Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jul-Aug 2018 issue

Cities Get Charged Up About Electric Vehicles

By Mary Jane Smetanka

City officials in St. Louis Park, Warren, Edina, Elk River, Pine City, and Red Wing all worry about local issues like street repairs, taxes, and water services. But they also believe that part of their responsibility to residents is to do their bit to try to save the earth, and maybe bring a little more commerce to town while they do so.

They are among the Minnesota cities working to add environmentally friendly electric vehicles (EVs) and EV charging stations to their communities. Interest is surging as the technology improves, costs drop, and the economic benefits of embracing the technology become apparent, says Brian Ross, senior program director at the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works to transform energy systems.

Cities play a big role

With electric utilities creating more of their power from green sources like wind and solar energy, gas-powered vehicles are now the top emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S. Ross says that puts the issue squarely in the lap of city officials.

“Cities have a much bigger role to play here because so many of those transportation questions are handled locally,” he says. “There are three ways to reduce emissions, all of which take place at the local level: using more efficient vehicles, enabling other modes of transport like bikes or transit or walking, or switching to low- or no-carbon fuels.”

This year, 25 Minnesota cities big and small are exploring EV readiness as part of the program Cities Charging Ahead! The group, which is about twice as big as expected, is taking part in educational webinars, analyzing their city fleets to see if EVs make sense for them, and exploring whether it’s viable to add EV charging stations.

“There’s a thirst for knowledge,” says Diana McKeown, who coordinates the program through the metro region Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), based at the Great Plains Institute. “Cities like being seen as leaders and being forward thinking, and they know that saving money is a benefit.”

One of the big arguments in favor of EVs is that, though the vehicles initially can be expensive, over time EVs are much cheaper to run than conventional vehicles. McKeown says that an EV will cost thousands of dollars less over its lifetime because fuel and maintenance are so much cheaper.

EVs help meet environmental goals

While hybrid vehicles are not uncommon among city fleets, Edina and St. Louis Park are among a handful of Minnesota cities that own all-electric vehicles. Both have a Nissan Leaf.

Purchase of the cars fit with the two cities’ aggressive environmental goals. Edina wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2025. And the climate action plan adopted by St. Louis Park includes a goal to reduce vehicle emissions by 25 percent by 2030.

Both cities analyzed fleet use and found that people generally didn’t drive as many miles per week as they thought they did. Most EVs now have a driving range of more than 100 miles on a full charge, and a few models can go more than 200 miles.

In Edina, the Leaf, which was purchased in 2013, is used by the Engineering Department, which had been using a gas-gobbling truck to get to community meetings and other events even though a big vehicle wasn’t needed. “Why not try the electric vehicle?” says Tara Brown, Edina’s sustainability coordinator. “We have an indoor parking garage, which makes it easy to charge and care for the vehicle. Since it’s doing mostly city driving, we found that range was not a limiting factor.”

Residents have noticed the Leaf, which carries the city logo, and ask about it, Brown says. “People get pretty excited to see these around,” she says. “We want them to have confidence that we are making good choices for the environment and for our residents.”

St. Louis Park got its Leaf in 2016. The car was intended as a pool vehicle, but it wasn’t being used much, so it was assigned to a full-time inspector, says Shannon Pinc, city environmental and sustainability coordinator. “We wanted to make sure it was getting used,” Pinc says. “Mindfulness is part of our policies.”

Committed to energy-efficiency

Elk River also studied fleet use and found it was rare for anyone to drive more than 40 miles per day. The city is selling two old vehicles and has a three-year lease on a hybrid electrical SUV, the Mitsubishi Outlander, that has a 1,500-pound towing capacity.

“We wanted a size comparable to other city vehicles, because everyone is used to driving trucks,” says Amanda Bednar, Elk River’s environmental coordinator. “Everyone really likes it. It’s a good size and there’s no learning curve.”

Elk River usually buys its vehicles, but the lease seemed wise when the technology is changing so fast, Bednar says. The city-owned municipal utility also has an electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Bolt.

