One way George Host reduces his carbon footprint is by driving a Tesla electric vehicle on his northern Minnesota commute to and from Duluth.
The forest biologist from New Independence Township charges his car at home every night, and there are several spots in the Twin Ports where he can power up. The challenge comes when Host and others in greater Minnesota drive farther afield — because the number of electric vehicle battery chargers across the state is decidedly uneven.
“In smaller communities, you have a different challenge with [electric vehicles] than in the metro, because people tend to travel longer distances and have less access to chargers,” said Tim Sexton, chief sustainability officer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
But that’s changing as more Minnesotans go electric. Transportation is now the state’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and lawmakers have taken note. Encouraging electric vehicle use and building the ancillary charging infrastructure is one way, they say, to combat climate change.
The number of electric vehicles registered in Minnesota was 9,401 last year, more than double the number in 2017. Some 10,495 have been registered this year, although the overall number registered statewide is still under 2% of all vehicles, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. To support them, more than 300 charging stations of varying capacity are located throughout the state, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Most places to plug in are clustered in the Twin Cities metro area.
Drivers outside the cities just have to try a little harder to find their electrical boost.
“You do have to be more planful when you travel,” said Jennifer Herrmann of Morris, Minn., who drives a Chevy Bolt. “There’s really not a great charging infrastructure when you go west in Minnesota.”
Recently, Gov. Tim Walz called for Minnesota to adopt California’s cleaner vehicle-emission rules, which would require carmakers to offer more electric and hybrid models here. MnDOT says only 19 of the 43 electric models sold nationwide are available in Minnesota, since auto manufacturers send them to the 13 states with lower emission standards first. If Minnesota were in the mix, the number of choices available to consumers would increase, as would sales.
But boosting the number of low-emission vehicles here is an “exercise in futility” without building the necessary infrastructure to charge them, according to a recent MnDOT report plotting the “Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation” in the state.
Sexton says it’s “a chicken-and-egg type of dilemma” — more people would likely buy electric vehicles if they felt confident the charging infrastructure were in place. While that’s likely true in the Twin Cities, the picture becomes more muddled for those living and traveling beyond the seven-county metro area.
Many newer models of electric vehicles can travel for more than 200 miles before they need charging, but cold weather can sap battery power. That can lead to “range anxiety” for drivers.
“It’s that feeling you get watching the battery drop and there’s no charger nearby,” Host said. “Your heart rate goes up and you wonder how you’re going to get somewhere. It was a big thing earlier on,” but not so much now.
In August, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) awarded a contract to ZEF Energy Inc. of Minneapolis to install 22 fast-charging stations along highways and interstates in Bemidji, Grand Rapids, Detroit Lakes, St. Cloud, Willmar, Marshall, Rochester, Mankato and Albert Lea — a project that will increase the state’s charging network by 1,110 miles. The $1.5 million in grant money was part of a national court settlement following the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Another round of investment in electric vehicle infrastructure fueled by the settlement is expected to be rolled out soon.
“This is just a start; it’s not enough,” said MPCA spokeswoman Mary Robinson. At events throughout the state intended to glean public input, 94% of the comments favored funding for charging stations, and many supported investing the maximum level allowed by the settlement, Robinson said.
Shannon Mortenson says she can’t make it to the Twin Cities from her home in the northwestern Minnesota town of Kennedy driving her Chevy Bolt. The charging infrastructure doesn’t quite line up, so she uses her husband’s Chevy Avalanche SUV instead — an irony that’s not lost on her. Otherwise, she says her electric vehicle works great for her 32-mile commute into Warren, Minn., where she works as the city administrator. “I don’t have any trouble going back and forth to work,” she said.
Generally, drivers may power up using public stations at parks, universities and along highways and interstates, or outside privately owned parking garages, restaurants and shopping centers. Tesla, the California-based electric vehicle manufacturer, has a proprietary network of superchargers “placed on well-traveled routes and dense urban centers,” according to its website.
But 85% of electric vehicle owners simply charge up in their own garage, said Jukka Kukkonen, who founded PlugInConnect, a St. Paul consulting firm. Some use a standard 120-volt charging cord, while others install 240-volt stations (akin to power for an electric clothes dryer), which is quicker.
“People see adoption in the Twin Cities as happening faster,” Kukkonen said. “But outstate will happen.”
He says communities or hotels interested in boosting tourism would be smart to invest in electric vehicle chargers.
But not everyone is on board. Dan Bohmer of Moorhead bought a $90,000 Jaguar I-Pace a year ago because it was “something different.” He flew to Des Moines to pick up the car and an arduous 24-hour journey back to Moorhead followed as Bohmer crisscrossed Iowa and Minnesota, desperately in search of charging stations.
“I realized an electric vehicle in Minnesota is not a good idea unless you live in Minneapolis,” he said.
Bohmer eventually sold it.
“It’s a very nice car, a lovely car,” he said. “If I was never going to take it on the road, it would have been just fine. But that’s not my life.”
Even though he now drives a Land Rover Discovery SUV, he says he’d consider buying another electric vehicle — but only if the charging infrastructure improves.