Suzanne Olson shares how her utility is telling the story of electric vehicles by helping members experience them firsthand.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What can your utility do to help promote electric vehicles? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host, and I’m joined on this episode by Suzanne Olson, the Public Relations Administrator with Orcas Power and Light in Washington. Thanks for joining me.
Suzanne Olson: Thanks for having me, Andy.
Andy Johns: So we’re recording this podcast live at the NIC Conference out here in Portland, Oregon. So as we usually say with our live shows, any noises that you hear, it’s not background noise, it’s ambiance. So we are right here at kind of the utility communicator epicenter in the northwest for this week. Suzanne has a topic that’s coming up that she’ll be presenting, and the topic is called “EV Programs: What is the Goal?” And you guys have done some cool, innovative things to help spread the word about electric vehicles.
Suzanne Olson: Yes, we have. EVs are a really fast growing phenomenon, at least in our territory, and it’s an important part of our agenda for decarbonization. And we’re doing a lot to encourage our members to adopt EVs, to check them out. We’re giving them some incentives and rebates and some opportunities to really get in a car and understand what the EV drive is all about.
Andy Johns: What are some of the things that as you’ve gotten folks introduced to it, I’m sure folks come in with either some preconceived ideas or some things they think they know. What are some of the things that you’ve seen people learn through giving them the hands-on experience?
Suzanne Olson: First of all, how comfortable it is to drive an EV. That they understand the value of going carbon-free. They feel like it’s the right thing to do. But there’s two things: (1) they’re not sure how it’s going to feel to drive the car, and (2) they have range anxiety. They’re worried about, you know, how far can they go? And for us, living in an island territory, it’s the ideal vehicle for around the islands. But if you’re going to go to the mainland, what’s going to happen? And we actually are just finishing up our EV road trip and one of our staff members, Krista Bouchey and her dog, Pepper, hit the road, and I think they drove about 800 miles to demonstrate how you can charge and stretch it out on the miles.
Andy Johns: I was going to ask you about that because that’s a great way to show it. Just, you know, when folks see what you can do with an EV.
Suzanne Olson: Yeah. And Krista was the right person to do it. She had never driven an EV on the mainland. She had never charged an EV. She doesn’t own one herself. So she took our company car, The Island Way Kia Niro, out there and learned how to charge in public stations, found a really caring community of EV drivers who were very helpful along the way and went into eastern Washington, which is pretty remote. And was able to charge and have some big experiences.
Andy Johns: Oh, good. So she’s not stuck out there anywhere. She’s made it back.
Suzanne Olson: She just made it back.
Andy Johns: Okay, good news.
Suzanne Olson: Yeah, and I think they had a great experience. They found some unexpected chargers. They found some chargers that weren’t working, and they found some workaround solutions, and it was a very realistic experience.
Andy Johns: Yeah, definitely. Now not everybody can go on an 800 mile trip, but you guys have done some things there locally to help folks understand. Can you go into that? You know, a lot of the folks who are listening to this may be communicators at their own utilities and may be interested in and borrowing some of your ideas. What are some of the things you all have done locally there?
Suzanne Olson: Sure. Well, of course, we have rebates for EV chargers. But one of the neatest things was we got a grant from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to offer the EV Happy Deal.
Andy Johns: Ok, and I like the sound of it.
Suzanne Olson: Yeah. And it was for purchasing a used EV, which helps us with our goals of equity and access. So we have a dealership in our islands now that sells used EVs. And if one of our co-op members bought a used EV from that dealership, they got a free EV charger installed, their vehicle tabs paid and sales tax paid, whatever Washington state didn’t cover. And if they qualified as a low-income member, we paid their charging for the first year.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Now with EVs, obviously that puts a tremendous demand on the grid if everybody’s charging at the same time. So what are some things that you guys are doing to talk about the infrastructure that’s there, and explain to people kind of what all that’s taking for a co-op to build out the infrastructure to be able to supply the demand that EVs are either placing now or will place soon.
