Could a fleet of electric delivery vans or big rigs be rolling into your electric cooperative’s service territory? It might happen sooner than you think, and co-op leaders throughout the nation say the time to start preparing is now.

“If you wait to see one arrive at the front door, it’s too late,” says Rodney De Fouw, member electrification strategist at Great River Energy, a generation and transmission co-op in Maple Grove, Minnesota, that is gearing up to serve electric 18-wheelers in the near future.

“We’re trying to prepare the best we can for when these fleets come to our area,” he says. “You only get one chance to do it right, and we don’t want to be surprised.”

While EV adoption among residential co-op consumer-members may be low in some rural areas, the proliferation of large warehouse distribution centers with electric delivery vans and the expected addition of EV chargers to truck stops and gas stations over the next several years have the potential to dramatically boost demand for power.

By 2030, there will be about 10 million fleet electric vehicles—both battery and plug-in hybrid—in the United States, according to estimates by McKinsey & Company, a strategy and management consulting firm based in New York City.

“Overall, it’s a very positive story,” says Brian Sloboda, director of utility research and policy at the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. “You can increase sales, which can keep rates down for all your members, and you can help your commercial customers manage their emissions and their costs.

“On the downside,” he adds, “if you’re not working early on with your commercial customers to help them understand the best time to charge their vehicles, you could be looking at expensive upgrades to your system that may end up killing the project.”

The key for co-ops is to be proactive and reach out to new and existing commercial and industrial fleet operators to talk about their plans, NRECA’s experts say.

“We need to ask them key questions,” says Jennah Denney, NRECA’s manager of electric vehicle strategy and solutions. “When do their trucks roll? How often do they need to charge? Where are they going to park at night? We need to understand their travel patterns and leverage existing infrastructure while minimizing the need for costly upgrades.”

SECO Energy in Sumterville, Florida, worked successfully with Amazon to ensure it could serve electric delivery vans at the company’s distribution warehouse in Groveland.

Connecting early to share plans and power needs is critical, says Ben Dawson, SECO’s vice president of growth, smart grid and operational technology.

“Companies that are looking to expand their fleets need to work with their local cooperative so both parties can come to an understanding of what capacity is needed and the utility’s limits,” Dawson says. “Flexibility and transparency on power needs and timelines make the process smoother. It allows us to be flexible in return.”

NRECA experts say it’s also crucial for co-op leaders to stay in close touch with local economic and industry groups to be aware of any electric fleets that could be coming into the area and what their power needs might be.

“For most of these fleet operators, this is their first time electrifying, so they don’t know what they don’t know,” says Stephanie Crawford, NRECA regulatory affairs director. “Co-ops can help them navigate all the variables to figure out how much power they actually need and how best to help them.”

At Great River Energy, co-op leaders want to be in a competitive position to attract electric fleets to their territory.

As part of its engagement strategy, the G&T, which has 27 distribution co-op members, has joined the Minnesota Trucking Association to strengthen its connection with an industry that is moving toward increased electrification, partly in response to state and federal mandates to reduce carbon emissions.

“Our message to them is, ‘We’re here, and we’re ready to work with you to meet your needs,” says Jeff Haase, the co-op’s director of member services for distributed energy resources and end-use strategy.

Rural truck stops that “don’t even register in the top 100 of loads served by electric co-ops today could jump to very significant loads in a very short amount of time.”

To better understand the needs of electric fleets, Great River Energy, in partnership with Dakota Electric Association, awarded $20,000 in early 2023 to the Eagan Police Department for the purchase of a Tesla Model Y vehicle.

“They were able to save $5,500 in fuel costs in one year,” De Fouw says. “That has a real impact on the community and its taxpayers.”

Lankford has had some discussions with TravelCenters of America, which operates a chain of full-service truck stops throughout the country. The co-op already serves four truck stops, and TravelCenters of America plans to bring in a fifth.

“A large truck stop could be a 20-megawatt load,” Lankford says. “That’s comparable to a city that we serve. We’re likely talking about having to add a full substation to meet that demand.”

And it’s not just truck stops that co-ops should be reaching out to, he says.

“It could just be the big corner gas station that is now going to become an EV charging station,” he says. “We all need to take a step back and look at the potential, even if it’s just walking down to the local gas station and saying, ‘Here’s my card. If your management is talking about converting to electricity, let us know so we can work with you.’”

Even if you think you know what an existing commercial or industrial customer might need, it’s important to check back often, say leaders of Piedmont Electric Cooperative in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

When Susan Cashion, the co-op’s vice president and chief compliance and administrative officer, first approached their local truck stop’s operators 10 years ago about installing charging stations for big rigs and cars, they were adamant that they had no interest in EVs.

Today, the operators’ attitude has changed, in part because they see competitors putting in chargers.

“When someone says, ‘No,’ that’s just for a particular point in time,” Cashion says. “It doesn’t mean they won’t change their mind. You’ve got to keep reaching out.”