MN: Minnesota’s transition to electric vehicles is long, bumpy


With transport being the country’s top source of greenhouse gases, policymakers and scientists say electrifying what people drive is crucial to averting climate catastrophe — particularly the cars, SUVs and pickup trucks that account for the bulk of deadly emissions expel.

Minnesota is calling for at least 1 in 5 of those vehicles on the road to be electric by 2030, with broader targets for electric buses for schools and mass transit systems.

That’s a long way for a state where less than 1% of registered vehicles are electric. There are currently only 10 electric school buses in the state. Of the 900 buses operated by Minnesota’s largest public transit company, eight are electric.

“This is all new territory,” said Tim Sexton, deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “It’s definitely going to be a learning process.”

New federal and state laws and policies aim to encourage, and in some cases enforce, a transition away from gas-powered cars, buses and pickup trucks. Changes are afoot, but the gap between high-minded climate goals and the real world is wide, according to interviews with government and industry leaders.

High cost, low supply

Many of the challenges of getting people into electric vehicles (EVs) aren’t unique to Minnesota, such as: B. high price tags, low supply of models and fear of range. But there are others.

Electric buses are in factories in Minnesota, waiting for spare parts. State auto dealership group is fighting Minnesota’s new clean car standards in court. A deadlocked legislature was jeopardizing critical federal dollars for transportation electrification. There is little staff training for mechanics to service electric vehicles. The power distribution system requires upgrades and expansions so that people can connect electric cars without overloading it and so that utilities can run vehicles with green energy.

Electric vehicles alone will not reduce greenhouse gases from transportation to zero, said Kyle Shelton, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies. Other changes are also needed, he said, such as maximizing public transit and reducing total vehicle kilometers travelled.

One of these changes, electric car sharing in the Twin Cities, is beginning to show signs of success.

One of Minnesota’s most immediate tasks is finding a state accord to release $68 million from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill. The money will fund 85 new high-speed public charging stations across the state, including 14 in the first year along Interstates 35 and 94, under the state Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Plan.

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The state’s required 20 percent EV adjustment fell victim to the collapse of the state’s transportation law in the last session amid many disagreements, including whether 100 percent of sales tax dollars should go towards auto parts for roads and bridges, as Republicans want Senate wanted.

Sexton speculated that gas stations, a major retailer, or utilities could still deliver the game. Currently, these federal funds are not available.

Xcel Energy is continually scaling up the distribution transformers people see in their neighborhoods to avoid flickering or blackouts when drivers plug in an electric vehicle. The utility has so far avoided such problems, Xcel President Chris Clark said.

“That’s what we really want to pay the most attention to,” Clark said in an interview. “If you get four to five houses that add electric vehicles, you’ll see a change in the load in the neighborhoods.”

Adding an electric vehicle to a home “is adding another half of their home,” Clark said.

The utility plans to spend $300 million on EV projects, including $170 million to build 730 new fast-charging stations across the state. In addition, the company plans to put $500 million into a new 140-mile power line from Becker to the Marshall area to draw power from several new renewable energy projects.

Player “surprised”

Some transport companies say they are unprepared for the accelerating EV transition.

Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis has trained generations of auto mechanics, but does not have a program to train EV technicians. Stephan Reinarts, associate professor in Dunwoody’s automotive program, said he doesn’t know of any technical colleges in the area that do this. That training is done in-house at dealerships with automakers, he said.

Schools like his are waiting for Automotive Service Excellence, the national nonprofit that certifies training, to set standards for electric vehicles, he said.

“This push for electric vehicles is coming right now like gangbuster and has taken a lot of people by surprise,” Reinarts said. “It’s screaming ahead. We need vehicles to train on.”

Meanwhile, car dealers in Minnesota are fighting a key element of DFL Prime Minister Tim Walz’s climate roadmap. The Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association has sued the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, accusing it of overstepping regulations implementing the new clean car standard. The rules, modeled after those in California, require auto dealerships doing business in the state to offer more electric vehicles and other low-emission vehicles for sale. It will come into effect at the beginning of 2024 and will apply to new models from 2025.

