Electric vehicles may be the wave of the future, but how do you ride that wave when you’re a small electric cooperative with limited resources?
The answer for 7,000-member Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services was to join with other co-ops throughout the Upper Midwest to devise an EV plan that it never could have created on its own.
“Long story short: The Pierce Pepin board was interested in pursuing an EV strategy, and it hit us very quickly that we needed to work with other co-ops to succeed,” says Nate Boettcher, CEO of the Ellsworth, Wisconsin, co-op.
Just two years after Boettcher’s first meeting with about a half-dozen neighboring co-op leaders, Pierce Pepin is part of a 31-member EV charging network that includes every co-op in Wisconsin along with some in Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. Pierce Pepin’s power supplier, Dairyland Power Cooperative in La Crosse, was one of the first to come on board.
The coalition has invested about $400,000 in its CHARGE EV network, which has between 40 and 50 chargers provided by ZEF Energy Inc. of Edina, Minnesota.
“People already trust their own co-ops, so we thought they would choose a network run by a group of locally owned co-ops if they had the chance,” Boettcher says. “They know a co-op is not going to gouge them.”
He hopes to see it grow far beyond the region into a national co-op network that extends from coast to coast.
“If we can be successful in building out this national network, no other utility can match us,” he says. “We’re in virtually every state in America.”
Boettcher says a national co-op brand is key.
“Branding is the most critical thing we’re interested in,” he says. “Co-ops in other areas can buy their chargers from wherever, as long as they carry our CHARGE brand.”
The potential for EVs to increase demand for electricity and boost business for co-ops is enormous, says Joe Bacon, a Pierce Pepin director and EV enthusiast who owns two Teslas.
“This is our only hope for growth,” Bacon says. “Co-ops should be putting a lot more money and effort into promoting electric vehicles. It’s tough for a little co-op. But we can do it together.”
The regional network is designed to encourage people to buy EVs by assuring them that they will be able to easily find dependable charging stations as they drive throughout the Upper Midwest.
The strategy so far has been to install the chargers along major highways and interstates, Boettcher says. But the network wants to expand its locations to include tourism and recreation sites to help spur economic growth. Among the potential sites: wineries, large public parks and golf courses.
“If people are just stopping in at the grocery store, that’s probably not long enough for them to charge,” Boettcher says. “But if they’re playing a round of golf or going for a hike or bike ride, they’ve got plenty of time to charge their vehicles.”
The CHARGE network has both Level 2 chargers, which take about three hours to fully charge a vehicle, and Level 3 chargers, which take less than an hour.
The initiative has attracted steady attention from co-ops outside the area, Boettcher says.
“I probably get a phone call every single week from a co-op asking about what we’re doing,” he says.
His advice to them is to join together to pool resources, ideas and talent.
“This is the beauty of being a co-op—we beg, borrow and steal from one another because we’re not in competition,” Boettcher says. “We get the benefits whether we’re small or large. It’s one of the things that make co-ops unique.”
Co-ops of all sizes need to prepare for EVs now, he says, especially with electric trucks being developed with rural consumers in mind.
“There’s only going to be one EV in a household to start. But what happens when you’ve got a family with teenagers that needs four chargers down the road?” Boettcher says. “That’s a substantial load.
“We’re preparing ourselves for the future,” he says. “I don’t think anyone is going to figure everything out today. But start thinking about it. Take the time to get ready now.”