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No more ‘range anxiety’? How the MPCA, companies hope to allay a nagging concern about electric cars

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will fund the installation of as many as 38 “fast-charging” stations across the state – from Fairmont in the south to Warroad on the Canadian border.

New charging stations will expand Minnesota’s “EV highway corridor” by some 2,500 miles.
As the push for electric cars continues, with policymakers counting on their increasing use to curb greenhouse gas emissions, one question continues to bedevil would-be electric-vehicle drivers: “How far can I drive before I need a charge?”

Late last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency took a step toward alleviating that concern by announcing that it will fund the installation of as many as 38 so-called “fast-charging” stations across the state – from Fairmont in the far south to Warroad on the Canadian border.

The new stations will expand the state’s “EV highway corridor” by some 2,500 miles, the agency said.  That’s in addition to about 1,100 corridor miles that have been developed since 2018, when the agency provided grants for 22 charging stations in the first of three planned phases of development.

In an interview with MinnPost, Rebecca Place, the MPCA’s electric vehicle coordinator, characterized the existing charging network as “kind of minimally viable right now” and said the new stations – to be installed over the next three years – will help the agency identify charging needs and plan for more stations.

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In Phase II, “we want to address that ‘range anxiety’ that people might have,” she said, using the catchphrase that describes driver worries about the distance they can travel before they have to look for a charging station.  “People need to know that they can charge (their cars), and we also want to incentivize them to buy electric vehicles,” she said.

Companies will have until November to apply for the funds.

One million EVs

According to a 2019 sustainability report issued by the state Department of Transportation, the number of electric vehicle registrations in Minnesota increased by 37% from 2018 to 2019 – to a total of 12,750. The report calls for 20 percent of the passenger cars and trucks traveling the state’s roads to be electric models by 2030, meaning another million would have to be purchased over the next decade.

Rebecca Place
Rebecca Place
To fund the $2.7 million initiative, the MPCA is using money from the state’s share of the so-called Volkswagen settlement – a $2.9 billion settlement that the federal government reached in 2016 with Volkswagen over the German carmaker’s violation of emissions standards. Public sentiment, based on meetings and written comments to the MPCA, supports the use of those funds for electric vehicle infrastructure, Place said.

Phase I led to the installation of 25 charging stations in several cities, including Albert Lea, Duluth, Bemidji, Moorhead and Marshall. Phase II will add stations – placed 30 to 70 miles apart – along seven corridors, including: Duluth to Grand Portage on the North Shore of Lake Superior; Ely to Thief River Falls on Minnesota Highway 1; Granite Falls to Karlstad on U.S. Highway 59; and St. Cloud to Pipestone on Minnesota Highway 23.

The MPCA’s Phase II map can be seen here.

The agency said the stations must be located one or two miles from a corridor highway and near commercial areas since the average charging time for an electric vehicle is about 20 minutes. The idea is to give people a chance to shop or buy something to eat while they are waiting for their cars to charge.

Stations built with Phase I funding are located near a variety of stores, including Tall Grass Liquor in Marshall and Fresh Thyme Market in Rochester.

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Many developers

Skeptics point to the very specifics of the MPCA plan as reasons to question the viability of the electric vehicle movement.

Isaac Orr, a policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank based in Golden Valley, said the cost of a single fast-charging charging station – estimated at $50,000, if not more – should raise a red flag.

He also said carmakers have yet to solve the convenience gap between electric vehicles and traditional models, making the state’s 2030 electric-vehicle goals unrealistic. The strategic placement of chargers won’t fix that, he added. “Who wants to sit around a gas station for 30 minutes?” Orr said.  “The beauty of a gas station is that you can get in quick, get gas and get something to eat and head out.”

Map of EV fast charging station corridor groups
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Map of EV fast charging station corridor groups
Nonetheless, a mix of electric utilities, companies and government agencies continue to build the state’s framework for charging capacity. Earlier this week, for instance, Xcel Energy – in a filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission related to COVID-19 economic recovery efforts – pledged to invest $5 million in charging stations in regions where its customers are located. (Xcel also recently announced plans to provide rebates for customers who buy electric vehicles).

The utility will provide developers with infrastructure – ensuring that enough power can be delivered to each station, for instance – said Kevin Schwain, Xcel’s director of transportation electrification. The company hopes to invest in 21 stations; while their precise locations, and whether any might include MPCA-funded projects, have yet to be determined. Most of them will likely be in the southern half of the state.

Schwain characterized the Xcel program as a “complement” to the MPCA initiative. The company may end up owning some stations, too, though he added: “Our aspiration at this point is to get Minnesota to an electric vehicle future, and addressing range anxiety is a big part of that.”

Evolving technology

Drivers charge their electric vehicles in three ways: through standard outlets at home, which can take all night; at stronger outlets in public places like schools or parking garages, which can take a few hours; and with fast chargers.

The companies involved with charging-station technology are diverse, said Megan Hoye, the director of business development and policy for ZEF Energy, a Minnesota-based company that installed charging stations during the first phase of the MPCA program.

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Some of them both design and build charging stations and also invest in their installation. Others, Hoye said, solely manufacture stations, while still others develop computer software for so-called “smart stations,” which are designed to more efficiently distribute electricity.

ZEF plans to apply for the Phase II grants and expects other emerging companies to do so as well.

A fast charging station shown at the Savage Goodwill store.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
A fast charging station shown at the Savage Goodwill store.
As for “range anxiety,” Hoye said Minnesota’s charging corridor has evolved enough already that that concern might be more psychological than anything; the added miles should only bolster drivers’ confidence. “If you want to travel across southern Minnesota, or travel east to west, or along the eastern side of the state, there’s a decent-enough fast-charging infrastructure that you could do it,” Hoye said. “It’s a decent network.”

Moreover, she said, technology has extended the life of EV batteries so that cars that could travel 150 miles with a full battery just a few years ago can now cover as many as 300 miles. “That starts to open things up,” she said.  She added a caveat: Minnesota’s frigid winter weather, which can restrict a battery’s range.