Minnesota’s ambitious EV dreams still need a charge

Published 7:40 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2023

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By Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio News

A daily commute in an electric vehicle generates no worries about fueling up, but road tripping across the state can be an anxiety-inducing experience.

Most charging of EVs is done at home. But to give consumers the confidence to switch to electric, the state needs an expansive network of roadside chargers.

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Despite efforts in recent years to build charging stations, there are still long stretches in the state with few or no options to power up. That leaves many would-be EV buyers with what’s known as range anxiety.

“There is such a thing as range anxiety and is the charging station that you’re pulling up to going to work,” said electric vehicle owner and early adopter Mark Andersen. “I’ve done a tour around the state of Minnesota in the Chevy Bolt, and found that about a third of the stations were having issues.”

Most of the charging station problems he encountered were resolved with a call to the company to reboot software or make other adjustments remotely.

Electric vehicle adoption has been slow in Minnesota, in part because of limited vehicle supply early on. The number of EVs available has recently improved. But there’s also skepticism about the infrastructure to support the vehicles.

By 2030, the state wants 20 percent of light duty vehicles to be electric, and that will require thousands of new vehicle charging stations.

“We project a need for about 8,300 public fast charging ports statewide by 2030 to meet Minnesota’s goal,” said Nadia El Mallakh, vice president of clean transportation and strategic partnerships at Xcel Energy. “And of course, like any infrastructure projects, there’s permitting, there’s finding the ideal locations. So these can take months and at times years to build.”

Xcel had proposed building more than 700 charging stations across the state but withdrew the plan in June after the Minnesota Public Utility Commission reduced a proposed Xcel rate increase. The move prompted a sharp rebuke from PUC commissioners who oversee public utility infrastructure projects.

Data as of July this year shows EVs now make up nearly 0.6 percent of light duty vehicles on the road. There are about 41,000 fully electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles registered in the state.

Reaching the 20 percent goal by 2030 would mean at least 600,000 to 700,000 more EVs on the road, said Moaz Uddin, an electric vehicle policy specialist at the Great Plains Institute, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy solutions.

“And to support those vehicles, our charging infrastructure has to go way beyond what we have right now,” he said.

Charging network is critical

Projections for future charging infrastructure needs can vary widely depending on who does the analysis.

Minnesota now has about 1,290 level two chargers, which can charge a vehicle battery over several hours. Uddin estimates the state will need 28,000 by 2030.

Level three, or DC fast chargers, are what most drivers seek on the road. They can deliver a charge in as little as 20 minutes. There are now about 350 in the state and Uddin estimates 2,400 will be needed by 2030.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation declined to provide an estimate of how many chargers will be needed, saying it will do a “gap analysis” in the next two years.

To build out that network of charging stations across the state or wait for the electric vehicle adoption rate to grow is the proverbial chicken and egg question.

“I absolutely believe the charging network has to be in place,” said Brian Timerson, who leads EV charging development for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “People are not going to buy vehicles if they don’t think they can get around the state with them.”

Timerson oversees $47 million in funding from a federal settlement with car maker Volkswagen after the company was caught cheating on emissions standards. MPCA is allowed to spend 15 percent of that money on EV charging infrastructure, which is about $7 million.

Starting in 2019,  MPCA developed about 1,100 miles of EV charging corridors in heavily traveled areas of the state. Phase two of the initiative is now underway and will add about 2,500 additional miles of charging corridors.

There are already growing pains with the existing charger network. Complaints about broken charging stations are common in EV owner online groups.

Reliability has been an issue as charging networks are rapidly built by an industry still learning how much upkeep and repair fast chargers require, said ZEF Energy chief development officer Megan Hoye. The Minneapolis-based company has contracts to build several charging networks in Minnesota.

“If we could snap our fingers, it would be at 100 percent uptime tomorrow,” Hoye said. “We want that. I’m an electric vehicle driver, I want that.”

Supply chain issues delay parts and sometimes take fast charging stations offline for weeks or months, said Hoye.

Many owners of EVs now on the road are early adopters. They’re willing to put up with planning, inconvenience and growing pains as infrastructure develops.

“As we move from these early adopters of electric vehicles to more mainstream buyers, this is going to be seen as something that’s unacceptable and could actually hurt the further adoption of electric vehicles,” said Uddin. “So this is a huge concern.”

The MPCA Volkswagen settlement is one of two major funding sources for Minnesota’s EV public plug-in network. A second is the $68 million infusion of federal funds from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

MnDOT will use that money over the next five years, first building charging corridors along Interstate 94 from Wisconsin to North Dakota and Interstate 35 from Iowa to Duluth before expanding to other highways.

