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All major automakers have recently announced their commitments to selling only electric-drive vehicles by 2035. And that shift will bring new opportunities and challenges for utility fleets.

It will force you to change how you spec vehicles, manage “fueling” infrastructure, train your technicians and support crews in storm response situations.

So, where do you start? How do you plan for such a large-scale change effort? What should you be thinking about today to set up your fleet for success in the next decade?

UFP recently spoke with Brent Johnson, principal and co-founder at Sage Energy Consulting Inc. (www.sagerenew.com), an energy planning and project management firm. He offered these six factors to keep in mind as you prepare your fleet for an all-electric future.

1. Motivation
What’s your objective? Why do you and your organization want to transition to EVs?

“This question is the starting point that impacts the rest of your plan,” Johnson said. “Are you doing it to fulfill a corporate mandate? Is it because you see the writing on the wall – that [fleet electrification] is coming? Or are there statutory or regulatory requirements forcing this initiative? Figure out that framework first because, in many ways, that drives the schedule – how urgent is this?”

2. Location
Where does your fleet operate? What incentives and regulations apply to those locations?

“Are you operating in California, which is leading the EV market? Or are you located where there may not be these statutory drivers and the incentives to make the transition a little bit easier on you? Geography and markets are critical as to how quickly you can do this and how much funding support you have available for it,” Johnson said. 

3. Acquisition
What’s your vehicle acquisition strategy?

“Do you own or lease your vehicles? Your answer can change how you approach the transition,” Johnson said.

Why?

“When you own, you decide the rollout schedule, vehicle replacement cycles, product selection, charging infrastructure and so forth. But when you lease, you're handing a lot of that decision-making off to a third party. And that third-party entity needs to have an offering that works and fits your objectives and timetable,” Johnson said.

The challenge is that it’s still early days in the development of lease offerings for commercial EVs.

“There are a lot of new [business] models being developed for leasing EVs right now,” Johnson said. “And some of the bigger leasing entities are on top of this. But there are also several startups emerging in this market. Most utilities are relatively conservative and reticent to jump into a startup model for something this new. So, in those leasing scenarios, we tend to lean toward the larger, [more established] leasing companies to mitigate risk as much as possible.” 

4. Composition
What does your fleet look like? What jobs do those vehicles perform? How many miles do they travel daily?

“We recently spoke with an agency that has Class 7 and 8 vehicles that go into remote areas. And it's a challenge to do something in the zero-emissions space with those types of vehicles,” Johnson said. “But passenger vehicles that operate in urban areas and have lots of charging opportunities – that’s a different story. Those [fleet applications] are much easier to transition right now.”

So, examine your fleet’s composition. Which vehicles can you replace with EVs based on current market availability? Which ones do you need to push off into the future because the market is not ready?

Although heavy-duty electric trucks may take several years to achieve widespread adoption, you can start testing them on a small scale in specific applications.

“We put those [heavier specialty vehicles] in the bucket of ‘pilot opportunities.’ A lot of times, there's funding for these more unique applications for pilot programs,” Johnson said.

Where do you begin to determine which vehicles to transition to electric? Look at the data.

“We encourage fleets to have some sort of telematics if it’s not already in place,” Johnson said. “The telematics can help us figure out what that vehicle does on a daily basis and see if we can replace it with [a comparable EV] that's on the market today.”

What should you look for in the data to determine whether a vehicle is a good candidate for an EV replacement?

“First, you’re looking mostly at the Class 1 segment because there are simply more products available right now that offer a decent range,” Johnson said. “Then, we want to see vehicles that travel 100 to 150 miles a day, not 400 to 500 miles. Also, the vehicles should return to base every night. We see some fleets where employees take the vehicles home or leave them at another facility. But if you're not returning to base every night, the charging infrastructure piece gets tricky. It can be a challenge trying to make sure those vehicles get fully charged overnight at the employee’s home or somewhere else.” 

5. Construction
What’s your facility’s plan for building out sufficient charging infrastructure?

“If you only have a dozen or so Class 1 or 2 EVs, electrical supply and existing infrastructure is not usually a limiting factor. But when you get to 50 or 100 vehicles – and start getting in the heavier classes – now you're talking about significant new loads per facility,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to begin thinking about, what is the power supply? What can the utility provide to the site? What's the utility’s time frame to upgrade that service? In many cases, the charging infrastructure becomes the critical factor in determining the schedule. Engaging with the local electrical utility early in the process is important for larger-scale transitions.” 

6. Continuity
What about resiliency? How do you plan for continuing EV operations during storm response and other scenarios when there’s no electric power?

“I would say, in the near term, we can't get away from fossil fuels and internal combustion engine generator sets for those emergency scenarios,” Johnson said. “And a lot of the resiliency planning that I see still includes holding on to some of your internal combustion vehicles. That’s because the market just hasn't caught up with zero-emission offerings that can handle all the resiliency scenarios. So, we’ll likely see a couple of decades of a ‘bridge’ before we get over to a true zero-emission fleet that can handle those situations when we have grid outages.” 

The Bottom Line
“Put together a plan and dip your toe in the water with a pilot,” Johnson said. “There are many good incentives out there that can make pilots affordable, sometimes at even lower costs than your current ICE vehicles. The sooner you can try EVs on a small scale, the more successful you’ll be in transitioning the entire fleet over time.”