The Bolt has a wrap clearly identifying it as an electric car and an Elk River Municipal Utilities vehicle. The city is planning to put a similar wrap on the Outlander. “We want to advertise to our residents that we’re not just driving this for fun, that we are committed to being energy-efficient and to trying new technologies,” she says.

While most people with EVs charge them overnight at home, Elk River’s utility installed two high-powered public charging stations that can be used by visitors as well as residents. Tom Sagstetter, conservation and key accounts manager for Elk River Municipal Utilities, says the utility wanted to build confidence in the technology and draw passersby into town. The utility got a $40,000 grant to install two EV chargers, one downtown and one in a grocery store parking lot.

EV owners pay to use the chargers to help offset the cost of maintaining them, Sagstetter says. “Had we not gotten the grant, we probably wouldn’t have done it,” he says. “This is a strategic long-term initiative to focus on sustainability.”

Economic tool

The realization that EV chargers can be an economic tool for cities came early to Pine City, where years ago city officials encouraged a private charging network provider to install a charging station just off the freeway near the city’s business district. The city wanted environmentally friendly policies, but also wanted to draw travelers to local restaurants and businesses.

“It’s been an asset for the community,” says Ken Cammilleri, Pine City’s city administrator. “It’s near four restaurants and a thrift shop and people stop to charge their cars and go into town. It’s worked out well.”

Already, a chain of EV charging stations lines the I-35 corridor from the Twin Cities to Duluth. That caught the eye of city officials in scenic Red Wing. The city recently decided to add a charging station to a public parking ramp “in time for leaf season,” City Councilmember Evan Brown says.

“We watched as that Duluth tourist corridor got built up,” he says. “We are right on Highway 61 along the river. EV tourists are high-dollar tourists, with higher-than-average disposable income.”

The city will promote the charging station through the local chamber and visitor and convention bureau, the city website, social media, and apps that help EV owners locate charging stations.

A $2,000 CERTs grant will help pay for the roughly $10,000 cost, with the balance coming from the city’s public works budget. The high-powered charger can be used by two cars at once.

Red Wing has been a leader in adopting solar energy and now is directing its environmental efforts to the issue of transportation, Brown says. He was cheered by public enthusiasm for a city Earth Day EV car show. “It was incredible,” he says. “People are starting to get it, they’re starting to come around.”

Instead of investing in more hybrid vehicles for its fleet, Red Wing officials may wait until EVs with all-wheel drive are available. “We think those vehicles are not that far off,” Brown says.

Opportunity in Warren

On charging station maps, one yawning hole is in northwestern Minnesota. Warren, the 1,600-resident seat of Marshall County, sees that as an opportunity. Three years ago, Warren was chosen as a Climate Smart City and developed a partnership with a city in Germany. Warren City Administrator Shannon Mortenson says her two visits there were eye-opening.

“It changed the thought process up here,” she says. She bought an EV for herself, and thinks that’s “a good economic decision and a good environmental decision.” Though some doubters thought the long Warren winter would be too cold for her EV, Mortenson says she proved them wrong by making it to work every day.

But for a recent trip to St. Cloud, she couldn’t drive her EV because of a lack of charging stations along the way. Right now, the nearest one is in Bemidji, 120 miles away.

She thinks Warren, at the crossing of two major highways and on the route to Canada, is a natural spot for a public charging station. More than 500 people commute to the city each day to work at the county courthouse, a hospital, and other businesses, and 400 city residents commute elsewhere.

“If you have chargers available, people are going to be more curious about EVs,” Mortenson says, “and if chargers are here, people are going to stop and have lunch and visit retail stores. If you have to sit for a couple of hours, you’re going to buy something.”

Cities seeking help from retailers, developers

In the metro area, cities aren’t rushing to add charging stations. Some grocery and big-box stores recently have begun voluntarily adding high-powered EV chargers when they build new projects. St. Louis Park is looking at ways to encourage that trend, but the city doesn’t want to duplicate efforts that are already going on, Pinc says.

She says city staff are considering how to make it more attractive for developers and others to expand EV charging in the community. Some developers already see charging stations as an asset.

“This is the way things are going,” Pinc says. “When I talk to people, it seems like a lot of developers expect to hear about this.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

Read the July-Aug 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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