Minnesota Cities Plan for Electric Vehicles

Local governments are teaming up with the private sector to build electric vehicle infrastructure and entice the public to ween themselves off fossil fuels.

by Jessie Van Berkel, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) / September 23, 2015
(TNS) -- Diane Rucker has spent a lot of time in Minneapolis' Southtown Shopping Center parking lot.

It used to be one of the few places in Bloomington where she could charge her electric car. But as she sat in her bright red Tesla on Friday, she peered at a map of plug-in options. She was surrounded.

The number of electric vehicles in Minnesota has more than doubled in the past few years, and communities from Hopkins to Ramsey are trying to figure out how to serve, and capitalize on, the growing market.

Local governments are following retailers’ lead and strategically locating electric vehicle charging stations — at libraries, regional parks and transit stations — in hopes of drawing more people. And officials are deciding just how much electric car owners should pay to top off.

Dakota County officials voted last week on a rate for their charging stations. They won’t set the rate until January, but plan to charge $1 per hour with a $3 minimum. That’s the same as Ramsey County.

“A lot of private agencies and local governments are struggling with that right now,” said Taud Hoopingarner, Dakota County’s operations management director. “The jury’s still out on what the appropriate rate is.”

The charge to charge

Electric car drivers primarily charge at home, but often briefly plug-in elsewhere.

Jukka Kukkonen found himself in need of an extra boost when he was recently headed home from a visit to Canterbury Park in Shakopee. The electric car advocate and Nissan Leaf driver had 18 miles worth of charge left and 25 miles to drive.

He found a nearby store with a charging station. Six and a half minutes and $1.75 later, he was back on the road.

There’s a wide price range at different charging stations, he said. Some places, like Lund’s, even offer free charging.

Local officials are still trying to find the right price.

“What kind of rate makes sense for drivers to attract them to use the station?” said Fran Crotty, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s electric vehicle state program administrator. “If you charge too much they may opt out and charge at home.”

There have not been many complaints from electric car users as companies and communities apply fees, she said, because they are so low compared to the cost of gas.

Fees may not even cover the cost of the station, Crotty said. Dakota County will pay $20 a month in service fees for each station.

“It’s not a moneymaker like a parking meter,” Crotty said.

A station able to charge two cars in two to four hours costs about $4,000, not including installation. High-speed chargers cost roughly $30,000, she said.

Many places, like Minneapolis parks, received a grant to cover those costs, and are waiting to see how the free chargers are used before considering any public investment in the infrastructure.

Anoka County opted out of a grant program in 2012. County commissioners raised concerns about long-term maintenance costs.

“If there truly was a demand out there for this, then the private sector would respond,” Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah said. “This didn’t really seem to fit within the core function of county government.”

Too soon?

About 3,200 people use electric cars in the state, according to vehicle registration data. “The number of electric vehicles being sold is going up exponentially each year, but it’s still a very small percentage,” of overall drivers, Hoopingarner said.

That electric vehicle community is tight-knit. They hold events and share information about new stations.

So when Dakota County recently opened charging stations for public use at Lebanon Hills Regional Park and Spring Lake Park Reserve, officials knew word would spread.

“This is another means for us to attract new visitors to the park system who may have not used the park system in the past,” Hoopingarner said.

Rucker said she has visited St. Paul’s Oxford Community Center just because they had a place for her to charge. She lives in Apple Valley and is excited that Dakota County has added stations at parks.

Suburbs have been slower to add the technology, she said, “But it’s starting.”

Many metro cities and counties, including Anoka County, said they don’t see the need for the stations yet.

“We don’t have any plans for them at this time, and we don’t have any demand for them at this time,” Anoka County spokeswoman Martha Weaver said.

Rucker said the Twin Cities hasn’t reached a “tipping point.” People still ogle her Tesla at stoplights and yell questions about the range of the vehicle. (She can go about 240 miles in the summer, 160 in the winter.)

Several changes need to occur before city planners include stations in development plans, she said. The price of the electric cars needs to go down, the range the cars can travel needs to go up and the infrastructure to support the cars needs to be more commonplace, she said. She estimates it will take two to three years.

“The tipping point is when they are common enough that it’s a no-brainer,” Rucker said.

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