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Minnesota regulators press utilities to prepare for more electric vehicles in Minnesota

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A new fast charger for electric vehicles at the U of M Morris.
A new fast charger for electric vehicles at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.
courtesy of Esther Jordan of WCROC

Minnesota's electric utilities will be required to file detailed plans next year on how they will help increase electric vehicle adoption in the state, according to a unanimous decision Thursday by the Public Utilities Commission. 

Those plans, to be filed by June 30, 2019, must include initiatives to raise awareness of public charging stations for electric vehicles and residential charging options for EV owners. The PUC says utilities have to outline ways they plan to encourage the growth of charging stations.

Utilities must also include information on how they plan to educate consumers on the benefits of EVs, and assist in the electrification of large fleets of vehicles owned by governmental agencies or businesses. 

"I think they took really bold action to spur electric vehicle growth," said Andrew Twite with renewable energy advocacy group Fresh Energy. "This is a really important framework for electrification moving forward."

The push from state utility regulators comes one year after the PUC launched an inquiry into how it could spur EV adoption throughout the state. It then invited a wide range of stakeholders, including utilities, EV manufacturers and advocates, and consumer watchdogs to participate. 

Through that process, the PUC identified two key barriers that are limiting further electric vehicle adoption in Minnesota: not enough vehicle chargers around the state; and a lack of consumer awareness about the benefits of electric vehicles. 

"The single biggest impediment to purchasing an electric vehicle across the board is the lack of charging infrastructure," Michael Krauthamer, a senior advisor to the Alliance for Transportation Electrification, told commissioners. 

Ranges of fully-charged electric vehicles are increasing, but are still less than a gas-powered car can travel on a full tank. Having chargers visible "gets [consumers] to start thinking about replacing their own vehicle" with an EV, Krauthamer said. 

But until the market ramps up, he said, it's difficult for private companies to invest in the infrastructure. That's where electric utilities can help fill the gap. 

Xcel Energy has already pitched a pilot project to the PUC, in which it would provide the electrical infrastructure for some public charging stations and for larger vehicle fleets. 

The PUC is also now requiring Minnesota Power and Otter Tail Power to file proposals for pilot projects aimed at reducing barriers to electric vehicles in their service areas in greater Minnesota. 

But Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, urged commissioners to consider ratepayers who may see higher bills as a result of investments in EV infrastructure. 

"How do you ensure ratepayers are being protected without slowing down the progress on EVs?" she asked. "How do we make sure that there are benefits going to all customers, and that we're moving forward on EVs as fast as we can."

Backers of electric vehicles say the answer is smart rate design that will help reduce costs by encouraging nighttime vehicle charging, when electric demand is low and there's an excess of wind-generated power on the electric grid. 

That could help make electricity more affordable, the PUC found, by improving utility system efficiency, while at the same time helping the state meet its climate change goals by reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions.