SAN DIEGO—Electric vehicles are humming their way into the hearts of American motorists, and that's creating a new market niche for electric cooperatives and other utilities as owners and operators will need to keep those vehicles running.

"Some of our co-ops are doing really cool things to support increased interest in electric vehicles," said David Ranallo, manager of member services and marketing for Great River Energy, during a Feb. 11 panel discussion at the Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives NET Conference. "Companies who are progressive know it's coming."

The Maple Grove, Minnesota-based G&T partnered with one of its distribution co-ops in 2018 on a long-term field test for an electric bus at a local school district.

"The bus has a 100-mile range and it ran well during the polar vortex," said Ranallo. "Once a fleet manager sees the reduced maintenance costs," they are receptive, he said.

Ranallo told the NET Conference audience of energy managers and key accounts managers from dozens of co-ops that he sees a solid future for electric vehicles in public service operations that require a lot of stop-and-go driving.

"It's an extension of efficiency," said Ranallo, adding that the G&T is currently involved in a pilot program involving electric forklifts. "You cannot get a more efficient vehicle."

His fellow panelists agreed that fleet acceptance will gain momentum as companies and agencies conduct more analysis aimed at determining which roles electric vehicles can fill, significantly reducing fuel and maintenance costs.

But consumer acceptance will be key to the depth of the market penetration that electric vehicles achieve, and the availability of public charging stations could determine the pace of that expansion.

According to a 2018 University of Michigan study, there are more than 112,000 gas stations in the U.S., compared to about 16,000 electric vehicle public charging stations. The number of home charging units is pushing toward 50,000.

Markets for both public and home charging units are likely to grow, particularly as vehicle lines are expanded and more models are available with charging ranges of 300 to 400 miles, considered typical for workweek travel.

Panelist Valerie Kornahrens, electric vehicle business development manager for Nissan North America, said her company intends to introduce about a half-dozen new EV models over the next five or six years.

Francesca Wahl, director of business development and policy for Tesla, told the NET audience that her company's focus is affordable EVs. The company delivered about 245,000 vehicles in 2018 and projects sales will surpass 360,000 to 400,000 units in 2019. It is also continuing development of a heavy-duty truck that uses electric vehicle technology.

"Charging where you park is now the key," said Wahl, adding that range, costs and charging access remain the largest issues facing the electric vehicle sector of the automotive industry.

Auto manufacturers are working with public utility regulators to encourage expansion of charging availability to help meet public demand. Those efforts include development of rate structures designed to accommodate EV charging as a new or unique service category.

"As a policy issue, we are looking at rate design, particularly for fast charging," said Wahl.

"EV infrastructure in this country is going to be successful only if we have the combination of convenience and collaboration," said Scott Bialick, a Touchstone Energy senior program manager for business development. "That's going to involve car dealers, utilities, businesses and communities working together to figure out solutions and how we can make it work."

Read More NET Conference Coverage:

Experts: Falling Prices Are Driving Up Interest in Battery Storage

Co-op Key Accounts Managers Meet Unique Needs to Help Grow Business for Members

The Go-Slow Approach: Electric Co-ops’ Broadband Advantage

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