Climate Curious: When are electric vehicle fast chargers coming to greater Minnesota?

A new fast charger for electric vehicles at the U of M Morris.
The University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris got a new fast charger for electric vehicles two years ago.
Courtesy of Esther Jordan of WCROC

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In every tiny town across the north you can find a gas station. What can we do to make sure that in every tiny town across the north you can also charge your EV?
— Ann Burns, St. Cloud area

Ann Burns owns a Chevy Bolt, an electric vehicle that can get more than 200 miles on a charge. She can easily run errands in the St. Cloud area without needing to charge up.

"The problem for us and many others is that when we go up north to our cabin, which is at the edge of the wilderness 200 miles north of us, there is nowhere to stop midway to refuel if we need to,” she said.

Minnesota is getting there, said Tim Sexton, an assistant commissioner and chief sustainability officer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"The lack of fast chargers in greater Minnesota is a recognized need," he said, acknowledging that Burns would be cutting it close on that trip up north in her Bolt.

“You wouldn’t want to be blasting the air conditioner or have the heat cranked up too much in the winter,” he said, noting that electric vehicles often get lower mileage under those circumstances.

Sexton said state officials, cities, nonprofits and businesses are working on bringing more charging stations to the state. And that’s important because total carbon emissions from transportation have now surpassed electricity emissions in Minnesota as leaders look to reduce heat-trapping gases and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Minnesota isn’t meeting goals it set back in 2007 to reduce carbon emissions from all sectors of the state’s economy. Transitioning to electric vehicles — and powering those vehicles with renewable energy — is seen as one way to get the state back on track.

But a lot of Minnesotans would feel more comfortable about making the switch if they knew they could take long-distance trips across the state and be able to charge up from origin to destination.

The most common chargers around the state, known as Level 2 chargers, can take several hours to power up an electric vehicle. (You can find a map of both slow and fast chargers at plugshare.com.)

That’s why fast chargers, Sexton said, are key around the state — and particularly outside the Twin Cities — because people typically want to stop for less than an hour when they're on a road trip.

"Thirty, 45 minutes, let's say, to charge: That's enough time to sit down, have a cup of soup or a sandwich,” he said.

But fast chargers are expensive, and cost roughly $60,000 to $80,000 for a public charging station. Sexton says MnDOT won't likely be buying and maintaining these types of charging stations across the state.

"That's not what we do well,” he said. "We see our role as helping facilitate that through permitting, through partnerships." In one such effort, MnDOT launched a pilot program that gives new EV owners MnPASS toll credits.

Some state money is going into building new electric vehicle charging stations, as part of the $47 million Minnesota received through the settlement with Volkswagen over its emissions scandal.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency plans to spend at least $5 million on electric vehicle charging stations. Twenty-two fast chargers have already been approved so far for cities like Grand Rapids, Detroit Lakes and Bemidji.

While that’s good news for the communities where the chargers will be established, Diana McKeown of the Great Plains Institute said other cities along less-traveled corridors might have to get more creative in financing electric vehicle infrastructure.

"It costs money. And you don't make that money back on charging for the electricity. It's not an investment," said McKeown, who also leads the Twin Cities metro-based Clean Energy Resource Teams, an organization that provides grant money for clean energy projects, including electric vehicle infrastructure.

Even if communities can’t get a direct return on their investment in charging stations, McKeown said some Minnesota cities see them as a different type of opportunity. For example, could a city lure EV-driving tourists off the highway and into the community by offering up free charging?

The city of Red Wing is already testing that theory, having installed a fast charger last year. Local businesses are paying for the electricity. In return, those businesses have their names on a sign next to the charger.

“There are cities all across the state — small, big, urban, rural — that are interested that are interested in electric vehicles and infrastructure,” McKeown said.

In Red Wing’s case, McKeown said the city is also asking EV owners to enter their ZIP codes, so the city can get a better sense of who is using the charger — and see whether the tourism theory holds.

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