Wendy Youngren understands the potential boost in sales that electric vehicles could bring to her Minnesota electric cooperative. But on a personal level, the chief operating officer of Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association has little use for cars—electric or otherwise.
Youngren, like many of the co-op members she serves, is an outdoor enthusiast and self-described “truck person.” She drives a Ford F-150 pickup, which is powerful enough to haul her boat, her ice-fishing house, a trailer full of ATVs and more. No EV could ever do that, she thought. But then Ford announced its new F-150 Lightning, an all-electric version of the best-selling vehicle in America.
“My mindset has been changed about what EVs can offer,” says Youngren, who has ordered an F-150 Lightning for both her Rockford-based co-op and herself. “I’m on board.”
Electric co-ops throughout the nation are betting that their consumer-members will feel the same way now that Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and upstart manufacturer Rivian have announced plans to roll out electric pickup trucks in 2022 and 2023. As of October, Ford had received more than 150,000 reservations for the EV F-150.
“We see this as a real game changer for us,” says Michael Hyland, energy and technology programs manager for distributed energy resources at Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative in Hughesville. “Down here, it’s pickup truck country. You are hard-pressed to find a driveway without a pickup in it. We held an EV event, and the largest single issue from members was, ‘We want to see the F-150 Lightning.’ When these new pickups are up and running, I think we’re going to see a big spike in EV use.”
Optimism … and caution
Experts say there is reason for both optimism and caution in co-op country as the new electric pickups begin rolling off assembly lines.
“It’s a very big deal and is part of the larger trend toward the electrification of transportation, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” says Jan Ahlen, vice president of utility research and policy at the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. (CFC).
Many co-op members, both residential and commercial fleet operators, are still not comfortable with EV technology, Ahlen says.
“The big hurdle is getting members to understand how EVs work and how to charge them,” he says. “Co-ops can really help that process by giving them a chance to test-drive EVs. Co-ops are very close to their consumers, and those consumers really trust their co-ops.”
Mike McBride, CEO of Gunnison County Electric Association in Colorado, says the co-op has put a deposit down on an F-150 Lightning and will let members test-drive it when it’s not being used by employees.
“The feedback we’ve gotten is that there are a lot of people who are waiting for an electric pickup or SUV before they’re willing to buy,” he says. “I think that having those options will make a big difference.”
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Hyland says co-ops need to zero in on what matters most to members.
“I was chatting with a couple of guys who were scoffing at the idea of driving an EV,” he says. “But then I started talking to them about the torque that these electric pickups have, and I could see their faces light up.
“It may not attract someone who is attached to their 1970s Chevy,” Hyland says. “But younger guys in the trades—like electricians and lineworkers—are very interested.”
More options needed
Despite efforts by manufacturers to keep electric pickup prices comparable to gas-fueled models, the cost is still too high for residents in the persistent-poverty communities that many co-ops serve, says Brian Sloboda, NRECA’s director of consumer solutions.
“It will be several years down the road before the market opens up to people with less income,” says Sloboda, who estimates it will take anywhere from three years to a decade for used EVs to become widely available.
Still, he says, the growing diversity of electric vehicles is good news for consumers at all income levels.
“When you have more options, you open it up to a lot more people.”
‘Our infrastructure is ready’
While neither Sloboda nor Ahlen predict a huge demand for electricity from pickup drivers to happen immediately, many co-op leaders are preparing now.
“We are ready if EV usage picks up dramatically,” says Kevan Espy, president and CEO of Cobb Electric Membership Corp. in Marietta, Georgia, which has ordered four F-150 Lightning pickup trucks for its fleet. “We’ve taken steps to ensure our infrastructure is prepared to handle the additional load.”
Some co-ops are experimenting with time-of-use rates to encourage EV users to charge their vehicles during off-peak hours.
Wright-Hennepin Cooperative began a pilot EV subscription program in the fall of 2021 that lets participants pay about $50 a month for the installation of an EV charging station and all the electricity used from that charger during non-peak hours. Cobb EMC has a special NiteFlex rate that allows EV users to charge their vehicles overnight for free.
Espy expects electric pickups to dramatically increase EV adoption in Cobb’s territory, but he thinks the co-op is a long way off from having to worry about creating a new peak demand after midnight.
“As homes and appliances have become more efficient, our load during peak hours has dropped, as has the super off-peak usage,” he says. “Through effective rate management, demand response and energy efficiency programs, we believe we can manage any increase in EV adoption.”
‘Into the mainstream’
Co-ops can look to California—which has the highest rate of EV adoption—to learn how to manage any new peaks caused by electric pickups, Sloboda says. With consumer cooperation, utilities can deploy software to ensure that EVs in their territory are charged at staggered hours, he says.
“Most EVs can be topped off in 30 to 60 minutes of charging and be ready to go,” he says, adding that research shows rural residents drive an average of about 40 miles a day.
McBride says he is excited to get the co-op’s F-150, which should arrive sometime in 2022. Ford is slated to begin deliveries in the spring.
“Then we can actually put it to the test,” McBride says. “I think these trucks will help move EV use beyond early adopters into the mainstream, or at least the front edge of mainstream.”
Youngren is looking forward to becoming one of those drivers. She has taken a lot of ribbing from friends who drive EVs and tease her for being reluctant to buy one even though she works for an electric co-op.
“I told them: ‘I’ll make you this promise: As soon as they come out with an electric truck, I’ll get one.’ These trucks are powerful enough to appeal to me, so it’s not going to be a hard promise to keep. I’m ready.”