There are also federal grants available for states, local governments and tribes to build EV infrastructure. The application process for that funding closed in June.

Private investment in charging stations is also expected to increase as demand grows, but experts say much of the private investment has happened in states with higher population density and greater EV adoption.

Automaker Tesla has built a robust network of chargers designed for its vehicles. Some gas stations and grocery stores are installing chargers, as are some utilities and cities.

It’s a rapidly evolving, fragmented system that can make it difficult to even track what’s happening. There are multiple phone apps and websites to locate charging stations.

“I think it could be another five years before things start to settle down,” said Beth Kallestad, MnDOT principal sustainability director. “We’re trying to figure out what the best approach to this is going to be.”

There’s currently little regulation of the charging industry, said Kallestad. The message from consumers is that they want the fastest EV charging possible.

“You know, the biggest challenge is that everybody wants an experience similar to fueling a car with gasoline,” she said. “Electric vehicles are just a different type of vehicle. And they’re getting better and faster in terms of charging. But it’s more than just a fuel shift. It’s a behavior change.”

As more electric vehicles hit the road, changing demand will require a responsive and constantly evolving network of chargers.

Respondents to a recent MnDOT survey ranked expansion of EV charging networks in rural areas as a top need. It will be important to sustain EV infrastructure expansion beyond the federal dollars now fueling much of the activity, said state officials.

“It’s going to really annoy people if they see a charger that’s overused or that’s always full and we don’t have enough money or the speed to get a charger to that location,” said Brian Timerson. “It’s going to be very frustrating for people if there’s a really popular charger and they notify MnDOT or the PCA and we say ‘yes, in two years we’re going to put another charger in there.’”

Pressure on the grid

Many public utilities, rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric providers promote off peak rates for home EV charging done at night during low demand times, and that’s when most charging is done according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Not only is it convenient to charge overnight, but it’s very important from an electrical infrastructure standpoint that we send the right signals to get people to do charging overnight,” said Minnesota Rural Electric Association President and CEO Darrick Moe.

“Each electric vehicle in a household can add something like a 40 percent electricity use to that household,” added Moe. “So, as we make this transition of transportation to clean electricity, we need to make sure that that 40 percent is coming not at times when the load is already at its peak.”

As the anticipated thousands of new EVs roll out over the next few years, Moe says utilities will be scrambling to expand the large transmission lines that move electricity from generation sites and the smaller distribution lines that carry electricity to homes.

Utilities analyze electric meter data and track EV adoption within their systems to help plan for future demand.

“System planning is key and the ability to proactively support the grid is going to be needed here,” said El Mallakh. “Because you can’t wait until everybody has their cars or wait until 2030 to say, ‘Okay, let’s start working on this.’”

El Mallakh calls the transition to electric vehicles a once in a lifetime transformation and likens it to the advent of air conditioning in terms of challenges for the electric grid.

EV charging is still a small portion of demand. Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility with about 1.3 million customers, has about 2,200 customers enrolled in a program where the utility provides level two charging stations at the customer’s home.

With off-peak rates, EV charging at home costs the equivalent of $1 per gallon for fuel according to Xcel. Utilities also play a key role in building out the public charging infrastructure. The fast chargers sought after by electric vehicle drivers are creating ever larger electric demand.

While the challenges are huge, Minnesota EV owners have stayed enthusiastic — and evangelistic.

Jonny Yucuis of Rochester bought his first EV in 2018 and now has two. They are his family’s only mode of transportation. He also started a group to promote EV use in Rochester and said people have different reasons for considering the switch to electric.

“For me, personally it was definitely the environmental side. Some people really like the fact that it’s really low maintenance, really low cost for fueling,” he said. “I think it’s going to become harder and harder to ignore it as a viable option for people especially as the range continues to increase and the charging speed continues to increase.”

Polly and Mark Andersen were early EV adopters. In the Minneapolis suburbs, the Wayzata couple are all in on electric vehicles and have started a nonprofit group to encourage more EV adoption in west central Minnesota where Polly grew up.

But they acknowledge the mindset shift driving an EV requires.

The Andersens were recently in Detroit Lakes, about an hour east of Moorhead, planning an electric vehicle event to let residents see and drive EVs. Polly hopes such events will break down what she calls a high level of skepticism about electric vehicles in rural areas.

She still experiences some range anxiety driving outside of the Twin Cities. But at home, the EV charging is done in the garage.

“The joy of driving past a gas station,” she said. “Being able to plug in when I get home at night. There’s just no comparison to how wonderful that is.”