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Market forces, not mandates, should guide Minnesota’s electric vehicle future

Getting more electric vehicles on the roads of Minnesota is a laudable goal, but there are serious hurdles and complicated realities the state’s leaders must first face.

Last September, Gov. Tim Walz announced his administration intended to adopt California’s standards for low-emission vehicles and zero-emission vehicles.
Last September, Gov. Tim Walz announced his administration intended to adopt California’s standards for low-emission vehicles and zero-emission vehicles.
REUTERS/William DeShazer

When it comes to addressing the risk of climate change, electric vehicles certainly have a role to play. Rightfully, we should be using all of the tools in our arsenal to reduce emissions, but we also must acknowledge when those tools have limitations and consequences as a result of erecting enforcement policies before we are ready.

At the moment, Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) are advancing a rule that would require Minnesotan’s vehicles to completely conform to the emissions standards established by California regulators. The reason: Walz wants Minnesota to take a leading role in addressing climate change, and electric vehicles can certainly help limit emissions from the transportation sector.

Serious hurdles, complicated realities

Getting more electric vehicles on the roads of Minnesota is a laudable goal, but there are serious hurdles and complicated realities Minnesota’s leaders must first face.

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For starters, adequate charging infrastructure for electric vehicles simply doesn’t exist yet across Minnesota. California, ground zero for electric vehicles, has led the nation in the buildout of public charging stations, but many states have lagged behind: Minnesota included. A recent study from Pew shows Minnesota with only 776 charging stations statewide. Without a dramatic increase in the installation of new public, private, and workplace charging stations, Minnesotans – especially farmers and other residents in rural areas – will struggle to access charging infrastructure needed to use electric vehicles in any practical way.

Moreover, the economic slowdown as a result of COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the auto industry, stagnating sales in EVs. However, prior to the pandemic, EV sales in the United States had already been slowing, with annual growth decreasing from 80 percent in 2018 to 12 percent in 2019 per a recent McKinsey report. According to the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association, the state’s sales of EVs have never exceeded 1.5%, with Minnesota dealers selling only 2,000 electric vehicles annually.

One of the biggest reasons is owning an electric vehicle isn’t cheap. Battery-powered electric vehicles cost on average $13,000 more than traditional internal-combustion engine cars and require home charging. Another upfront cost to consider is at home charging. About two-thirds of electric vehicle owners said they wouldn’t have bought a EV unless they had the ability to charge at home.

So with a weak market and lack of infrastructure, what will happen? If passed, automakers would be forced to ship more zero-emissions vehicles to Minnesota regardless of actual demand. One press report says that would mean more than 18,000 electric vehicles dropped annually onto Minnesota car lots, when only 5% of Minnesotans say they are very likely to consider an electric vehicle when car buying.

Environmental realities

There are also realities to face on the environmental front, especially when it comes to the contributions that transitioning personal EVs will actually have on climate change. While the EV itself produces no greenhouse gas emissions, the electricity they run on and the energy used to manufacture it – in particular the battery – is still produced and reliant on fossil fuels. Carbon-free transportation will require a carbon-free grid. Also, until batteries can be recycled, battery disposal will remain an issue similar to nuclear waste storage.

Michael K. Dorsey
Michael K. Dorsey

For context, in 2016 the International Energy Agency estimated that even if 50% of all new cars were electric, petroleum use would still continue to grow because of fossil fuel use from the larger automotive fleet like trucks and airplanes which represent a large piece of the picture and that we don’t currently have solutions for. Our priority should not be mandating EVs; it should be making gasoline vehicles more fuel-efficient and supporting the lower-carbon vehicle technologies out there like hydrogen-fuel cells and biofuels.

Market-oriented solutions

Instead of trying to force consumer behavior, Walz should allow electric vehicles to compete on their own right, recognizing the significant limitations that exist to electric vehicles in rural Minnesota. It makes more sense to work with Minnesota stakeholders to find market-oriented solutions. That approach would avoid picking winners and losers and would also avoid amplifying the inequity, affordability, and access issues that already exist in lower income communities.

I think we can all recognize the future importance of electrification. With the Biden administration already announcing it will tighten both emissions and fuel economy standards, it would be wise to wait until the Biden administration acts. That path gives Minnesota’s elected leaders a chance to take a measured, thoughtful approach to adequately structure a successful EV rollout rather than tying itself to California and allowing leaders in that state to set the course for Minnesota consumers. Allowing the market and justice based regulations to solve the serious hurdles that exist to electric vehicle adoption are key principles that will benefit Minnesotans.

Michael K. Dorsey is a partner and co-founder of IberSun Solar, treasurer for the Sunrise Movement, and former Sierra Club board member.

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