the Electric Power Research Institute. The nonprofit institute co-hosted the seminar with the U.S. Department of Energy to focus on the impacts EVs will have on the electricity sector.

The transportation industry is the No. 1 generator of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., so a shift from gas-powered vehicles to EVs over the next decade or so will have major environmental benefits, Chapman said.

“I don’t want to underestimate the challenges we are facing,” he said. “Utilities obviously are going to be the key here.”

Electric cooperatives will need support from their boards of directors to supply the electricity needed to power EVs in an affordable, efficient way, Chapman said.

“Electric cooperatives are in a unique position to provide power and charging for much of rural America,” said Dorothy Kellogg, NRECA’s director of regulatory affairs, after attending the seminar. “This will be critical to overcome buyers’ ‘range anxiety’ about being able to charge away from home and to electrify other long-distance transportation.”

EV sales represented less than 2% of new car sales in America in 2019, but total sales were up more than 80% over 2018. EV sales are expected to increase to more than 20% of the new car market in 2030, according to a report this year by the Boston Consulting Group.

Southern California Edison is investing nearly $1 billion in EV infrastructure over the next five years, said Katie Sloan, Edison’s director of e-mobility and building electrification.

“It really is about planning to make sure we have the load available for our EV customers when they need it,” she told seminar participants.

With motorists still worried about charging their vehicles on long drives, the New York Power Authority is working with highway officials to install hundreds of fast-charging stations along thoroughfares, said John Markowitz, director of e-mobility technology and engineering for the utility.

He said the power authority is looking to put the stations next to amenities such as restaurants and shops so people will have something to do while their vehicles are charging.

“For suburban drivers, 90% of charging is done at home…like charging phones,” Markowitz said. “But they will still talk about having access to smart chargers to get to grandma’s.”

Ohio-based American Electric Power, like many electric cooperatives, offers its customers special time-of-use rates to charge their vehicles during off-peak hours, said Jeffrey Lehman, electric transportation program manager.

The utility will focus on installing charging stations where people live and work, including at apartment complexes where low-income and moderate-income families are more likely to be.

Asked whether EVs are “a rich man’s toy,” Sheryl Carter of the Natural Resources Defense Council said it doesn’t have to be that way.

The price of EVs is coming down as more automakers manufacture them and there are a growing number of used EVs available, she said. Conventional gas-powered cars with internal combustion engines are more expensive to fuel, operate and maintain, she said.

“The costs for EVs are lower in a lot of ways,” said Carter, director of NRDC’s power sector, climate and clean energy program.

She noted that electric utilities have already exceeded the ambitious targets set by the Obama administration to reduce carbon emissions. Utilities will now be instrumental in providing renewable energy to produce the electricity that fuels EVs, she said.

“The electric sector has an outsized role to play,” Carter said.