Thousands of electric cars could soon be rolling on Minnesota’s roads, spurring discussions about how to keep them all juiced for long hauls from Austin to Alexandria or Blue Earth to Bemidji.
Still a novelty in the state, electric vehicles are poised at the edge of the mainstream with the coming release of several more affordable models boasting lengthy ranges. Minnesotans could buy a Chevrolet Bolt as of July 1, and the Tesla Model 3 began production this week — a year after dozens lined up at the Eden Prairie dealership to reserve one. Volvo announced Wednesday it would introduce only hybrid or electric models beginning in 2019.
“There is a sense that we’re sort of on the cusp of exponential growth here,” said David Thornton, an assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The state has fewer than 5,000 plug-in electric cars today, and only about 1,600 of those rely solely on battery power.
The new models can travel more than 200 miles on a single charge, and most daily charging occurs at home. So rather than focusing on adding chargers in the metro area, the MPCA, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and others are plotting what’s needed to make long-distance travel seamless, sketching out a statewide network of superfast roadside chargers.
“We’re looking at what are the highest-traveled corridors that are connecting population centers where it might make sense to put more of these … fast chargers,” said Tim Sexton, who works in MnDOT’s environmental stewardship office. Sexton said they are trying to guide private investment instead of spending public money to install chargers.
Minnesota partnered with Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and the city of Detroit this year to designate a stretch of Interstate 94 the “Great Lakes Zero Emission Corridor” and erect signs highlighting nearby electric charging options.
“You can, if you want, pretty effectively travel between these states in an electric vehicle with these longer range [models] that are coming out,” Sexton said.
There are nearly 270 electric car chargers for public use across Minnesota, with about a third of them clustered in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Many take hours to fully recharge a car, however.
There are about 30 fast chargers in the state — capable of charging cars in roughly 30 minutes — mostly located around the metro area.
“The need for charging infrastructure is on long-haul interstate routes,” said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who owns a Tesla. “That being said, the government shouldn’t be involved in subsidizing those.”
Garofalo said he believes it’s not government’s role because there isn’t enough demand and the technology is still maturing and changing.
The fear of not being able to travel long distances, dubbed “range anxiety,” is often cited as a major hindrance for people considering an electric car.
“It’s sort of a chicken and the egg thing,” said Will Dunder with the nonprofit Great Plains Institute, which oversees a project called Drive Electric Minnesota. “A lot of people perceive lack of charging infrastructure to be a barrier to getting an electric car. The way you get more chargers on the road is you get more electric cars on the road.”
The MPCA’s Thornton said the state’s $47 million expected share of Volkswagen’s court settlement over the company’s emissions cheating scandal could also help build out a charging network.
“We are going to be talking with folks about what we might be able to do with some of that money to help forward this vision of providing a reasonable charging infrastructure around the state,” he said.
Not George Jetson
It remains unknown how popular the new electric car models will be in Minnesota.
A spokeswoman for Tesla, Keely Sulprizio, declined to say how many orders were placed for its new model or when Minnesotans should expect to begin receiving them.
Rosedale Chevrolet brought a Bolt vehicle in from California to display at the Twin Cities Auto Show and at its showroom. They had 50 orders before the car officially went on sale last week. The car costs about $30,000 after a federal rebate — similar to Tesla’s new model.
“Fifty orders on a car that’s never been in this area is pretty good for us,” said General Sales Manager David Zirbes. He said it requires very little maintenance and looks like a traditional car.
“It wasn’t designed to make you feel like you’re George Jetson,” Zirbes said.
Since most charging happens at home, utility companies like Xcel Energy are offering special plans to make it more cost effective. The company will install a second electric meter for car charging, for example, and bill at a discounted rate for using it overnight — when wholesale electricity prices are cheaper. Another option is to pay peak and off-peak rates for the whole home’s energy usage.
Xcel spokesman Matt Lindstrom said about 200 customers in Minnesota are signed up for the two offerings.
The influx of new models has created a market for used electric cars, too. Nick Garbis of Minneapolis recently bought a used 2013 Nissan Leaf for just under $11,000.
“The motivation for me, among many things, was that I could get … an electric vehicle” at a very low price, Garbis said.
That Leaf model gets less than 100 miles on a charge, but Garbis said it hasn’t been an issue when he’s driving to work and around the metro area.
“There is almost no reason to charge when I’m out and about,” said Garbis, who works in Minnetonka. “It’s kind of weird. I expected that I’d be charging at places all the time.”