Charging Up: the Need for Electric Vehicle Infrastructure in Minnesota

Electric cars are on the way, and not just for your granola-munching neighbor. Traditional car manufacturers have begun to bet on them. Volvo, for instance, will sell only electric or hybrid cars by next year. General Motors plans to go electric. Ford has turned on its blinker toward the same electric offramp. Not only Elon Musk, but even the vacuum guy plans to build electric cars.

The US Energy Information Agency projects that electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles will represent 9% of all light-duty vehicle sales by 2025. Minnesota has a few thousand electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) on the road currently. Analysts and the University of Minnesota and MnDOT expect the rate of adoption of EVs and PHEVs here to lag the rest of the country, as Minnesota’s colder climate negatively impacts battery performance. Nonetheless, if trends in car manufacturing indicate anything, they indicate an electric future on the road.

If we electrify our transportation, we will use more electricity, which presents unexpected opportunities and challenges for the grid. Utility revenues should increase—a fact that some utility executives have begun to realize. But, the performance of the grid, if unprepared, could suffer; on the other hand, because EVs are essentially mobile batteries, they could stabilize the fluctuations expected from a future where intermittent renewables comprise an ever-increasing share of generation.

Of course, all of these cars and trucks and buses will need to plug in somewhere. Even if some or most EV drivers purchase a charger at home, they will still want to top off during errands, while at work, or on road trips. Fleets of delivery trucks and buses will need to charge up back at the depot. And, if you believe the preachings of autonomous car evangelicals, then those robo-taxis will need somewhere to charge up in between rides too.

All of these new charging stations represent a massive infrastructure need—and an opportunity.

 

Charging Minnesota

Minnesota has 271 electric car charging stations, with 671 plugs of various standards, accessible to the public, by U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) data. The country as a whole boasts 17,652 stations with 48,710 plugs. For comparison about 115,000 gas and diesel stations dot the landscape of the US—but, in contrast to EV chargers, almost no one has one at home. While the number of EV chargers may seem paltry, the rate of growth in charging stations over the last decade should stagger anyone looking for a business opportunity or a job in construction and electrical work.

From “Electric Vehicles in the U.S.: Progress Toward Broader Acceptance,” at http://umich.edu/~umtriswt/PDF/SWT-2017-9.pdf

Folks at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), an agency within DOE, have estimated that, if 15 million EVs hit the road by 2030, then the country will need 600,000 non-residential plugs and an additional 25,000 quick charging stations. That analysis estimates that most—88%—charges will occur at home, in garages. The market with at-home chargers should exceed the public market several times over. The utility lobby projects that 7 million EVs and PHEVs will be on the road by 2025, and that those vehicles will need 5 million plugs, at home, at work, and in public.

Why replicate a refueling network when one already exists? Why not add EV chargers at conventional gas stations? One company, Shell has begun to do just that, with a plan to roll out electric chargers at its “petrol” stations in the UK and the Netherlands. But, EV charges differ from gas fill-ups. For one, in the absence of high-voltage quick charging, to charge for an EV might take much longer than filling up a gas tank. Secondly, EV chargers, which cost about $1000, do not require the same underground tanks that gas stations do. These technical differences have spurred businesses, municipalities, and parking ramps to offer EV charging. Anywhere where people might park for an hour or two might be a good place for an EV charger. This approach has dominated development so far.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that charging stations may become more prolific than gas stations. That future isn’t hard to imagine if every shopping center, highway rest stop, and public parking space offers a plug.

How many public plugs will Minnesota need? Well, by US Census data, 1.712% of the country is lucky enough to call themselves Minnesotans. If we claim the same percentage of plugs, then we’ll need to build over 42,000 more in the next decade or so. Even if adoption rates continue to be slower than the national average—because our bracing climate limits EV battery performance—we may need the same or more: worse battery performance in the cold means more frequent charges.

The business opportunity for growth and work in this sector should turn heads. Perhaps it’s time for Minnesota to put its shoulder to the wheel.