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Will your next car be a plug-in?

Published by the Star Tribune

Transportation is now the leading source of carbon emissions in the state, and mile by mile, Minnesotans who worry about climate change are focusing on it as the way to cut greenhouse gases. 

What does a zero-carbon future look like for transportation in Minnesota?

Maybe a lot like Eric Sandeen’s old St. Paul garage, covered in solar panels, where the family’s new Tesla charges up.

Or the factory floor of New Flyer of America in St. Cloud, where workers build electric buses for customers across North America.

Or Doc’s Sports Bar & Grill in Sturgeon Lake, where travelers grab a bite as their wheels juice up at the high-power charging station outside.

Mile by mile, Minnesotans who worry about climate change are focusing on transportation as the way to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Transportation is now the state’s leading source of carbon emissions — electric utilities have cut their output sharply — and will play a crucial role if Minnesota is to meet the ambitious carbon-reduction goals the Legislature adopted with the 2007 NextGen Energy Act.

Researchers say that if humans are to avoid blowing the 1.5-degree Celsius warming limit beyond which the Earth faces catastrophic impacts, they must radically transform the way they move people and goods — right down to the family fishing boat.

The goal may not be as unrealistic as it sounds.

“There’s no question we can get there,” said Brendan Jordan, vice president of the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based environmental think tank.

And he’s emphatic that it doesn’t have to upend Americans’ quality of life.

“Decarbonizing does not necessarily mean giving up a car,” Jordan said. “I can’t see a narrative where [it] results in a dreary post-apocalyptic future. Those of us working on decarbonization have a responsibility to work on strategies that don’t result in deprivation.”

Among those strategies: developing cleaner biofuels; greater use of vehicle-sharing programs such as Hourcar; compact land use that allows more walking and less driving; creating new modes such as electric bullet trains or the futuristic vacuum tube Hyperloop. Which one is best remains a source of disagreement. All-electric purists, for example, insist biofuels such as corn ethanol and soy diesel still release too much carbon. Biofuel supporters argue that better technologies will reduce emissions. “We have to work with the fuels that we have,” said Jeremy Martin, director of fuels policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

There’s a growing consensus, however, that electrification will play a leading role. Research from MIT shows that electric vehicles produce fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline-powered vehicles — even after factoring in the emissions from manufacturing them, recovering the lithium for their batteries and generating electricity to run them.

Granted, Minnesota has a long way to go. Of the state’s nearly 5 million registered vehicles, just 10,000 are electric (which means plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles, not conventional hybrids such as the Toyota Prius.) That’s about 0.2% of the overall fleet, well below leaders such as Washington state or California.

But Minnesota’s electric future may be arriving sooner than people realize. There are about 27 electric car and SUV models on the market here, and more than 300 charging stations, including an electric corridor on Interstate 35 between Minneapolis and Duluth. Lightning advances in lithium-ion battery technology have dramatically improved performance and caused prices to fall “at a staggering pace,” according to Andrew Twite of Fresh Energy, a Twin Cities advocacy group.

Even the Lyon-Lincoln Electric Cooperative in Tyler, Minn., is leasing a Tesla and has installed a charging station made by Minnesota-based ZEF Energy.

And MnDOT is working with several partners on a “Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation” blueprint due out in August. The agency has set a goal to cut the sector’s carbon output 30% from 2005 levels by 2025, and 80% by 2050.

“It’s really complicated because it touches freight movement, it touches housing, it touches jobs,” said Tim Sexton, MnDOT’s chief sustainability officer. “It’s sort of the web that connects all aspects of our lives.”

Revving the family Tesla

Some consumers are already making the leap.

Sandeen and his wife bought their first electric vehicle a few years ago, a used Nissan Leaf. The St. Paul couple liked it so much they recently spent $59,500 on a new Tesla 3 (a federal tax credit cut it to $52,000), although they kept their old van for camping trips.

