With transportation the country’s top source of greenhouse gases, policymakers and scientists say electrifying what people drive is crucial to heading off climate disaster — particularly the cars, SUVs and pickups that pump out the majority of the deadly emissions.
Minnesota calls for at least 1 out of 5 of those vehicles on the road to be electric by 2030, with more general goals for electric buses for schools and transit systems.
That’s a long road for a state where less than 1% of registered vehicles are electric. There are currently just 10 electric school buses in the state. Of the 900 buses run by Minnesota’s largest public transit agency, eight are electric.
“It’s all new territory,” said Tim Sexton, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “This is definitely going to be a learning process.”
New federal and state laws and policies aim to encourage, and in some cases, force a transition from gas-burning cars, buses and pickups. Changes are underway, but the gap between high-minded climate goals and the real world is wide, according to interviews with government and industry transportation leaders.
High costs, low supply
Many of the challenges to getting people into electric vehicles (EVs) aren’t unique to Minnesota, such as high price tags, low supply of models and range anxiety. But there are others.
Electric buses are sitting at Minnesota factories, waiting for parts. The state trade group for auto dealers is fighting Minnesota’s new clean-car standards in court. A gridlocked Legislature put critical federal dollars for electrifying transportation at risk. There’s little workforce training for mechanics to service electric vehicles. The power distribution system requires upgrades and expansions so people can plug in electric cars without overloading it, and so utilities can power vehicles with green energy.
EVs alone won’t zero out transportation’s greenhouse gases, said Kyle Shelton, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies. Other changes are needed too, he said, such as maximizing public transportation options and cutting back total vehicle miles traveled.
One of those changes, electric car sharing in the Twin Cities, is showing signs of early success.
One of Minnesota’s most immediate tasks is finding a state match to unlock $68 million from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 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, according to the state’s electric vehicle infrastructure plan.
The required 20% EV state match was a victim of the collapse of the state’s transportation bill last session amid many disagreements, including whether to dedicate 100% of auto parts sales tax dollars to roads and bridges as Senate Republicans wanted.
Sexton speculated that gas stations, a major retailer or utilities could still provide the match. For now, those federal funds are unavailable.
Xcel Energy is continuously upsizing the distribution transformers people see in their neighborhoods to avoid flickers or outages when drivers plug in an EV. The utility has avoided such problems so far, Xcel President Chris Clark said.
“That’s really the one we want to pay the most attention to,” Clark said in an interview. “As you get four to five houses that add EVs, you’ll see a change in the load in the neighborhoods.”
Adding an EV to a house “is about adding another half of their house,” 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, it wants to put $500 million toward a new 140-mile power line from Becker to the Marshall area to bring on power from several new renewable energy projects.
Players ‘caught by surprise’
Some transportation players say they are not prepared for the accelerating EV shift.
The Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis has trained generations of auto mechanics but doesn’t have a program to teach EV technicians. Stephan Reinarts, associate professor in Dunwoody’s automotive program, said he’s unaware of any technical colleges in the area that do. That training is handled in-house at dealerships with automakers, he said.
Schools such as his are waiting for Automotive Service Excellence, the national nonprofit that certifies training, to set standards for EVs, he said.
“This push for EVs is just coming on like gangbusters right now and has caught a lot of people by surprise,” Reinarts said. “It’s screaming ahead. We need vehicles to train on.”
Minnesota auto dealers, meanwhile, are fighting a key feature of DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s climate road map. The Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association has sued the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, accusing it of overreach in rulemaking to adopt the new clean-car standard. The rules, modeled on those in California, require auto dealers doing business in the state to deliver more EVs and other low-emission vehicles to sell. It takes effect in early 2024, applying to new 2025 models.
The case is at the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Not all car dealers are supportive.
“I do think the future of passenger cars will be EVs, and so I’m not clear on why we’d want to slow that down,” said Chris Gulbrandson, president of Apple Valley-based Apple Autos.
Ford Motor is splitting into separate business units, one for its internal combustion engine business and one for EVs. Dealers must choose, Gulbrandson said. He’s rolling the dice on EVs.
Sought-after models like the Ford F-150 Lighting pickup are trickling in, and EV dealers have to pay for charging equipment and to train technicians to work on high-voltage batteries. He will still sell gas cars, Gulbrandson said, but he sees the industry’s future as electric.
“If you want to be a part of that, you have to jump on board.”
Larger vehicles lag behind
Electrifying larger vehicles such as buses and medium- and heavy-duty trucks could take longer.
With less than 1% of its fleet electric, Metro Transit is supposed to have at least 20% of the 40-foot buses it purchases through 2027 be electric. But its electric rollout in 2019 was bumpy.
After about a month on the road, the first electric buses, on the C Line, were pulled from service for a few weeks, then pulled again a few months later due to chargers overheating and transformers failing at Metro Transit’s Heywood Garage in Minneapolis. They were taken out of service for a third time in March 2021 for similar issues and didn’t get back on the road until that December, after the Siemens-made chargers were replaced under warranty.
Two additional chargers at the Brooklyn Center Transit Center designed to give the C Line buses a quick boost during operation failed because of electrical issues and “system faults,” according to Metro Transit. 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 Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for 20 years and saw similar challenges there.
“Electric vehicles in the public transportation space are new,” Dake said. “And with any new product, it takes time to work through the challenges with that technology.”
Winnipeg, Manitoba-based New Flyer, a leading bus manufacturer that made Metro Transit’s electric buses, has plants in St. Cloud and Crookston. It has struggled with the microprocessing chip shortage, government filings show, and it has been “building and holding a number of vehicles in inventory.”
Matt Lelou, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7304, which represents workers at New Flyer’s Minnesota plants, said supply-chain issues have slowed operations. Production levels in St. Cloud are about half of what they were pre-COVID, he said. About a hundred partially built buses (electric and non-electric) are parked outside the St. Cloud plant, waiting for parts, “in different stages of completion,” Lelou said.
“We have a ton of orders for electric buses, but shortages of parts, chips and other components push out the schedule to finish them,” he said.
New Flyer parent NFI Group issued a statement saying New Flyer is working “extremely hard” to deal with the supply chain issues facing 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 lower-income neighborhoods. When it’s finished next year, there will be 70 Level 2 charging stations, each with four to five ports, with an additional 12 high-speed Level 3 charging ports, said Russ Stark, St. Paul’s chief resiliency officer.
The service area spans the two downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods, 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 trip of errands costs about $15, Stark said, significantly cheaper than an Uber ride. Users get a $4 credit for returning a car to a charger at the end of a trip.
Use has exceeded expectations, and the carshare is the most heavily used of the handful of such programs across the country, he said.
Paul Schroeder, head of the St. Paul nonprofit Hourcar, which operates the carshare, called the programs a model.
“Cities all over the U.S. are grappling with a fundamental problem: How do we build out this charging infrastructure without it seeming to be a kind of giveaway from the people that already benefit the most from them, which is primarily a wealthy, white audience?”
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