Saint Paul plans to buy 3 electric cars – Politics in Minnesota

On Nov. 20, President Barack Obama declared that electric vehicles are the future.

Obama has previously signaled that he wants 1 million of them on U.S. roads by 2015-an ambitious plan that some see as too much, too fast.

But well before he even made those statements, St. Paul officials were plugging directly into that vision, despite some disbelievers.

St. Paul soon will become Minnesota’s first city to install municipal electric-car charging stations in its ramps, streets and parking lots, says Anne Hunt, environmental policy director for Mayor Chris Coleman. It also will add three fully electric vehicles (EVs) to its fleet during 2011.

The push is meant to help pave the way for the local electric-car market. “We really want to make Minnesota and the Twin Cities area EV-ready,” Hunt says.

“In order for people in Minnesota and the Twin Cities to start buying electric vehicles – and they’re seen as a vital option – we need to start putting these things in place,” adds Chris Hovis, a Coleman spokesman.

“If we help spread that trend, then we can start curbing the emissions and start getting people to move in that direction.”

The plan is not without skeptics. Peter Nelson, a policy fellow with the conservative Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis who monitors the energy industry for the think tank, wonders whether St. Paul and its partners might be spending public dollars needlessly on the green gambit – while straying far out in front of an unproven market.

“I’m skeptical that cities that are in the midst of their own fiscal problems are putting their own money into something that is so uncertain,” Nelson says. “We don’t know what the market is going to hold for these types of vehicles.”

Still, the electric car market is developing rapidly. Gas-electric hybrid cars in the Toyota Prius mold have been available for years, but they don’t have a plug-in charging option.

Now, however, two more electric-car types are emerging that won’t require gasoline on every trip – one does not even use gas.

The first is the plug-in hybrid vehicle, which is both gas-powered and able to be charged up and run after getting plugged into an electrical charger. Plug-in hybrids will emerge next month with the release of the Chevrolet Volt.

The other type is all electric. The first of these, the Nissan Leaf – a car that has no internal combustion engine – is scheduled to go on sale in the U. S. and Japan in December. Other manufacturers like Mitsubishi will follow suit later in the year.

Fran Crotty, renewable energy and alternative fuels team leader for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), estimates that 15,000 electric vehicles will travel Minnesota roads by 2015. That would be about 5 percent of all cars on the road in the state.

The St. Paul project may be only the first of several to pop up in various local jurisdictions, Crotty says.

The city is a member of the Minnesota Electric Vehicle Coalition, which also includes Minneapolis, Ramsey and Hennepin counties, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and the state.

The MPCA is the coalition’s lead agency, which also includes Xcel Energy and a raft of nonprofits and advocacy groups, including the Minnesota Environmental Initiative, the American Lung Association of Minnesota and Environment Minnesota, among others.

After two years of discussions among coalition members, Crotty says, the MPCA agreed to set up two master contracts that allow the public coalition members to purchase charging stations and electric vehicles using unified contracts.

One of the MPCA’s two master contracts allows the entities to purchase charging stations competitively from four designated vendors – Campbell, Calif.-based Coulomb Technologies, Cleveland-based Eaton Corp. (which has an office in Minnetonka), ECOtality in San Francisco and Las Vegas-based EV-Charge America.

The other allows the government entities to add to their fleets an EV called the Transit Connect Electric, an all-electric utility van produced jointly by Ford Motor Co. and Azure Dynamics Corp., both Detroit-based.

In fact, the preproduction model of the Transit Connect Electric the city is buying will be one of the first 15 sold anywhere.

St. Paul is the first partner in the effort to move forward, Crotty says, largely because it opted to devote a portion of federal stimulus money it has received toward the initiative.

In 2009, the city received $2.8 million in one-time stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Of that, it designated $286,000 to its Electric Vehicle and Charging Station Initiative.

More money for the St. Paul initiative comes from Xcel Energy, which is contributing $20,000 from its Chairman’s Fund toward each of three Transit Connect Electric vans that St. Paul plans to buy, says Greg Palmer, Xcel Energy’s director of account management.

The first of those all-electric vans will cost $65,000, with $20,000 coming from Xcel, $20,000 from stimulus funds, and $25,000 from the city. That van – a preproduction model – should arrive before the end of the year.

The next two should arrive sometime in 2011, and will cost slightly less – $57,500. Xcel and stimulus money will each pay $20,000 toward those vehicles. The city will pay the balance – $17,500 for each.

Federal stimulus money, meanwhile, will cover the full cost of purchasing and installing the city’s planned 30-plus municipal electric-car charging stations, Hunt says. “DOE is paying for all of the charging stations and the city is not contributing, but [we] will assume maintenance.”

The city is expecting to have its first charging station in place by the end of the year-most likely at the city’s public works facility on Dale Street just south of Como Avenue.

Xcel also will pay for any electrical infrastructure additions that are needed to extend to and power up the charging stations, Palmer says.

Xcel has more than a passing interest in the St. Paul initiative and those that may follow, according to Palmer. Together, they might provide an early indication whether Minnesota will ultimately take to the electric car.

“It is not going to change the total vehicle market in Minnesota in the short term,” Palmer says. “But it gives us the experience to see how these vehicles are going to operate in cold weather, and what kind of impact they have on the electrical grid.

“That way, when more and more electric vehicles come to market, we will be prepared in Minnesota to accommodate that and make it possible.”

If Minnesotans do accept electric vehicles, Palmer says, it could be a big plus for his industry. “I think if it is done correctly, electric vehicles can help utilize the electric system more efficiently,” Palmer says.

That’s because most car charging will be done at night. “That’s when people are home and that tends to be the time that we have extra capacity available on our electrical system,” he says.

Success in the electrical car market could also help the region get greener.

MPCA’s Crotty says the EV coalition wants to power all public car-charging stations with renewable energy. That’s possible because Xcel offers a program called Windsource, which charges slightly higher fees to customers who want 100 percent of their Xcel-supplied power to be wind-generated.

“That way we would have zero emissions in both the generation and the use of electricity by these vehicles,” Crotty says.

Though final locations for those stations are not yet determined, Hunt says the managers of the downtown RiverCentre ramp have a particularly strong interest in installing EV charging stations, because they fit in well with that facility’s overall green business strategy.

There likely will be a fee to use the ramp chargers, Hunt says. For instance, monthly ramp customers might have as-yet unspecified fees added to their monthly parking contracts to pay for charging services.

Street and parking-lot charge stations also would likely require fees, she adds. These would be paid either through automatic debits transmitted by smart phone applications, or perhaps by swiping a debit or credit card through a reader on the units.

It is not yet determined how much it will cost to use those stations, Hunt says.

Peter Nelson of the Center of the American Experiment argues that if electric cars truly were the wave of the future, as Obama has predicted, the private sector would likely provide the infrastructure without help from the government.

Nelson says that the earliest EVs and plug-in hybrids will also be relatively expensive, so early adopters will be mostly well-to-do citizens. “We’re talking about people with means who have a passion for curbing emissions,” Nelson says. “Maybe that’s where the money should be coming from.”

Hunt shrugs off such critiques. “The market signals from the auto manufacturers are that EVs are going to be coming. So we need to position ourselves to be ready for that because the customer is going to be demanding it.”

 She then adds: “I think that we’re right in the right place.”

By Kevin Featherly

Published December 1, 2010

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