Utility Innovation

Austin Utilities paves the way for electric vehicles

An EV journey of education & adoption

An EV Journey

 

Austin Utilities is one of 14 municipal utilities across the state of Minnesota that took part in PAVE (Powering Ahead with Vehicle Electrification) in 2020. PAVE is a cohort of municipal utilities focused on acceleration of electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

As part of the cohort, Kelly Lady, the Marketing and Energy Services Manager at Austin Utilities, played a key role presenting and participating in the discussions. Since her utility had been such an early adopter of EV acceleration, we called on her to share her experience with her peers often. “We really enjoyed being part of the PAVE cohort, it’s nice to hear what our peers are doing and that we aren’t alone on this journey.”

 

We really enjoyed being part of the PAVE cohort, it’s nice to hear what our peers are doing and that we aren’t alone on this journey.

Kelly Lady, Marketing and Energy Services Manager at Austin Utilities

The spark that started the EV-olution in Austin came from a Riverland Community College instructor, Steve Vietor, now retired. He wanted a partnership with Austin Utilities to install an EV charger and offset it with solar energy. He had students that could provide the labor to install the solar and he wanted them to study the data. The unique project was funded by a 2014 CERTs Seed Grant and Hormel Foundation Grant, and Riverland donated the panels and the labor. 

The charger was installed in a city owned parking lot a block from downtown.  “It was a build-it-and-they-will-come project,” said Kelly Lady.  “We wanted to support the efforts with the students.” At the time of the CERTs Seed Grant, Lady didn’t know how many EVs were in their area. As of 2019, there were 27 EVs registered in Austin. 

Since then, Kelly Lady has been the internal champion at the municipal utility. They have taken many more steps on their EV journey, including a very fruitful partnership with two other municipal utilities in the area, Rochester Public Utilities and Owatonna Utilities. The Triad, as they are commonly known, have collaborated on education for customers about EVs, launching an EV owners club in each utility territory. The goal of the EV club is to connect with EV owners in their community. As an incentive to join, members are the first to hear about utility EV initiatives, provided options to participate in EV events, and given $30 in “Chamber Bucks” to spend in the community. They are hoping to host EV Ride and Drive events in 2021 and engage local EV drivers and customers that are interested in learning more and test driving vehicles. 

Austin Utilities will be getting two level 2 dual-port chargers and a DC fast charger (DCFC) as part of their partnership with SMMPA. They also decided to buy a third level 2 charger to be installed at Austin Utilities Headquarters. 

 

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Electric vehicle charging stations installed by Austin Utilities at the headquarters (left) and in a city-owned parking lot downtown (right).

 

In 2019, Austin Utilities began outreach to dealerships in their area to have conversations about what the dealerships were hearing from consumers and share the utility’s plans for EV acceleration. They told the dealerships they planned to educate customers and promote EVs, because the utility “saw the writing on the wall: EVs were coming,” Lady noted. Austin Utilities continues to work in partnership with the Triad and is discussing plans to conduct more outreach to dealerships. 

Last year, Austin Utilities purchased a 2020 Nissan Leaf and wrapped it with their logo and language to let people know it’s an electric vehicle. The Leaf is used as a pool vehicle, but hasn’t had much use since most employees are not traveling to meetings due to the pandemic. 
 

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My advice for other utilities is that they could start by simply including a link to a source like Drive Electric MN. They could then go further by setting an example in the community by electrifying their fleet and providing some EV charging to help with the perception of range anxiety. Most people don’t understand that over 80% of charging happens at home, overnight.

Kelly Lady, the Marketing and Energy Services Manager at Austin Utilities

So, what’s next on the EV journey? The utility is working with the Triad on developing commercial EV fleet education and programs. The Triad has partnered with cooperative utilities in their service areas to continue outreach and education dealerships, as well. They are also looking to set their own fleet electrification goals.

The advice Kelly Lady would give other municipal utilities just starting their EV journey would be to start educating your customers now about EVs. “My advice for other utilities is that they could start by simply including a link to a source like Drive Electric MN,” Lady shared. “They could then go further by setting an example in the community by electrifying their fleet and providing some EV charging to help with the perception of range anxiety. Most people don’t understand that over 80% of charging happens at home, overnight.” She also warned not to think about charging infrastructure as a money maker. It’s an investment in the community and the future.

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