Electric car sales pitch heads to northern Minnesota to drive up interest

Two men talk through an open car door
Dennis Erickson gets instruction from Paul Blomquist before test driving an electric car at an educational event about electric vehicles in Roseau, Minn., on Wednesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

A coalition of groups that support expanded electric vehicle use is making a sales pitch to northern Minnesota residents this week with public events in Bemidji, Roseau and Duluth.

More than 150 people turned out in Roseau, expressing curiosity, and some skepticism. People were waiting to test drive electric vehicles a half hour before the event started.

"Got my ticket to ride. I'm supposed to be first in line to drive this one," said 68-year-old Dennis Erickson.

While he waited to drive the Ford Mustang Mach E, Erickson described himself as an electric vehicle skeptic.

"Up here in the north, winter driving ... and the [lack of] charging stations, and how much money are you actually saving?” he said.

"I don't know. I guess I'm kind of questioning whether or not it's a good deal.”

That’s a common response, according to Jukka Kukkonen, owner of St. Paul-based Shift2Electric.

"That skepticism comes from something new that they haven't experienced yet," said Kukkonen, who travels as an electric vehicle educator, and has been at several events in rural communities recently.

Men talk near a car
Ford dealer Paul Blomquist answers questions at an educational event about electric vehicles in Roseau on Wednesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

He’s also seen doubt quickly change to acceptance.

"When they get to test drive it, when they hear their neighbor actually starts driving one, they're like, ‘Oh boy, it actually seems to be working,’ then things start to change," said Kukkonen.

Batteries lose some power in cold weather, but newer lithium battery technology handles freezing temperatures much better than earlier vehicles, said Kukkonen, and gas-powered vehicles are also less efficient in winter. Vehicle charging stations are being constructed across the state, but Kukkonen said most vehicle charging happens at home, so access to charging stations is less of a concern than most people think.

As Erickson settles into the driver’s seat, local Ford dealer Paul Blomquist jokingly tells him to rev the engine, “so you hear all that engine noise.”

The loudest noise is the tires crunching the dry grass as Erickson drives away.

Blomquist owns two Ford dealerships, one in Roseau and another 60 miles west in Hallock.

He counted himself among the electric vehicle skeptics until a couple of years ago.

"That ‘aha!’ moment that I had was listening to Ford leadership saying where they're heading.”

“All of us need to get on board sooner than later if we're going to really thrive in this environment," said Blomquist.

Blomquist admits he gets some pushback for advocating electric vehicles in a conservative part of the state. Donald Trump won 72 percent of votes in Roseau County in 2020.

cars painted to promote electric vehicles
Cars promoting electric powered vehicles at an educational event about electric vehicles in Roseau.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“There's no question it gets politicized. You know, if you drive an electric vehicle, you're a tree hugger. And I respect that. I understand why people say that, because I think 10 years ago, electric vehicle range was 100 miles, it was impractical in northern climates. But we're beyond that early adoption phase,” he said.

Blomquist believes despite politics, many of his customers are pragmatic. Most of the vehicles he sells are pickup trucks or SUVs. So far he’s taken 59 reservations for the new Ford electric F-150 truck.

"A local farmer who made a reservation on one drives 65,000 miles a year. That's a lot, isn't it? His average miles is roughly 200 miles a day. He'll never have to go to a gas station," said Blomquist.

Steve Yanok hasn't reserved an electric truck yet, but he's seriously considering it. Yanok is a sportsman and hunter and lives near the Beltrami Island State Forest south of Warroad. A truck is essential transportation, and an electric truck means freedom.

"It's something that you can do at home. I don't have to depend on power and a gas station. I can get a solar setup and I can charge my own vehicle. I don't have to depend on anybody," Yanok said.

His hesitation in buying an electric vehicle is mostly the cost, and the fact he recently upgraded to a newer combustion engine truck. Electric vehicles tend to cost more, but Blomquist said government rebates and the lower cost of operation make the vehicles cost competitive.

two men talk in an all terrain vehicle
Jeff Zeman from Custer, S.D., gets instructions from Dennis Sabourin with Polaris, before test driving an electric utility vehicle at an event in Roseau.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Dennis Erickson returned from his test drive in the Mustang with a big smile on his face.

"Lots of pep and speed, and [it] handled really nice and smooth, and didn't get the muffler noise of course," he said with a chuckle.

Erickson allows that maybe he'll buy an electric vehicle — someday, when prices come down.

Jeremy Lindemann believes that the majority of his neighbors will be driving electric vehicles in 10 years.

"We're kind of preparing for that future of everyone owning an EV,” said Lindemann, the member services director for Roseau Electric Cooperative.

He's signed up to get one of the new electric Ford trucks for his 18-mile commute to work. He said the utility is planning to update the power grid to support more vehicle charging, and gives off-peak electricity rates to people who charge vehicles overnight.

"You know our charging rates, they're equivalent to $1 a gallon of gasoline, so there's some economic savings, too, with that EV, so I think that'll win a lot of people over as well," he said.

Lindemann admitted he was a little worried only a handful of people would show up for the electric vehicle event.

Seeing more than 150 people checking out the vehicles and asking questions boosted his confidence that electric vehicles have a big future in northern Minnesota.

Blomquist, the Ford dealer, shares that optimism, but also sees challenges. Will enough rural auto dealers support electric vehicle sales? Will automakers be able to build vehicles fast enough to meet demand, given current supply chain disruptions? And will people set aside their skepticism to buy an electric vehicle?

“It's not for everyone,” said Blomquist. “But I think it's for a majority of people in this neck of the woods.”

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