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Electric vehicle chargers are scarce in Twin Cities apartment and condo buildings. That may be starting to change

While EVs are becoming more popular, home charging is still rare in multifamily housing, and correcting that imbalance has increasingly become a priority for state officials, environmental groups and Xcel Energy. 

Benjamin Canine bought an electric car from Tesla more than a year ago, and he still doesn’t have a charger at the parking garage under his Minneapolis condo building. 

It’s not for lack of trying.

Canine has worked to retrofit the garage, a project he and other residents had to plan and design from scratch, while grappling with questions about the new technology: Who should pay for the installation and electricity? And how can they make building new stations easy if more people buy electric cars? 

“I would say the biggest obstacle so far has just been trying to figure out how to get started,” said Canine, who works as the vice president of Lorenz Bus Service. “None of us are electrical engineers, none of us have a background in electricity.”

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While EVs are becoming more popular in Minnesota, home charging is still rare for those who live in multifamily housing, one reason Canine has few blueprints to follow. Multifamily housing makes up about 40 percent of the Twin Cities’ housing stock, but experts say home EV chargers are more common in single-family housing. 

Correcting that imbalance has increasingly become a priority for elected officials, state regulators, Xcel Energy and environmental groups as they look to promote electric vehicles and reduce carbon emissions.

Why charging is rare

There are more than 10,000 electric or plug-in-hybrid vehicles on the road in Minnesota, the vast majority of which are owned by people in the Twin Cities metro area. Kevin Schwain, director of Xcel Energy’s electric vehicle program, said most EVs are owned by people in single-family homes.

One reason, said Russ Stark, the city of St. Paul’s Chief Resilience Officer, is that EVs often have higher up-front costs than gas-powered cars and people living in multifamily housing generally have lower incomes. It’s also easier to install a charger at a house for one or two cars than to retrofit a larger building with complex parking arrangements.

In turn, much of the government push to build EV infrastructure has focused on public chargers, single-family homes, and fleets for businesses and government. 

Recently, however, plans have emerged to support EVs in multifamily housing.

Stark said St. Paul and Minneapolis are partnering with HourCar and Xcel to install 70 EV charging “hubs” across the cities in the next couple of years for a car-share program and for public charging. The program is partially aimed at renters and others who may not have an option to charge at home, and Stark said St. Paul expects to bring charging to neighborhoods with more low-income residents and people of color, including the city’s West Side, North End, Payne-Phalen and Dayton’s Bluff.

While the chargers wouldn’t be in private parking garages, Stark said the city is considering locations near groups of older apartment buildings, particularly for those that don’t have assigned off-street parking to install EV infrastructure in. St. Paul also has a “sustainable building” ordinance that requires some new developments with public investment to have EV charging — including the new Ford site project, Stark said.

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In Minneapolis, the city’s 2040 long-range plan approved last year calls for an exploration of “incentives and requirements” that would spread EV charging at new developments and in the public.

Mary Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the state considers the lack of EV charging in multifamily housing to be an equity issue. For that reason, Robinson said the agency will prioritize clustered charging stations at “public locations, mobility hubs, workplaces and multi-unit housing” in a second round of grants paid for by Volkswagen’s legal settlement for cheating on emissions tests.

Xcel has two pilot programs for EVs, one in which the utility helps install EV chargers for owners and enrolls them in a metering program that encourages low-cost charging at night, when energy is cheaper. The utility has asked the state’s Public Utilities Commission to let Xcel expand that pilot. The other program is similar, but will offer customers a fixed price for unlimited night-time charging once it launches in 2020.

Neither project, however, is focused on multifamily housing. Schwain, Xcel’s EV coordinator, said the company has been planning a new program for charging at multifamily housing for a while and the utility planned to roll it out in coming years. In December, however, the PUC ordered Xcel to present that plan within nine months.

In its order, the PUC sided with the City of Minneapolis and environmental groups, which have prodded Xcel to address the issue quickly, saying “EV charging for multi-unit dwellings is increasingly important and timely advancements in this area are essential.”

Schwain said installing chargers for apartment buildings and condos can be complex, since there are many people involved, such as homeowners associations, landlords and residents. “The person that pays the electricity bill isn’t the person that owns the building,” he said.

While the details of the program aren’t finalized yet, Schwain said it’s a high priority to help buildings figure out the infrastructure they need now while planning for future expansion of EVs.

What’s being done now

Jukka Kukkonen, a Minnesota EV consultant, said he worked on design schemes for chargers in multifamily housing around 2012, but interest was so scarce at the time that he dropped the issue. But he has returned to the topic as residents pressure developers and real-estate owners to build charging options. 

And while many of the utility and government efforts to build support for multifamily charging are still in early stages, there are condo and apartment buildings that have built EV charging infrastructure for residents in the Twin Cities. 

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Third North Apartments in the North Loop, for instance, bought and installed five charging stations for their underground parking garage when the building was built in 2013. The chargers are now advertised as an amenity on the building’s website to attract new renters.

Kukkonen said developers and housing owners should follow suit and consider installing chargers sooner rather than later. “This is a really good way to future-proof your property,” he said. “It will be hard to sell your condo five years from now if there is no EV charging available.”

For now, Canine, the Minneapolis Tesla owner, is still trying to build chargers at his condo building with few outside resources available. There are three EV owners using the garage, but Canine said he expects more in the future. While Canine can charge at work, without a charger at home he said he and others have to frequent a speedy charger in Robbinsdale as a stopgap.

To get a final plan approved by the condo board that governs the two buildings sharing his garage, Canine hired an electrical engineer.

But Canine said his lengthy work proves there should be more help for charging in multifamily housing, where dense living provides an opportunity to spread EVs quickly. “If you can get charging in this building as opposed to one single-family home here or there you can really get a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.