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6 Lessons Learned (So Far) on the Fast Track to an All-Electric Fleet

Ready or not, EVs are coming to your fleet.

Governments have mandated it. Automakers have committed to it. And recent federal legislation has earmarked billions of dollars for it.

But the colossal changes in vehicle design and “fueling” infrastructure will undoubtedly create numerous potholes on the road to electrification. Will there be enough models available to make the shift in time? Will charging times become faster and more practical? Will utility fleets be able to manage emergency response situations when there is no electricity?

At this point, the future holds more questions than answers. But that doesn’t mean the fleet industry can afford to drag its feet. All indicators say the shift is coming.

So, how can you make the transition less jarring for your organization? Learn from other fleets making a dent in their electrification efforts.

One example is San Diego Gas & Electric, which recently took delivery of eight all-electric Ford Lightning pickup trucks, putting the company past the 20% electrification mark for its on-road fleet. The company said it’s on track to reach 100% electrified light-duty vehicles by 2030. And it has installed more than 3,400 charging ports to support EVs beyond its own fleet.

What has SDG&E learned?

UFP spoke with three members of the SDG&E team on the frontlines of the company’s EV transition: Todd Cahill, director of support services; Patrick Charles, fleet operations manager; and Lianna Rios, EV customer solutions manager. Here are six lessons they’ve learned so far on their journey to 100% electric.

1. Strengthen the three-legged stool that supports your electric fleet.
“When it comes to preparing for the future of our fleet, we take a three-legged-stool approach to fleet,” Cahill said.

What are the three legs?

Acquisition: Product Availability
“We consider the Ford Lightnings a big win for our company – being able to test those trucks,” Cahill said. “Over the next few years, we’re optimistic there will be a hockey stick growth curve, where we’ll see more and more electric trucks becoming available.”

Infrastructure: Charging Availability
“The second piece is the charging infrastructure. When we get these battery-electric vehicles, how do we charge them? We’re blessed at SDG&E because we’ve had a huge initiative on building on-site employee charging for the last seven years,” Cahill said.

What’s an example as a frame of reference?

“Our Century Park campus has over a hundred chargers for employees,” Cahill said. “As our electric fleet grows, we can utilize those chargers and those at our operations center as well.”

People: User Acceptance
“The third leg of the stool is the most important – the people driving these vehicles,” Cahill said. “As we roll out these battery-electric vehicles, we’re focused on ensuring the operators understand the vehicle so they can do their jobs just like they would in a gas-powered vehicle.”

Charles added, “If you can’t do all three [legs of the stool] very well, you’ll struggle. It’s a journey. And we’re still working through these things ourselves.”

2. Follow the data.
How do you decide which vehicles to transition first?

“Our company has invested heavily in telematics data over the last several years,” Charles said. “It helps us find out what our vehicles are doing every day and determine which vehicles we can replace with EVs.”

The data can also help reduce range anxiety for operators. “We’ll remind the operators that they’re only driving 80 or 90 miles daily. And we have the data to back it up. Now they can be confident that driving a Ford Lightning with about 220 miles on a charge will work for them,” Cahill said.

3. Be strategic about selecting early adopters.
SDG&E allocated the initial electric pickups to supervisors. Why?

“The trucks fit that application. But also, we can tap our supervisors for feedback as we pioneer the electric vehicles, making sure we have buy-in. We want good experiences with the vehicles,” Cahill said.

Charles agreed. “It’s important that we have success stories that we can share with our workforce,” he said. “Good stories and bad stories get out pretty quickly. And we want to make sure those stories are good.”

4. Prepare your people for change.
The key to an effective change management program is to listen to your people.

“When we put the new electric trucks in our supervisors’ hands, we watched closely how they were charging. Within two weeks, we would seek feedback from all of those operators. This goes back to our philosophy of being in tune with our people and how they interact with this new technology,” Cahill said.

What adjustments has SDG&E made based on operator feedback?

“One supervisor had to drive their Ford Lightning about 70 miles,” Cahill said. “It was hot. They had their AC on. As they returned to the base later that afternoon, they started getting low-mileage warnings. Now, that is a stressful situation for someone just trying to do their job.”

What was the solution?

“Our Fleet Services team created 8.5-by-11-inch laminated maps of our service territory with 15 recommended DC fast chargers outside of our operations center,” Cahill said. “This way, instead of having that stress of, ‘Am I going to get back to San Diego?’ they can say, ‘I’ll stop here in Carlsbad to charge.’”

The feedback loop with operators is ongoing. “Listening to our operators is critical to making the transition a success. And we’ll learn something new next month,” Cahill said.

5. Be realistic with emergency response planning.
How is SDG&E preparing for emergency response readiness as its fleet goes all-electric?

One near-term, transitionary solution would be to have an “emergency response bucket” of vehicles, as Cahill calls it, that includes some conventional-fueled trucks.

“Yes, we will have a 100% zero-emission fleet by 2035. But we have these other [legacy] vehicles off to the side available where we know, if things get bad, we’ve got them. With emergency response, it’s absolutely critical that vehicles are available and operate with the utmost reliability,” Cahill said.

A longer-term solution is expanding mobile charging capabilities. “We’ve looked at and invested in trailers with batteries that can charge vehicles in the field,” Cahill said. “As we get more and more EVs out there, we’ll need the ability to charge those vehicles wherever they are.”

6. Coordinate EV purchases with infrastructure planning.
Be careful about purchasing electric vehicles, especially electric trucks, without first thinking about your charging infrastructure.

Why?

“Because it takes time,” Rios said. “An average installation is 11 to 16 months. If the fleet operator orders their vehicles, and they take delivery in five months, they won’t have the infrastructure to support those EVs. So, engage in longer-term vehicle acquisition planning to make those site improvements to ensure the charging infrastructure is ready when the vehicles arrive.”

Rios added that the time to test and invest in EVs and charging infrastructure is now, while incentives are still available.

The Bottom Line
SDG&E has made significant strides toward a 100% light-duty electrified fleet. But the company would be the first to tell you it doesn’t have everything figured out. “We’re learning as we go here,” Cahill said. “But one thing we know is that taking our people with us every step of the way in this transition is critical to success.”

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Sean M. Lyden

Sean M. Lyden is the editor of Utility Fleet Professional magazine.

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