Suzanne Olson: Yes, we’re looking at that for the future. Right now, it’s not impacting our capacity at all, but we are in the process of building microgrids throughout the islands that will include solar and energy storage projects, and those projects will give us some local energy resilience and some battery backup to help manage our load and help manage our peaks. So that’s a big part of it. And we’re also really encouraging members to make wise use of electricity, which includes transportation. And we can see that in the near future, EVs will be a part of a transactive energy world where a member might actually draw power from their EV like a battery on their system, rather than draw from the grid at a peak moment or during a mainland outage.
Andy Johns: Right. That’s one of the things I know that raised some eyebrows with the F-150 and, you know, some of the other vehicles coming out, the ability to do that. On that note, EVs are in the news right now. It’s a topic of conversation. And, of course, like anything today, it can get a little polarized at times. But do you think that having so much EV news in in the media and just out there in the public consciousness, does that help? Do you think that’s a major driver as you all are doing this and trying to get folks to adopt the technology?
Suzanne Olson: Of course, it’s a major driver. Seeing exciting things like the F-150 coming on and seeing a lot of the carmakers committing to going EV or stepping away from gas powered motors is really driving this, and it’s exciting. I think the fear factor and the range anxiety are being displaced by the enthusiasm and the accessibility because EVs are coming down in price. And, of course, right now we’ve got supply issues, so that’s another issue. But I do think that the energy is coming up for EVs, and a lot of people who never expected to find themselves behind the wheel are doing it.
Andy Johns: Let’s talk internally for a minute. We talked a lot externally, but inside with the staff were they pretty bought in? Were they pretty excited about it? Did you do anything to educate them or help give them some talking points or to help them understand about the work that you’re doing with EVs?
Suzanne Olson: Absolutely. And our staff probably are some of the more educated about EVs because Opalcos had an EV in its fleet since the nineties. Of course, that wasn’t the same kind of vehicle that we have now.
Andy Johns: Speaking of range anxiety.
Suzanne Olson: Exactly. But yeah, we’ve had EV for our staff to drive doing our local errands since I think about 2011, and we definitely bring them along with all of our projects. And we issue talk talking points, and we step into some of the departmental meetings just to talk with people and answer their questions. It’s interesting because there are some people internally that love to drive the EVs, and there are a few that haven’t done it yet. They don’t feel comfortable with it. It’s just new and different, and they’re not ready to do it. So just like in the general population, everybody is going to come along at their own pace.
Andy Johns: Last question for you. If there is somebody who’s listening and they’re interested in doing something like this for their own co-op, their own utility, what’s some advice that you would give them? Or what are some things you’ve learned along the way at rolling this program out? What are some tips that you would pass on to them?
Suzanne Olson: Well, I highly recommend that you go to your utilities website or to the Choose EV Platform and do some comparisons. Look at the different models. Look at your car on these comparison tools like we have on the Opalco website. You can look at your car and what the carbon impact is and what your cost per year are to do fuel and oil changes, not even maintenance. And then look at an EV and see what the comparison is. I mean, the easiest thing to relate to is that you can immediately save, you know, $1,000-1,200 a year just in fuel and oil changes. And that can be the factor. But the other thing to do is go and get in a car. You know, you probably have a friend that has a car, maybe your utility has a car and they let people come and check it out like Opalco does get in a car and just see how it feels. It’s different, but it will set you free.
Andy Johns: Excellent. I like the sound of that. Well put. Well, thanks for joining me. I appreciate you being on this episode is the first one that we’re recording out here at the NIC, first episode we’ve recorded in the state of Oregon. So that’s fun. But Suzanne, thanks for joining me.
Suzanne Olson: Thanks for having me, Andy, and have a great conference.
Andy Johns: Thanks. She is Suzanne Olson, the Public Relations Administrator for Orcas Power and Light in Washington State. I’m Andy Johns, your host. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.