It looked a lot like a casual outdoor marriage, California-style.  The couple – the electric utility industry and the transportation industry – had been courting for a while but the authorities — California Governor Gavin Newsom — decided it was time they got hitched.  The wedding vows seemed to many incredibly bold: a phase-out of gasoline-powered car sales by 2035, putting we Californians in electric vehicles as a matter of policy.  Vehicle manufacturers, electric vehicle (EV) charger vendors, the automotive repair industry, the utilities to provide the electricity – we all got our marching (or perhaps “driving”) orders.  Transformation: so much so that younger generations might soon wonder why we older folks still call them “electric cars” and not just “cars.”

Despite the headlines, I didn’t see Governor Newsom’s edict as bold at all.  I am confident that EVs will be the default “car” well before 2035.  And as the result of simple economics, not policy fiat.  Fasten your seatbelts, folks, it’s going to be a very fast (if bumpy and twisty) ride.

Case in point: Burbank, California, a.k.a. the Media Capital of the World.  I often joke: throw a rock in Burbank and you’ll probably hit a Tesla.  But, subsidies or no, buying a Tesla is still beyond the reach of the average consumer despite the lower costs of fueling and repairing an electric car.  Better to look across the street from my utility, Burbank Water & Power, at the Chevrolet dealership – no doubt still buzzing from General Motors’ recent “all electric” announcement.

Despite the inevitability of the transportation-electricity marriage, the speed of that transformation may catch electric utilities by surprise, and not just on EV chargers.  The utility’s life is undergoing its own transformation, driven by renewable energy (especially solar power) and rapid penetration of “behind the meter” energy management tools like Nest thermostats and building energy management systems.  Further, mobile, fuel-me-fast EVs are unfamiliar loads for utilities: big, fast power draws that show up where they want, when they want.  Think about it: utility customers used to sit immobile on foundations; now more and more of them will move around on wheels.  More broadly, consider that the electricity industry and the transportation industry have barely interacted over the last century but, through rapid transportation electrification, will increasingly define each other’s businesses.

All of these factors collide – beneficially — in Burbank.  COVID-19 aside, car-bound commuters double the city’s population during the workday.  That’s a lot of potential EVs.  With two major freeways running through town, the opportunities for pass-through charging are massive.  (With a huge benefit to the adjacent environmentally disadvantaged communities.)  That’s even more potential EVs.  And Burbank’s biggest employers, big media companies like Disney and Warner Bros., are environmentally focused and innovation-driven – their thousands of employees tend to be as well.  That’s even more EVs, many of which will be parked (and thus chargeable) in Burbank when the sun is shining.  Finally, Burbank’s residents are slowly but surely choosing to drive EVs.  And wherever you’re going, BWP’s reliability and electric rates make fueling an EV in Burbank even more attractive.

Electric car at charging station

High time for BWP to step on the accelerator, but how?  From unfamiliarity to mobility to a concurrent revolution in the utilities’ own business, EVs are a fundamentally different and unfamiliar challenge and demand more than mere evolutionary changes from utilities.  The BWP experience – so far – points to more revolutionary changes, starting with our very mindset and extending to each part of our business.

From renewable procurement to system operations to marketing and education and everything in between, we are re-examining legacy assumptions about a pre-EV world.  More fundamentally, we utilities (and not our customers) must adapt to our businesses to our customers needs, not the other way around.  For example, residents seem to prefer driving (and not charging) during the day and charging (and not driving) overnight.  In other words, exactly the opposite of a solar-heavy electric grid needs.  So we’re looking at new renewable sources and asking not just “how much does it cost?” but “how well does it match up with the rest of our portfolio in meeting our customers’ needs?”  Solving a customer-side challenge with a supply-side resource: that’s a big (and ongoing) mindset shift for a typically siloed utility culture.

At the same time, we’ve partnered with one of our big employers on a demand response EV charging pilot, where BWP’s power system operators can use plugged-in EVs for a limited amount of renewable integration.  Solving a supply-side challenge with a customer-side resource: another big mindset shift.

Even getting drivers into EVs still presents a challenge, especially for those in multi-family dwellings without easy access to overnight charging.  As I mentioned, I am confident that EVs will be the no-brainer economic choice for consumers in just a few years but in the meantime plenty of consumer education is required.  BWP’s marketing team used to focus on light bulbs and air conditioners; now we’re getting customers into EVs with everything from Ride & Drive events to a cool new BWP website that allows detailed comparisons of different EVs and other education.  Another crucial shift in mindset.

In the distribution system, we’re challenged to invest and innovate in a dense, bustling urban environment laced with a century of legacy distribution infrastructure.  Our wires and substation planning will need to reflect not just the built environment but previously unrelated concepts like traffic patterns and parking infrastructure.  (I can just hear my distribution system colleagues: “TRAFFIC PATTERNS?!?!?”)  Again, a crucial mindset shift.

Then there is the new and vital marriage between two old, established, and heretofore very separate industries: transportation and electricity.  Vehicle manufacturers will rely on utilities for the reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity needs to fuel their EVs; utilities will rely on EVs for a significant portion of their revenues, revenues which in turn must support sizeable utility investments in everything from power supplies to distribution upgrades to customer services.  As unfamiliar and uncertain as it may be at times, climate change mitigation (not to mention environmental justice) demands that this marriage thrive.  “No pressure, you crazy kids, but the whole planet is watching – and counting on you.

The EV charger industry, which barely existed a decade ago, is recent arrival.  Electricity regulators have been around a lot longer but are usually new to transportation.  Cybersecurity – fairly new to electric utilities and brand-new to transportation – hovers ominously over the whole affair.  Each of these elements progresses but newness and lack of familiarity — and thus understanding and communication — can easily result in mis-matched, mis-timed and even stranded investments, conflicting commercial expectations and technical standards, the ever-present risk of a catastrophic hack, and underserving already underserved communities.  Another crucial shift in mindset.

And the rate of change in EVs – the pace of innovation in vehicles, batteries, charging equipment, and even vehicle ownership behavior — is orders of magnitude quicker than the long-established “think in decades” tempo of the electric utility industry.  The EV industry will not slow down and the electric utilities must keep pace.  That’s perhaps the biggest and most crucial mindset – and business process … and organizational … and governance … and regulatory – shift of all.

Any successful marriage is fraught with challenges, foreseen and unforeseen.  I hope that by proactively and creatively addressing the ones we can foresee, like those discussed in this article, will smooth the way for resolving those unforeseen.  The world needs this new couple to succeed.