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Utilities & Preparing for the Electrification of Transportation: Exclusive Interview with Lincoln Wood of Southern Company

Lincoln Wood

Electric vehicles have seemingly gone from futuristic and high-tech niche product to mainstream penetration in quick order, as you can’t go to a car show without seeing an EV section and more often than not you’ll find at least one EV charger in parking garages. However, this transition has been anything but an overnight success and the process of is quite far from complete.

While consumers are now more aware than ever of EVs, utilities across the country are working on getting their systems ready for a more pervasive EV loads. This process includes aspects like installing chargers, preparing for the heavy peak loads from cars all plugging in at once, utilizing EVs as a demand response tool, and more. Southern Company is one such utility who is all-in on wrestling with what the EV demand explosion will mean for their operations and staying several steps ahead of the curve.

In particular, Lincoln Wood is the Electric Transportation Policy Manager at Southern Company and his job is filled with considering all of these needs. As an industry leader in this area, Lincoln will be presenting at the 2019 SEEA Conference on Energy Efficiency, specifically discussing the needs of utilities as they prepare for the coming boom in electrified transportation. In advance of that conference and to engage the Energy Central community, Lincoln was gracious enough to discuss some of these issues with me and share his insights on what the utility industry should be doing as a preview to that presentation. Enjoy!

Matt Chester: To begin, can you give our readers a bit of background on who you are and what got you involved with vehicle electrification in the utility sector and why it’s a cause you’re so passionate about?

Lincoln Wood: I grew up in northeast Georgia in a rural setting and was fortunate to have my paternal grandparents as babysitters throughout my childhood. They were salt-of-the-earth people, very gracious; but with a limited education, their opportunities were few. They did not have many of the modern conveniences we consider standard today: things like air conditioning and central heating, a clothes dryer, a dishwasher, a microwave, even a frost-free refrigerator. My parents did have those conveniences, so I got to see firsthand the benefits of electricity and the quality of life improvements it can enable. My viewpoint on vehicle electrification is the same: electricity will make the experience better. Also, my grandfather worked in a body shop and loved cars. The only new car he ever bought was a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, which I still have to this day. I credit him with getting me interested in vehicles from a young age.

In 2014, Southern Company hosted an innovation competition called SO Prize, modeled after X Prize. We were presented with a vision of the industry and challenged with the question of how Southern Company should respond. I found myself invited to join an electric vehicle-themed idea and could not say no. Ideas were funneled through a review process, including a mini “Shark Tank” exercise with our executives, and the top six ideas were given the chance to be further pursued. I was part of the seven-person team that represented the sole electric vehicle idea. Four of us, including myself, have worked on the idea since that time and we are all passionate about electric vehicles; I just happen to have a day job that involves EVs! Though not easy, SO Prize was a great experience, and I forged some really strong friendships as a result.

 

MC: You’ve mentioned that even before getting involved with EVs at Southern that you were a car nerd. Sometimes car enthusiasts are quite tied to the traditional gasoline-powered vehicles and are more reticent to embrace EVs and let go of the revving of the engine. How did you initially take EVs in that regard as competition for the classic vehicles?

LW: During my college years, my student job was a bus operator for University of Georgia’s Campus Transit System, which involved 40+ foot buses with air brakes and all. So, I’m used to driving vehicles that rattle the windows! But once I drove an EV and experienced the instant torque, the concern over lack of engine noise faded. I think there will always be folks that want the auditory experience, though. Perhaps that is another business opportunity for the auto customization market as EV adoption grows.

The challenges of EV adoption from the customer perspective are well documented, from range anxiety to completely reframing expectations of what it means to plan trips. But what are some of the challenges from the utility perspective that might not be as well documented or known across the industry? One thing that keeps me up at night is the speed of transition for EVs across the transportation spectrum and what that means for the utility. Today, we are beginning to see fleet electrification become possible with new medium- and heavy-duty electric options. As battery prices continue to fall and these trucks become cheaper, fleet managers will have a strong incentive to switch their fleets to electric because the total cost of ownership will be much lower than the diesel alternative. If a customer adds 50 new electric trucks in a year’s time, in one depot, that could present challenges for energy companies to serve without some form of managed charging. I’m fortunate to work with many very smart people, both at Southern and in the industry, that are already hard at work figuring this out.

