Austin Energy launched its plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) program and led a regional effort, the Texas River Cities Plug-In Electric Vehicle Initiative, the utility had to address some critical questions: What drives a community to adopt PEVs, and how does an electric utility prepare for PEVs in its service territory? What unique infrastructure challenges must the utility address? And, what are the realistic financial opportunities today and in the future in providing PEV charging infrastructure?

Since 2008, the city of Austin, Texas, U.S., and its community-owned electric utility, Austin Energy, have been promoting the adoption of PEVs with a grassroots campaign called Plug-In Partners to help demonstrate the demand for these vehicles. The campaign identified high-level benefits of driving electric in three core areas:

  • Energy security. The primary use of oil in the United States is for transportation. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2012, the United States imported 7.4 million barrels of petroleum per day, with the majority of this product being purchased from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. On the other hand, electricity is almost exclusively derived from domestic resources. PEVs can contribute significantly to a balanced portfolio of domestically produced energy while reducing volatility and leading to the nation’s energy independence.
  • A cleaner environment. While running on electricity, PEVs produce zero tailpipe emissions, and research shows they also produce less total carbon dioxide (CO2) compared with petroleum-fueled vehicles. And, with an ongoing trend of increased electricity generation from cleaner and renewable sources, the reduced emissions benefit continues to grow.
  • Creating a stronger economy. PEVs and associated infrastructure have positive impacts on the local and national economies by creating new job opportunities while also providing less expensive transportation options that are less sensitive to fluctuating fuel prices, a contributor to the cost of many different goods and services.

For about $5 per month, Austin Energy customers get unlimited public charging. Courtesy of Kimberly Davis and Austin Energy.

Promoting PEVs

Today, Austin Energy operates its Plug-In EVerywhere network, consisting of 160 public charging stations situated throughout the greater Austin community, including locations at businesses, retail stores, colleges, workplaces, parks and libraries. Austin Energy achieved 80% participation of its local PEV drivers, resulting in more than 14,000 charging events within the network’s first year and continues to see an ongoing steep usage curve. The tactics used to achieve this relatively high benchmark include the following:

  • Offer simple and affordable pricing. Although hourly charging is available for public and workplace charging with a credit card, Austin Energy offers a flat US$25 fixed-fee program card for six months of unlimited public charging.
  • Provide convenience. Austin Energy has public charging stations throughout its service territory but also supports level 2 rebates for the home, where the majority of car charging occurs.
  • Further reduce total CO2with renewable energy. Austin’s charging network is powered by Austin Energy’s GreenChoice renewable energy program.
  • Sell direct to local auto dealers. Austin Energy sells prepaid cards for 12 months of unlimited public charging directly to dealers; in turn, they provide and promote a one-year-free deal to their customers.
  • Attract transportation electrification customers. Austin Energy cast a wide net by including vehicle charging for Austin’s Car2go car-share program, workplace locations, multifamily properties and commercial fleets.
  • Capture funds outside of existing budgets. Austin Energy was awarded three federal PEV-related grants (and participated in several others as a sub-recipient) to fund its first 113 public charging stations, which demonstrates the organization can deliver on time and on budget, keeping the utility competitive for future grants.
  • Engage the community. Austin Energy launched an award-winning marketing and communications campaign for its Plug-In EVerywhere network and led the Texas River Cities Plug-In Electric Vehicle Initiative.
  • Plan for the future. Austin Energy is proactive with its PEV program. For example, the utility is now a sub-recipient of an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy grant with AutoGrid to pilot demand-response and utility-managed off-peak charging.

PEVs at Austin’s “360 Bridge.” Courtesy of Kimberly Davis and Austin Energy.

Texas River Cities Initiative

Leveraging its industry experience, Austin Energy was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy grant to lead a regional PEV infrastructure planning process called the Texas River Cities Plug-In Electric Vehicle Initiative. The goal of this initiative was to develop an electric vehicle service equipment (EVSE) infrastructure plan not only for Central Texas, but as one that can be tailored for any community looking for a comprehensive road map to support transportation electrification.

Austin Energy used Leidos’ emerging technologies team as the primary consultant to assist in this grant-funded effort. To gain as wide a perspective as possible, a diverse working group was formed representing more than 50 organizations including utilities, universities, consultants, community groups,  the private sector, and local, state and federal government. This group convened and contributed to an action plan defining the scope of the project:

  • Expedite a broader consensus, accelerate lessons learned and develop best practices around PEV and EVSE deployments
  • Understand how to minimize the potential for localized grid impacts (such as transformers) of increased PEV adoption through education and outreach to stakeholders
  • Model how PEV and EVSE infrastructure represent a new and potentially significant opportunity to increase electric service revenue and to shape load curves.

With stakeholder input and review, Austin Energy developed six different survey instruments targeting more than 1,000 industry stakeholders throughout the region and the United States. More than 190 of the stakeholders attended focus group meetings that identified critical questions to be addressed and prioritized content for the plan:

  • Business models. What alternative business models can be deployed to support the PEV/EVSE industry and ecosystem?
  • EVSE installation codes, ordinances and permitting.What should be included and when should municipalities and utilities begin development?
  • EVSE interoperability road map. With so many technologies, devices, systems and applications involved, what integration issues are there for utilities and public charging providers?
  • Workplace and multifamily housing. What are the unique challenges and demands created by supporting EVSE infrastructure within these market segments?
  • Marketing communications plan. How can plan participants communicate and educate parties that are interested in the successful adoption of PEV and EVSE?

Planning for the Future

Within the Texas River Cities region, there is a high level of interest in, support for and recognition of benefits from transportation electrification. Importantly, across the United States, PEVs are readily available for consumers with new models, options and price points to choose from every year. Most PEV owners report high satisfaction and find these new vehicles are fun to drive and cost less to maintain. Charging station technologies are advancing rapidly, as well, with faster charging capabilities, increased communications, improved controls and lower capital costs. And, from a more strategic vantage point, electric vehicles support U.S. fuel independence, cleaner air and economic growth.

The technologies, economics and support for clean energy have given birth to a new market opportunity power utilities are uniquely positioned to embrace and foster. However, significant infrastructure requirement issues must be addressed today while still accommodating for tomorrow’s needs. With continued collaboration around EVSE infrastructure, utilities, vendors and their collective customers now can accelerate the role PEVs play in the United States. 


Karl Popham(karl.popham@austinenergy.com) is the manager of Electric Vehicles & Emerging Technologies at Austin Energy and has more than 20 years of experience in utility and advanced technology deployments. Prior to his work at Austin Energy, Popham was a client executive with Hewlett-Packard Services, a director with Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers.

Jeffrey Norman (jeffrey.a.norman@leidos.com) is vice president of Emerging Technologies at Leidos and has more than 23 years of telecom and technology development experience. Norman has been actively involved in the smart grid sector since 2000, working with more than 30 utilities as they either incubate or evaluate the value emerging technologies could play in their grid-modernization efforts.

Companies mentioned:

Austin Energy| www.austinenergy.com

Leidos| www.leidos.com/engineering

Plug-In EVerywhere Network| www.pluginpartners.com

Texas River Cities Plug-in Electric Vehicle Initiative | www.texasrivercities.com