Op-ed: The Utility Companies Have Been Duped

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For nearly a decade, utility companies have been targeted by companies and individuals selling a particular kind of snake oil. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a lot of these people are acting maliciously (I’ll get to that in a minute). In fact, I think a lot of these people have the best of intentions at heart — there’s just a problem in the way they look at the world, and that’s this: they’re wrong about what the utility companies’ role in the transition to EVs needs to be, and there is a whole lot of incentive for them to stay wrong.

How We Got Here

Before we talk about how we got here, we need to talk about what “here” is. Basically, we exist in a world that is still very much influenced by pressures that started way back in 2008 and 2009 when the housing market collapsed, fuel prices soared, and carmakers were desperate to sell new cars and trucks to just about anyone who could still buy them. The flex-fuel Dodge Ram pickups (Ram was still part of Dodge back then) had “Runs on Corn!” written in broad strokes across the windshield while they baked in the Napleton Northlake Dodge parking lot.

It was a wild time, for sure, but it was the first real shake to the ever-growing US car market that many of us had lived through, and it was very much the dawn of the EV startup. There was Tesla, there was Fisker, there was Aptera, heck, there was even Paul Elio and his goofy tadpole thing. Everyone was pushing for 40 MPG or 50 MPG cars, hybrids were in the limelight, and nobody back then really knew if it would be biofuels or hydrogen or battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) that would win the day.

Now, as I type this, it’s obvious that BEVs won. It wasn’t so much that BEVs won, though. It was Tesla that won, and every other carmaker has been forced to participate in the electric future that Tesla created. And, to their credit, just about every one of them — with a few notable holdouts, like Toyota and Mazda — have jumped into the BEV race with both feet, committing to a majority electric future by 2030, if not a fully electric one … and the environmentalists are pushing this as a huge win.

The EV Future Is Not An Environmentalist Victory

No to Climate Death! Used under CC License.

Read that heading again, carefully. This isn’t an article that’s claiming EVs are worse for the environment than internal combustion (those articles are complete and utter bullshit, anyway). What this is is an article that hopes to explain that Tesla — and, by extension, all EVs — didn’t win because they are better for the environment. The EVs won because they are better cars.

That’s it. That’s the reason. Electric cars are better cars. Electric cars are succeeding as a product, in other words, not as an ideology.

It’s not the planet. It’s a sad fact, but almost no one cares about the planet. Even in a liberal Utopia like Portland, Oregon, headlines about record heat waves hover over pictures of JetSkis leaping over the waves and scantily-clad women on motor yachts enjoying mojitos. Hardly the picture of doom and gloom that you’d expect from a burning planet facing record heat waves, record droughts, and a global pandemic that’s still churning out thousands of newly-stuffed body bags every day, you know?

You know.

The Consultants Get Paid

Screencap from Breaking Bad.

The success of Tesla has given the internal-combustion stakeholders a bloody nose, and the environmentalists and activists — even the most well-meaning among them — have done everything they can to draw attention to that fact. As such, the sharkiest sharks have had no choice but to smell the blood in the water, and find a way to cash in. Who are they? Consultants.

While the environmental activists are working hard to change the way that people think about cars with talk about “average commutes” and “savings calculators” and “cradle to grave emissions” and “educating the public about the benefits of EVs” to anyone who will listen, the consultants have found someone who is not just willing to listen, but who is willing to reach into some very, very deep pockets when they’re done listening. That someone is the utility companies.

Utility companies, almost without exception, have millions of captive customers who must pay them every month or risk their health, their jobs, or more. That also means they have millions of dollars to play with. Combine that huge budget with pressure from policy makers and those very same, well-meaning environmentalists, and you end up with a large company that has a large PR incentive to spend large amounts of money on large projects — projects like getting people to buy more EVs! (Maybe even large ones!)

The first problem is that even the most well-meaning and sincere among the policy makers and activists typically have no idea how the car business works. Like, none. Not even a little bit. They don’t know about floorplans or co-ops or CSI scores or allocations — and they certainly, as a group, have no idea how those things can conspire against a dealer or salesperson who might very much want to sell you an electric car, but who literally cannot, through no fault of their own.

