What increasing electric vehicle ownership means for Basin Electric and its membership

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Americans purchased 190,000 electric cars in 2017.
Capital Electric vehicle

(From left) Josh Schaffner, Capital Electric energy services supervisor, and Wes Engbrecht, Capital Electric director of communications and public relations, with “Elektra,” the co-op’s new plug-in electric vehicle. 

Was the car running? Is “running” even the right terminology to use? I had pushed the start button inside the comfy, big-enough interior of the Chevrolet Bolt, and a major difference between a plug-in electric vehicle (EV) and a gas-combustion vehicle was instantly obvious.

Standing outside the EV, one of two added to Basin Electric’s vehicle fleet, there was mostly silence – only a slight buzzing and the roar of the vents from inside the cab on that hot summer day. Behind the wheel, the dashboard displays had a vibrant and futuristic feel, complete with a comforting minimum and maximum range display showing how far the battery’s remaining charge could be expected to get you.

A plug-in EV is defined as any motor vehicle that can be recharged from any external source of electricity, such as wall sockets, and the electricity stored in the rechargeable battery packs drives the wheels.

Advantages of today’s EVs versus gasoline-combustion vehicles – zero emissions, less maintenance, and lower fuel costs – are well documented, as are the challenges: travel ranges limited by current battery technology and sparsely located charging stations.

Current EV ownership
According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Americans purchased 190,000 electric cars in 2017. Basin Electric explored the technology further in late 2016 via its Horizons Committee, a multi-disciplinary group of employees tasked with examining emerging technologies that have possible implications for Basin Electric and its membership.

The team’s research found that in North Dakota, 0.15 per 1,000 people, or 0.015 percent, own electric vehicles in the state. For comparison, California has the highest concentration with 4.68 EVs per 1,000 people, according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Limited travel range has slowed the growth of EV ownership in rural areas, but factors such as public sentiment, oil prices, environmental regulations, taxation, and battery technology enhancements all point to a continued upward trend in EV ownership nationwide.

Furthermore, automakers are putting more focus, and more funding, into their EVs. A recent report from the Center for Automotive Research notes that Ford is spending $11 billion on plans to offer 40 EV models by 2022, and Honda plans to have two-thirds of its lineup electrified by 2030.

As ownership increases, what’s the role of Basin Electric and its member cooperatives?

The co-op’s role
According to the Energy Information Administration, the average American household consumes 10,837 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Among households that own an EV, co-ops can expect a 13- to 40-percent increase in electricity consumption, the key variable being annual mileage driven. 

Basin Electric has been exploring the technology and visiting with member co-ops about future possibilities. Indications are pointing toward EVs having a significant, albeit gradual, impact on Basin Electric’s mostly rural service area.

Capital Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota, recently leased a Chevrolet Bolt to better understand the technology for its members. Questions from the co-op’s membership include topics such as possible off-peak charging rate incentives and the vehicle’s performance in cold weather.

“It’s a snappy little vehicle; it gets up and going pretty quickly,” says Josh Schaffner, Capital Electric energy services supervisor. “We want to have firsthand knowledge to be able to answer members’ questions. They come to us because they know we’ve probably done some homework on it.”

The co-op plans to regularly share observations and performance statistics, especially during the winter months, and showcase the vehicle at as many area events as possible.

“We want to know what to expect and what it will do to our demand, and having this car will give us firsthand knowledge of what’s coming,” Schaffner says.

The co-op’s next focus will be on helping increase the number of charging stations in the region to help the EV become more than just a commuter car. 

With more than 16,000 charging stations located throughout the U.S., charging stations continue to pop up throughout Basin Electric’s membership. One example is within the service area of Northern Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Bath, South Dakota.

Northern Electric saw three charging stations installed in 2015 at a Best Western Ramkota Hotel in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Ben Dunsmoor, Northern Electric communications director, says the co-op has had little contact from members related to EV questions and topics, and that it’s too early to say if the charging stations have had an impact on the co-op’s load. 

The continued installation of charging stations, however, is an indication of the gradual growth of a burgeoning trend, Dunsmoor says.

The Midwest outlook
The Horizons Committee, assuming California’s rate of 0.3-percent infiltration of EVs compared to total vehicles, estimated a potential 1,140 megawatt-hours (MWh) of total energy required daily within Basin Electric’s Midwest service area. If the EVs are all charged over a 10-hour period, that may result in about 110 megawatts (MW) of demand during that period attributed to charging.

The team’s conclusion was that estimated demand likely wouldn’t disrupt the co-op’s current operations if spread throughout the entire service area. Furthermore, based on current battery technology, the team concluded that EVs are currently better-suited for more densely populated areas due to range limitations and increased potential to take advantage of regenerative braking in stop-and-go traffic.

Improved battery technology and more charging stations, however, will only increase EV ownership – and the technology’s effects on electric co-ops and their members – across the country.

“Electric vehicles are growing tremendously in popularity along the coasts and they’re coming this way,” Schaffner says. “Once you can drive one across North Dakota without stopping overnight to charge up, I don’t think there’s anything stopping it.”

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