I’ll admit it—I used to be a member of what we might call the “Field of Dreams” camp of EV adoption, believing that “if you build it, they will come.”* There was (and is!) loads of research suggesting EV charging access is a barrier to EV adoption—and there was (and is!) a legitimate lack of EV charging. So I spent many years at electric utilities working to deploy more EV charging to support customers’ charging needs at home, at work, and in public, figuring that if utilities could help build the charging infrastructure, then people would see the chargers, their range anxiety would be alleviated, and they would adopt EVs. Easy.

I don’t consider those years to be time lost—we needed all that EV charging, and we need more now and in the future. But with all due respect to Kevin Costner, I’ve had a change of heart about the role of electric utilities in supporting and promoting EV adoption.

Utilities need to offer more than just infrastructure investment—they also need to engage with customers directly with information about EVs and EV charging. 

What the research says

Key to my new way of thinking is research released last year from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis. One main research finding was that there is no correlation between public charging density and people recalling seeing EV charging in the parking lots that they use. What?!? Yes, you read that right—we can build all the EV charging we want, but many people don’t even see it.

That’s astounding and also not entirely surprising. People have a fantastic ability to tune out things that don’t impact them—it is called selective attention. And if you need proof, check out this experiment.

Further, the UC Davis study found no relationship between someone “seeing” EV charging and considering adopting an EV. So even among those who recall seeing EV charging, the presence of that EV charging is not shifting their mindset when buying an EV. In fact, the researchers found that pre-existing interest in EVs leads to someone “seeing” EV charging—not the other way around.

How does this square with all that research above, which tells us that lack of EV charging access is a barrier to adoption? Part of the answer, I think, lies in a recent study from Pew Research. The finding is worth citing in full:

Americans who are confident the country will build the necessary infrastructure are more likely to consider purchasing an EV than others. Among those who are extremely or very confident that the US will build the infrastructure needed to support EVs, 68% say they would be at least somewhat likely to consider purchasing an EV. Just 19% of those who are not too or not at all confident in future EV infrastructure say they are at least somewhat likely to consider purchasing an EV.

My takeaway is that people still need EV charging to successfully drive their EV—but to actually adopt an EV in the first place, they need to have confidence that EV charging will be there, more than they need to actually see EV charging on the ground.

What does this mean for electric utilities that are supporting the installation of EV charging?

It means that more than investments in EV charging is needed. Communication about those investments and direct customer education about the importance of EVs remain vital to making those investments successful.

There’s no doubt about it—EV charging infrastructure is costly, which is one of the reasons that utility investments are so critical in these early days in the EV market. But absent a comprehensive education and outreach plan that informs the public about the EV charging investments that are being made in their area and helps them learn about the advantages of driving an EV, utilities risk those infrastructure investments being underused in the near term—undermining their justification for making the investment in the first place. Remember—there’s a high correlation between customers’ confidence in future infrastructure investments and their likelihood of considering an EV.

What this means for utility program design is that program budgets should not be stingy on education and outreach. Budget line items, such as program marketing and broader education and awareness work, should be baked in alongside the budget for hard assets such as wires and conduits. As important as the budget is a proper plan for outreach and education.

For example, suppose the program is designed to help install EV charging at commercial locations. In that case, it may not be enough for the marketing budget to focus on enrolling those commercial customers. It may be essential to include funding to help educate employees at workplaces that enroll in the program or to ensure residents at enrolled multifamily sites are aware of the infrastructure that’s being installed. Maybe the program launch should include a ride-and-drive event to help nearby residential customers learn about EVs and take a turn behind the wheel. Another idea is investing in digital assets to support customers’ educational journeys about EVs. While this focus on residential customers may seem tangential to a program targeted at commercial customers, I assure you that the research suggests that it isn’t.

In fact, the research suggests that EV charging infrastructure investment and EV education and awareness are critical to advancing EV adoption. Each is necessary, but neither is sufficient on its own. In other words, if you build it, you’d better tell them about it.

*I know some Iowans who would be deeply disappointed if I didn’t note that the correct movie quote is, “If you build it, he will come.”

Author

Elizabeth Turnbull

Elizabeth Turnbull

Director of Market Development, Transportation Electrification, Franklin Energy

Elizabeth Turnbull is Director of Market Development, Transportation
Electrification at Franklin Energy, where her goal is to unlock utility investment in TE programs throughout the country. Elizabeth has more
than a decade of experience at electric utilities and has overseen the
full lifecycle of utility TE programs, from program design and regulatory
engagement to start-up, implementation, closeout and evaluation. Her
breadth of experience covers micromobility, residential, commercial, public, and fleet TE programs, as well as education and awareness. She lives
in Portland, Oregon, where she recently served on the City of Portland’s
Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility Task Force, and she has been an
EV driver since 2018.

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