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The case is before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Not all car dealers are supportive.

“I think the future of passenger cars is going to be electric vehicles, so I don’t see why we want to slow that down,” said Chris Gulbrandson, president of Apple Autos, based in Apple Valley.

Ford Motor is splitting into separate divisions, one for its internal combustion engine business and one for electric vehicles. Dealers have to choose, Gulbrandson said. He rolls the dice on EVs.

Coveted models like the Ford F-150 Lighting pickup are trickling in, and EV dealers have to pay for chargers and train technicians to work on high-voltage batteries. He will continue to sell gasoline cars, Gulbrandson said, but he sees the future of the industry in electric cars.

“If you want to be there, you have to jump on board.”

Larger vehicles lag behind

Larger vehicles such as buses and medium- and heavy-duty trucks could take longer to electrify.

With Metro Transit running less than 1% of its fleet on electricity, it aims to have at least 20% of the 40-foot buses it buys by 2027 be electric. But the 2019 electric rollout was bumpy.

After about a month on the road, the first C Line electric buses were taken out of service for a few weeks, then shut down again a few months later because chargers overheated and transformers failed at Metro Transit’s Heywood Garage in Minneapolis. They were taken out of service a third time in March 2021 due to similar issues and only hit the road again in December after the Siemens-made chargers were replaced under warranty.

Two extra chargers at the Brooklyn Center Transit Center, which were supposed to give C Line buses a quick boost while they’re running, were down due to electrical problems and “system failures,” Metro Transit said. They were later repaired.

It was disappointing but not a complete surprise, said Matt Dake, Metro Transit’s deputy chief operating officer of maintenance. He said he worked at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for 20 years and saw similar challenges there.

“Electric vehicles are new to public transport,” said Dake. “And with every new product, it takes time to overcome the challenges with this technology.”

Winnipeg, Manitoba’s New Flyer, a leading bus manufacturer that manufactured Metro Transit’s electric buses, has plants in St. Cloud and Crookston. It is struggling with a shortage of microprocessing chips, government filings show, and it has “built and maintained a number of vehicles”.

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Matt Lelou, president of Communications Workers of America Local 7304, which represents workers at the New Flyer plants in Minnesota, said supply chain issues had slowed operations. Production levels at St. Cloud are about half what they were before COVID, he said. About a hundred partially built buses (electric and non-electric) are lined up outside the St. Cloud plant awaiting parts, “at various stages of completion,” Lelou said.

“We have a lot of orders for electric buses, but the shortage of parts, chips and other components is pushing back the schedule to complete them,” he said.

New Flyer’s parent company, NFI Group, issued a statement saying New Flyer is working “extremely hard” to solve the supply chain issues faced by many global manufacturers.

“We look forward to ramping up production in 2023 as supply chains are expected to begin to normalize,” it said.

EV successes at home

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the EV Spot Network and Evie Carshare programs aim to make electric vehicles more accessible to renters and residents of low-income neighborhoods. When it’s finished next year, there will be 70 Tier 2 charging stations, each with four to five ports, and an additional 12 high-speed Tier 3 charging ports, said Russ Stark, St. Paul’s chief resiliency officer.

The service area includes the two inner cities and the surrounding districts and areas in between. People can access a shared fleet of about 100 Chevy Bolts and 20 Nissan Leafs, with 50 more Leafs on the way.

On average, a 1.5-hour errand ride costs about $15, Stark said, significantly cheaper than an Uber ride. Users receive a $4 credit when they return a car to a charger at the end of a ride.

Usage has exceeded expectations, and carsharing is the most heavily used of the few such programs across the country, he said.

Paul Schroeder, head of the non-profit St. Paul Hourcar, which operates the carsharing, called the programs a model.

“Cities across the US are grappling with a fundamental problem: How do we roll out this charging infrastructure without it appearing as some kind of giveaway to those who already benefit the most, primarily an affluent, white audience? “

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