Transportation

Hennepin County, Minn., Commits to Boosting Electric Fleet

The county is taking cues from state government's electric car program, which already has several hundred hybrid vehicles in use.

by David Chanen, Star Tribune / January 23, 2019
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) — After taking baby steps to convert its employee vehicle fleet to electric over the past year, Hennepin County, Minn., officials have now committed to eliminate all of its gas-fueled cars.

The county's move is the latest by public and private organizations in Minnesota to create a green fleet. The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Metro Transit and the car-sharing business Hourcar are deep into the process of switching to electric vehicles.

County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene is leading Hennepin's initiative, which could save the county an estimated $300,000 in short-term fuel costs and vehicle maintenance. The county owns two electric cars in its fleet of 144 sedans.

The conversion could be slowed by the limited availability of electric cars in the Midwest market and the scarcity of charging stations, among other concerns, she said.

Despite these obstacles, the state government and Xcel Energy have been leaders in the electric car movement. Xcel is supplying $4 million to help Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hourcar get their electric car programs off the ground.

Before deciding to go electric, Hennepin County hired the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment to analyze the county's transportation needs and examine best practices in other cities. The institute concluded that the county could speed up its transition to electric vehicles by shrinking its fleet and stepping up car-sharing. County employees were driving each vehicle an average of 6,000 miles a year, well below the national average.

The $25,000 study recommended that the county replace any sedans older than five years with an electric car and look into how to convert larger passenger vehicles, light-duty trucks and sport utility vehicles to electric or hybrid models. A second phase will research infrastructure needs, electric vehicle options and internal county changes to better manage the fleet, said Jeff Standish, the Institute's manager of corporate sustainability.

"Beyond the financial benefits, electric cars play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Hennepin County has two battery-electric cars and 16 hybrid-electric vehicles. By 2020, officials want to replace 28 gas-fueled cars with 14 electric vehicles, saving the county $314,000, said Jay Baldwin, the county's senior administrative manager of fleet services. The gas vehicles, which don't include diesel or first-responder vehicles, are on a 5- to 8-year replacement schedule.

The county is taking cues from state government's electric car program, which already has several hundred hybrid vehicles in use. The gas vehicles are a national certified Green Fleet, which means they get higher miles per gallon and have low emissions. The state owns about 7,100 light vehicles, 20 percent of which will be converted to electric by 2027, said Curtis Yoakum, assistant commissioner with the Department of Administration. He wants 80 percent of the fleet to be electric by 2050, if not sooner.

The conversion would go faster if manufacturers would change their practice of sending most electric cars to the coasts, and if more charging infrastructure is built for the outstate fleet, he said. The state has 73 chargers on the Capitol complex and charger locations at offices of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Metro Transit, the Department of Natural Resources and some parks across the state.

Xcel Energy has 45 hybrid service vehicles, said Kevin Schwain, electric vehicle program lead.

This week, the Metropolitan Council announced a $4 million federal grant that will pay for a public car-sharing program, the EV Community Mobility Project, a collaboration of Xcel Energy, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Hourcar. It will create hubs stocked with electric cars throughout the Twin Cities with charging infrastructure, said Paul Schroeder, executive director of Hourcar.

The plan is to build 70 hubs that will house 150 electric cars, with many of the hubs in low-income neighborhoods and areas with high minority populations, he said. The project will establish the region's leadership on electric transportation and reducing greenhouse gases, he said.

Xcel Energy also contributed $4 million to the project to cover underground electrical infrastructure costs. Many charging stations are built only for Tesla vehicles, said Schwain. Xcel is in the process of requesting $25 million from the state's Public Utilities Commission to fund upfront construction costs for cities, agencies and businesses.

"Clean energy is our core business," he said. "Getting electric vehicles makes so much sense. We walk the talk."

Like Hennepin County, the city of Minneapolis and Metro Transit are just starting their electric vehicle programs. Minneapolis will have five electric cars by spring and Metro Transit will have four cars and electric buses running on the Penn Avenue Rapid Bus C Line.

The Minneapolis City Council gave staff a mandate to evaluate its fleet, and the city hopes to convert 100 sedans by 2024, said Brette Hjelle, deputy director of the Public Works Department. The city will need to install many more charging stations, including several at the federal courthouse parking ramp, where many city vehicles park.

Jukka Kukkonen, an electric vehicle market consultant, said the technology is quickly evolving. In the past six years, the range of electric cars has more than doubled, to a minimum of 150 miles today, he said. Electric car fueling costs are about one-quarter the cost of a gallon of gas. The cars also help the local economy by buying electricity from area suppliers. The next thing he would like to see is electric school buses, because, he said, the existing diesel-burning engines hurt children's health.

Greene said she's excited about the prospect of a green fleet as the county works to reduce its carbon footprint.

"The big thing is to get employees' acceptance that driving an electric car is so similar to driving a gas car," she said.

Correction: Previous versions of this story misstated who will provide $4 million to help Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hourcar start up their electric car fleets. It is Xcel Energy. And Xcel Energy doesn’t have a specific timetable for converting its fleet to electric.

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