Co-op EVolution — A New Era of Mobile Energy, Off-Grid Access to Electricity

By Teri Viswanath

June 2021

June traditionally marks the start of the summer driving season, with cars, SUVs or trucks hitting the road for summer vacation trips. Given promising signs of a return to normal for the country and the prospect of even more motorists hitting the road this year, it felt like the right time to celebrate a new CoBank initiative dedicated to electric vehicles (EVs). 

We originally planned to welcome summer driving season with CoBank’s “Drive America” month. However, after a thorough review of updated EV market intelligence and our deeper acknowledgement of the shift occurring in co-op planning efforts, we renamed our initiative CoBank’s “Co-op EVolution” month to better capture the groundswell of changes unfolding.  

About every two years, CoBank evaluates market conditions to consider whether a shift in consumer behavior might lead to greater EV adoption for rural communities. Our assessment this year found the marketplace so greatly changed — from shifting car-buyer sentiment to the outsized automaker response — that we sharply revised our EV forecast higher, now projecting a full 15% of vehicles on the road will be electric by 2035. For rural communities, we see the possibility of real change taking hold, with 2% to 5% of all new car sales likely to be electric by mid-decade, beginning to bridge the urban-rural divide on EV ownership in the next decade.1

The unveiling of the new Ford F-150 Lightning has in no small way improved the odds that rural Americans might be swayed to acquire their first EV. With Ford’s announcement that the most popular vehicle in America is going electric (followed by similar messages by automakers of other popular, top-selling trucks), the chances that rural communities will begin to bridge the adoption gap looks increasingly possible. We did touch on some of the capabilities of Ford’s flagship vehicle — particularly those features that are apt to shift consumer sentiment — but underestimated the importance of their vehicle-to-home (V2H) technology.  


 

While we discussed the home back-up generation functionality, we failed to connect the dots on the more generalized mobile energy capabilities away from home. For the rural consumer using it as a “working” vehicle, certainly a portable energy source would be a top priority. 

Ford has dubbed the Lightning a commercial “electric workhorse,” as it combines electric mobility (it is an EV, after all) with essential backup power functionality at home and, maybe more importantly, away from home. Notably, Ford’s Pro Power Onboard is a built-in AC power source that comes standard with 2.4 kilowatts of capability through four outlets. Their more powerful upgrade option, the 9.6-kilowatt Pro Power Onboard, provides “enough power to rip up to 30 miles of half-inch plywood on a single charge on the extended-range battery,” according to company materials.

If we consider the range of application for mobile energy — perhaps, in the same way that we consider the move from landline to mobile phones — the potential for powerful mobile batteries are exciting (and a bit mind-blowing, if we are honest). There are many global rural communities that lack the necessary infrastructure to benefit from traditional low-cost centralized generation. The plummeting cost for solar generation combined with powerful mobile battery storage could bring about the same sort of economic advantages that rural communities benefited from in the 1930s from the federal rural electrification program.  

Amidst the market intelligence that we will continue to showcase is our upcoming podcast conversation with Karl Popham, Austin Energy’s Electric Vehicle program manager. Karl offered practical insights for rural electric cooperatives as they embark upon their EV planning efforts plus a number of thoughtful broader market observations. One thread of this conversation that we felt too time-constrained to probe further was his statement that upwards of “80% of all battery storage is going to have wheels attached to it moving forward.” We couldn’t agree more and the future looks even brighter with this technology. 


Transitioning from a gasoline-powered car to an electric vehicle represents a significant cost savings over the lifetime of the vehicle. And because rural residents tend to drive longer distances than their urban counterpart, the savings could be even larger for these drivers. With total ownership savings over the life of most EVs greater for rural communities, the reduced sticker price, and an expanded choice of mainstream car models, we think the adoption gap with urban cities will begin to narrow.

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