Electric vehicles are a hot topic across the country. For perhaps the first time ever, electric utilities and environmental and conservation organizations are on the same page. And electric cooperatives of all sizes and locations are adding communication resources, rebate programs and member engagement opportunities around this new technology. So if you're a communicator or marketing employee at an electric cooperative that has yet to dip a toe in the growing sea of EV opportunities, it might be a great time to rethink the benefits of adding some electric vehicle content.
Since the day the first circuit was energized at your electric cooperative, you have been actively promoting devices that used electricity to increase revenue and shape load factor. Early cooperative newsletters promoted electric motors and pumps for the farm and some cooperatives employed home economists to teach about electric cooking and clothes washers. Likewise, the Gold Medallion all-electric homes of the '60s and the heat pump rebates of the 1990s were load building, beneficial electrification.
Residential energy usage had been steadily climbing throughout the history of most electric cooperatives, at least until the last few years. Energy efficiency, the lingering effects of the Great Recession and even renewables have all cut into kWh sales. Cooperatives are proactively seeking to replace that load, in part by finding innovative ways to promote electric vehicles, each adding roughly the same energy usage as a central heat pump or air-conditioner.
Golf Carts No More:
Long a novelty for all but the diehard environmentalist, electric vehicles have emerged as viable candidates for daily commuters and even long-haul road trips. But to bring knowledge of these advances to the rural masses requires some heavy lifting from cooperative communicators. From cost effective compacts to luxury sedans with 300 plus miles of range, EV's are ready to break into everyday life, if we can effectively tell their story.
“In 2018, we started rolling out our first electric vehicle content in our newsletters and on our social media channels," said Kim Broun, communication specialist for Tri-County EMC in Gray, Georgia. “From simple messaging about saving money, range and performance to access to commuter lanes on Georgia's interstate highways, we tried to introduce our members to these vehicles as viable options for their daily life." Tri-County EMC was also Georgia's first cooperative to implement content from ChooseEV, a source for savings and carbon reduction calculators, charger locations and other drop-in website content.
But for Tri-County EMC and so many other cooperatives, the endgame is not just education, but the opportunity for an experience. According to Alan Shedd, director of emerging technologies for Oglethorpe Power, the G&T providing generation to most of Georgia's cooperatives, “It really is about putting butts in seats. You can talk about EVs all you want, but experiencing for yourself that these are fast, fun to drive vehicles that changes minds."
Georgia cooperatives have held a number of “show and drive" events around the state, often with vehicles from a wide variety of manufacturers. Cobb EMC, located in north metro Atlanta, allows members to check out one of their electric vehicles, by appointment, for an extended test drive throughout the year. Aided by a growing fleet of cooperative owned vehicles and a willingness to help each other, EVs are a regular fixture at annual meetings.
Rebates for home EV chargers are fairly commonplace now and a growing number of cooperatives are offering electric vehicle incentives. Coweta-Fayette EMC, located in Palmetto, Georgia, introduced an innovative Drive Free for A Year Plug-in Electric Vehicle (EV) Program. For twelve months, the cooperative rebates the cost of charging, based on 15,000 miles, the average miles driven each year, on the member's monthly electric bill. “In the first fourteen months of the program, we've given out 70 rebates for EVs," commented Jimmy Adams, vice president of energy services. “For that $28 rebate, we've seen about a 30% increase in kWh usage for those accounts."
Coweta-Fayette is also making a strong push to bolster the charging infrastructure in their service area. Using a creative leasing arrangement, Coweta-Fayette has placed a number of ChargePoint chargers in retail and commercial settings, leveraging lower costs to the retail space while generating revenue for the cooperative.
Sharing ideas has definitely been an important part of the success of electric vehicle programming for Georgia's cooperatives. Thanks in part to the encouragement of Oglethorpe's Alan Shedd, a number of Georgia cooperatives, ranging in size from twenty thousand to over two-hundred thousand members, have formed an EV working group. “We've been able to share a lot of great ideas for other cooperatives to implement, in particular creating a model for a “show and drive" event that can be dropped in place at any EMC," said Shedd. “But we've also been able to use our buying power as a group to drive down prices for things like website tools for all of our members. We are all looking for answers to the same challenges. By sharing ideas and experience, we all benefit and get there sooner."
Selling Electric Vehicles in a Pandemic:
For the foreseeable future, COVID-19 means promoting electric vehicles will be a “socially distanced" affair. With many cooperatives cancelling annual meetings, limiting employee contact, office access, and in-home appointments, the opportunities for a hands-on EV experience will be drastically limited.
“We know during COVID-19, people don't want to test drive the same car as forty other people or ride in the EV with our employees. And the feeling is kind of mutual," commented Tri-County's Broun. Tri-County EMC had budgeted and planned for a third annual electric vehicle demonstration day for this fall, an event that will not likely happen. “Instead, we are exploring virtual methods of promoting EVs, including videos, additional website content and perhaps some personal testimonials from current EV drivers in our communities."
Regardless of where the next few months take us, auto manufacturers and electric cooperatives alike are confident that electric vehicles are the future for transportation. Major cities and surrounding suburbs are seeing a rise in Teslas on the road. And across rural America, cooperatives work eagerly to convince our members that electric cars, and eventually trucks, are how we will move around our communities and farms. But that early success will largely depend on the work of our communicators.