MC: You work with the Alliance for Transportation Electrification on the policy committee—given that experience, can you give an example of an EV policy that you think has been highly successful and should be emulated and an EV policy that was well-intentioned but maybe suffered from a pitfall?

LW: First, there is no silver bullet when it comes to the “how” of EV policies! They differ based on goals of the particular area. However, one thing I do like to see is agreement among all involved on the “what” and “why” of EVs. In other words, there are multiple stakeholders in agreement that EVs will benefit the cities, counties, and states and action should be taken to support them. For example, in Washington State the Legislature enacted ESHB 1853, which provided the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission direction on how to treat EV charging equipment. The City of Atlanta passed an ordinance via the City Council requiring new construction to be EV-ready. In both cases, people saw the benefits fo driving electric and worked towards a consensus.

One issue I think needs to be addressed is the Road Tax issue with the Highway Trust Fund. Every so often, I read articles that blame EVs for the HTF shortage and that EVs aren’t paying their ‘fair share’ towards road improvements. I drive an EV and I agree that EVs need to pay for road use. However, EVs are miniscule in terms of total penetration of the transportation fleet. The HTF has been chronically underfunded even before electric vehicles became available. There are solutions, but no clear winners as of yet.

 

MC: How do you think utilities can best balance the short-term and long-term goals when it comes to vehicle electrification? 

LW: As a company, Southern Company places the needs of the customer at the center of everything we do.  Remaining laser-focused on delivering clean, safe, affordable, and reliable service to our customers serves both our short- and long-term goals. Given the potential speed for electrification adoption, pun intended, short- and long-term may need new definitions!

 

MC: When you attend the SEEA Meeting in October, are there any topics or panels/talks you’re specifically eager to hear outside of vehicle electrification?

LW: I’m excited to hear about Innovation Investments in the Southeast Energy Efficiency Fund on Oct 22, Equitable Strategies for Energy Efficiency on Oct 23. Given my experiences growing up, I’m very interested in hearing how communities around the Southeast are engaging the community around energy planning in general. 

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If you’re interested in hearing more about Lincoln’s insights into vehicle electrification from the utility perspective, be sure to check out his presentation at the 2019 SEEA Conference, taking place from October 21 to 23 in Atlanta, Georgia. You can check out the agenda and register for the conference here.

Matt Chester's picture

Thank Matt for the Post!

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Discussions

Cameron Feil's picture
Cameron Feil on Oct 4, 2019 7:14 pm GMT

"Given the potential speed for electrification adoption, pun intended, short- and long-term may need new definitions!" 

I couldn't agree more. The speed at which most technology changes is continuously increasing. A new cell phone today is usually obsolete a few months later. Although EVs are not moving as quickly as that, the increased adoption and transition from HEVs to BEVs is significantly altering the EV ecosystem.

Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Oct 5, 2019 9:39 pm GMT

Is it viable to use microgrids as stand alone sources for recharging stations , to avoide demand surplus on utilities regular networks?

Lincoln Wood's picture
Lincoln Wood on Oct 7, 2019 3:18 pm GMT

Good question.  There is a lot of industry discussion on the best way(s) to integrate DERS into EV charging.  The more pressing issue, in my personal opinion, is deploying adequate charging infrastructure to limit range anxiety.  For example, even with 230+ miles of range in my EV, there are trips I cannot take due to the lack of charging infrastructure.  I think DER integration will naturally occur as the V2G conversation evolves. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 7, 2019 9:08 pm GMT

Thanks for jumping in, Lincoln!

For example, even with 230+ miles of range in my EV, there are trips I cannot take due to the lack of charging infrastructure.  I think DER integration will naturally occur as the V2G conversation evolves. 

Agreed with this-- even further, when I'm traveling long distance I know that the 230 mile range actually translates to less than that when I'm on the highway and so I can't even plan out to really stretch that range but have to come in with planning of really conservative estimates of where I want to charge and make sure the infrastructure is there. 

Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Oct 9, 2019 8:01 pm GMT

Thanks a lot.

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