The second problem is that very few people at the utility companies understand how the car business works, either, but they at least know enough to know that they don’t know enough, and that’s where the consultants swoop in and convince the utilities that it’s their job — no, their mission — to convince people to buy electric cars.

To aid in that mission, the consultants have created a cottage industry of certificate programs, expensive training seminars, and online buyers’ guides that are terrible at convincing people to choose a perfectly reasonable EV instead of a loud and emotional Hemi-powered monster, terrible at their stated mission of helping dealers to sell cars, and terrible at showing people how an electric car can fit into the lives, today, but that are very good at convincing utility companies to transfer money from their bank accounts to the consultant’s.

They got it wrong, and that was the elephant in the room right now that everyone was afraid to talk about at that “big” EV web conference took part in last month. The environmentalists and activists who wanted the utility companies and policy-makers to engage in conversations with John Q. Public about “wheel to well emissions” and change the way people make decisions about cars got it 100% wrong. EVs aren’t succeeding because people are changing the way they think, they’re succeeding because they’re meeting new car buyers where they’re at today with body styles, performance figures, and capabilities that are more in line with what mainstream Americans are already buying, which also includes easily knowing how and where to fill up. The EV evangelists got it wrong, and the consultants took advantage of their political clout in order to siphon money out of the utilities. Full stop.

TL;DR: environmentalists and activists lobbied utility companies to become more visibly “green,” and the consultants took advantage of that by convincing the utility companies that it’s their job to sell cars, when it’s actually their job to sell electricity.

Selling Electric Fuel

Image courtesy Western Electric Co., circa 1915.

Utility companies sell electricity, plain and simple. But, they’ve had such a captive market and such a strong natural monopoly on their primary product that almost no one involved in a utility company’s day-to-day even thinks about selling electricity.

Want to see someone flounder? Ask someone at a utility company why you should buy electricity from them.

It seems like an asinine question, doesn’t it? A given, even, that you must buy electricity — but that wasn’t always the case. At the turn of the last century, though, it was a legitimate question. My own home outside of Chicago still has gas fixtures in it, for gas lights. There are pictures of lamplighters on the streets right outside, and the reason those gas lamps aren’t lit tonight is that, once upon a time, someone sold electricity to the people of this neighborhood.

Electricity is a superior product, and it succeeded because it was cleaner than gas and oil, sure, but I’d weigh that at about 10% of the reason why. The reasons that weighed heavier were many. The electric lights burned brighter, the smell of burning fuel oil was gone, the hassle of refilling oil lamps was eliminated, there was no smoke to stain the walls or ceilings, either.

That was it. That was the reason: electric fuel was better fuel. It succeeded as a product and not an ideology.

Image courtesy Chicago Edison Co.

Fast forward a hundred-odd years, and electric fuel is still better fuel. The electricity pushes cars to highway speeds faster than gasoline can, that gasoline smell that sticks to your hands is gone, the hassle of pumping gas into the car every few days is eliminated by at-home charging, and there are no harmful tailpipe emissions, either.

What’s more, electricity is cheap, it’s familiar, and it is absolutely everywhere. Sure, there may not be a 20 minutes-to-200 miles fast charger on every street corner (yet), but there very much is a power outlet that will, given time, charge your electric car, and every new electric car sold is a new car that needs electric fuel.

That’s it. That’s the difference. An electric car is just a regular car that you fill up with different stuff, and the utility companies, environmentalists — and every other stakeholder, come to think of it — would be better served by understanding that they’ll never “advance” or “accelerate” EV adoption by getting people to change the way they think about cars, but they may have a chance by getting people to change the way they think about the fuel that they’re putting in their cars.

Not dirty. Clean!
Not hard to find. Everywhere!
Not an expensive luxury. Affordable!
Not for hippies and tree-huggers. For everyone!
Not a sacrifice for a better tomorrow. Better for me, now!

Once the utility companies understand their role, they can start affecting real change, and let the dealers do what they know how to do best: sell cars that people want to buy to the people that want to buy them. And if that means that one or two of these opportunistic “consultants” has to find a different 9-5? So much the better.

Original content from CleanTechnica.

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