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Electric Vehicle Programs as a Path to Utility Customer Satisfaction

  • Written by RI Staff
  • January 20, 2020

Traditionally, utilities have focused their efforts on providing reliable service, not ensuring customers are happy. That is changing and the customer relationship is increasing in value as utilities need their customers' attention for energy efficiency and other programs. Great news: JD Power’s Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study found that overall customer satisfaction is up among electric utility residential customers in 2019. But, there is still more work to do. 

One area where utilities will have everything to gain from a good customer relationship is electric vehicles (EVs). Customers usually don’t have to tell the utility when they purchase an EV, but that information would definitely help utilities plan for the future. It would also enable the utility to offer their customer targeted solutions, such as EV charger rebates and time-of-use rates. When compared to the “default” of purchasing a gas-powered car, the customer journey for buying an electric car is a long, complicated one. According to a 2019 survey conducted by Consumer Reports and the Union of Concerned Scientists, 63% of prospective car buyers are interested in EVs. If utilities are seen as trusted advisors for EVs, they are one step closer to higher customer satisfaction and extremely useful data. Here are some ways they might accomplish that.

Earn Trust

A recent study from E Source found that business customers identified reliability, effective communications, and trustworthiness as their top attributes for customer satisfaction. Utilities can hit all these targets by offering customers the best-aggregated information on EVs. Customers that research EVs have to go to many different places for their information: they need calculators, reviews, ratings, local availability, charging information, battery range, pricing, tax credits, rebates, and more. Offering a central repository for this information (for example, on your website) helps with their decision process. Customers appreciate the opportunity to test drive an EV without a sales pitch. Salt River Project (SRP) held an event where likely EV-buyers were invited to test drive several models of EVs provided by Electric Car Insider magazine (source: Smart Electric Power Alliance Webinar). Additionally, current owners of EVs are some of the best EV advocates, so perhaps utilities could provide an online space for reviews and testimonials. 

Personalize Outreach and Education

Building trust through useful information on a utility website is one thing, but they also need to make sure customers know it’s there. Outreach and marketing are key and these efforts will do better if they are personalized. Different people will have different questions and some will want lots of engineering details while others will definitely not. Some utilities like SRP have created communities around EVs, offering gift cards to join and special events, thus finding out where many EVs are located (source: Smart Electric Power Alliance Webinar). In many states, the idea of a more sustainable vehicle will be an easy sell. In California, for example, an EV program helped customers see that their cars were being charged with excess renewable energy, which was appealing and exciting to them. 

There’s also a diversity opportunity here, which could benefit utility engagement in those demographics. According to the 2019 survey referenced earlier, interest in buying an EV for their next car purchase was 42% among people of color, while the percentage for all respondents was 36%. Personalized communications and education can be created with demographics and segmentation, resulting in better program participation. 

Go the Extra Mile

Pairing a Residential EV Program with a Workplace Charging Program can help relieve customer range anxiety; What if I can’t get home from work or do errands after work on the charge that remains? Workplace chargers also benefit utilities because the charging happens typically in the middle of the day---when renewables like solar tend to be most active---and means that they won’t likely need to charge it at home during peak demand times. The pairing of residential and commercial EV offerings would also help collect more actionable data. Utilities can use customer data collected on EVs to help plan for and address the grid impacts of new DERs.  

Grant programs are another option for increasing EV adoption. Nexant works with Pacific Power as a third-party evaluator of their commercial EV charger project grants. We established their grant review process based on their priorities and requirements and enabled many community projects. 

Save Money with the Right Data

Knowing where EVs are located can help utilities prepare as EV adoption accelerates. They can model EV growth based on location or customer type and assess what types of rates or other offers would appeal to customers. Several utilities have found that EV customers are willing to take surveys and participate in research projects, which can also collect valuable information to better target customers with education and outreach. 

Invest in a Trade Ally Network

Utilities do not need to manage every aspect of EVs. Electricians, installers, dealerships, and community leaders all play an important role. Trade allies like electricians and installers can help customers see the unseen: energy efficiency appliances they may need, upgrades they might be interested in, and other things that may serve utility energy programs and increase savings. A trade ally network is also beneficial for the local economy and can create opportunities for customer education. Additionally, their existing customer base helps the utility reach the right people---interested decision-makers---more quickly. 

Meet the Challenge

Over 1 million EVs have been sold in the United States and they are projected to reach 20 million by 2030. How will utilities manage grid load once these numbers become a reality? Now is the time for utilities to start talking to customers about EVs and figuring out the best options for their territory. There are still some unanswered questions about managed charging, demand response options, charger network connections, and charging protocols. By finding and communicating solutions to the challenges, utilities can become trusted EV advisors and better manage the grid at the same time.