The Tesla has a range of 310 miles on one full charge. It’s so much fun to drive, said Sandeen, that he finds himself eager to ferry their teenage daughter.

“I’m like, ‘Sure, when do you want to go?’ ”

But mom, a teacher, gets first dibs and drives the Tesla to work. Back home, she plugs it into a 240-volt outlet they installed in the garage.

Sandeen said he loves not standing at a gas pump in subzero weather, but acknowledged that “longer trips require a little bit of planning” to hit charging stations. And the range on the Leaf, which goes about 80 miles on a charge, shrinks in winter, when his family runs the car heater.

Worries about cold weather performance and “range anxiety” — being stranded without a charging station — help explain why Minnesotans have been slow to go electric, said MnDOT’s Sexton. But he added that those concerns are diminishing as the range of electric cars continues to grow and charging stations multiply.

Not everyone is sold. Freight haulers don’t make money when trucks sit at a charging station, said John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association. The electric 18-wheelers he’s seen cost 80% more than conventional rigs.

For long-haul freight, he said, it “just doesn’t pencil out from a business point.”

For the average family, supply is also a challenge. Minnesota auto dealers say they can’t get enough cars, according to Jukka Kukkonen, an automotive engineer who founded PlugInConnect, a consultancy in St. Paul. Of 40 electric models sold nationally, just 27 are available in Minnesota.

About 14 states offer tax rebates or other incentives to buy electric, on top of the federal tax credit of up to $7,500. Minnesota doesn’t have such incentives, but a $2,500 rebate passed the House and was under negotiation at the Legislature this weekend.

Within the transportation sector, the biggest source of greenhouse gases is light-duty vehicles — vans, SUVs and pickups — according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). In 2016 they produced more carbon output than all passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks combined.

And while emissions from most other modes of transportation in Minnesota fell in the last decade, those from light-duty vehicles grew 4%.

Next: e-pickup?

What might tip the scales for Midwestern drivers is getting an electric pickup on the market.

“That’s the holy grail,” said Frank Kohlasch, air assessment manager for the MPCA. “If we can show that battery pickup trucks and plug-in hybrid pickup trucks are viable, that, to me personally, is where a watershed moment starts.”

One of the first electric pickups to hit the market will be the Rivian R1T, made by a startup backed by Amazon and Ford. It’s due out next year. Base price: about $69,000.

Kyle Bowles put down $1,000 to join the waitlist.

“I just saw it in on the internet and I thought it was really cool,” said Bowles, 34. A chef who lives in Oakdale, Bowles drives a 2012 GMC Sierra.

“It’s cool to say I’m doing something good for the environment,” he said. “But to be honest, that’s not why I’m doing it. I think it’s the future. For me, I think it’s smart what this company is doing.”

Meanwhile, engineers are racing to electrify other modes of transportation, including mass transit and delivery vehicles. Metro Transit in Minneapolis is buying eight 60-foot articulated electric buses from New Flyer, which has plants in St. Cloud and Crookston. The first one has already arrived and will start running next month on the new rapid transit C Line between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center.

In Lakeville, what’s believed to be the state’s only electric school bus makes its rounds so quietly that it plays music when it travels under 15 mph so children can hear it.

“It’s actually the subway tone from Montreal,” said Mike Forbord of Schmitty & Sons, the bus company that operates it for the Lakeville Area Public Schools.

The company shared the $350,000 cost with Great River Energy and the Dakota Electric Association. State pollution regulators want to finance more electric school buses, among other things, with part of the $47 million Minnesota will receive from the federal Volkswagen settlement.

Heavy-duty trucks are down the road, but they’re coming. Daimler Trucks, the parent of Freightliner, plans to have its electric 18-wheeler in production in 2021. Its homepage proclaims: “The road to emissions-free driving is going to be driven with battery electric vehicles.”

How fast that plays out in Minnesota is up to Minnesotans, said MnDOT’s Sexton: “There’s all these choices that we have to make.”

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