With electric cars cruising into the market elsewhere in the United States, a public-private coalition is blazing the trail for the vehicles in the Twin Cities, months before they're widely available to consumers here.

Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hennepin and Ramsey counties all have agreed to add plug-in vehicles to their fleets, and will share performance and maintenance data with Xcel Energy. Xcel will use the information on how the vehicles operate with heavy use and in extreme weather, to gauge how plug-ins might affect the region's electrical grid as they become more common. In exchange, Xcel will pony up $20,000 for each vehicle the cities and counties buy.

"We're trying to get out ahead of this, and get operating data to make sure we're ready if and when the market develops," said Greg Palmer, Xcel Energy's director of account management and go-to guy in the Drive Electric Minnesota project, as the effort is called. "We've got a plan to be ready when the vehicles are here. ... That's why we're working with public fleets. Fleet managers are used to tracking that."

Xcel won't be overwhelmed by demands from power-thirsty cars, Palmer said. The utility expects only about a 4 to 5 percent increase in demand if the state reaches its goal of 400,000 plug-in vehicles on the roads by 2030.

But the collaboration will help planners determine how homes, businesses and public areas should be equipped to best meet drivers' needs, and how consumers can structure and schedule their charging time to best meet the utility's needs and keep energy prices down.

Buying the vehicles

The $20,000 Xcel subsidy will help cities invest in electric cars in tight budget times. St. Paul owns one plug-in Ford Transit Connect, which retails at nearly $60,000, compared with about $25,000 for the gasoline-powered version. The city used the Xcel subsidy.

Cities might expect fuel savings of as much as 75 percent compared with gas-powered vehicles, said Matt Mattila, a Boulder, Colo.,-based consultant who runs Project Get Ready, a network of cities around the country that share information on electric cars.

Hennepin County and Minneapolis each are buying one Azure Dynamics Transit Connect, a modified minivan, which they'll likely receive later this summer. Ramsey County still is determining how many electric vehicles to buy and what kind. St. Paul has ordered two more plug-in Transit Connects, using a $60,000 federal stimulus grant to help offset the cost. Uses could range from carting library books, interoffice mail and maintenance supplies to transporting staff and families in crisis.

St. Paul received a preproduction model in January; a city worker has been using it to deliver equipment between recreational centers. There has been at least one sizable hiccup: A worker was stranded in the vehicle on Shepard Road when a charging gauge malfunctioned.

"Some kinks needed to be worked out," acknowledged Anne Hunt, Mayor Chris Coleman's environmental policy director. She stressed, however, that the city has been pleased with the vehicle's performance and practicality.

St. Paul city employee Andrea Flohr said she enjoys driving the van. "It keeps up with the big boys on the highway."

Charging them up

The deal also requires the participating governments to provide public charging facilities for use by anybody who needs them, in publicly owned parking lots and ramps, public libraries and a few city streets. Again, St. Paul leads the pack, with plans to install at least 23 stations equipped with 110-volt and 240-volt outlets that users will pay for by the hour of charge.

Ramsey County will install several, including a pair at the refurbished Union Depot. Hennepin County's will be in the ramp attached to the Central Library, and Minneapolis' will be in the Haaf Ramp. The publicly owned stations will be added to a handful of privately owned plug-in stations in the Twin Cities, at the Mall of America in Bloomington, at ECM Weber in St. Paul and two new Kwik Trip stores in Coon Rapids and Andover.

Taken as a whole, the efforts add up to more than a few electric vehicles and a slew of electrical outlets.

Mattila said there's already documentation that automakers are opening markets for electric vehicles based partly on whether the regions have shown themselves ready and interested.

"Cities that have huge head starts are the ones that are getting the vehicles," he said.

But that's not all. He predicts that the cities that are out in front of the technology will receive other benefits, in the form of upstart businesses that care about green technology and sustainability, citing the examples of Indianapolis, Raleigh, N.C., Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles.

"If a city really cares about getting sustainable jobs or ramping up economically, it makes sense for them to encourage this," he said.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409