A lack of inventory from auto manufacturers and a shortage of fast-charging options in rural areas are among the factors slowing progress toward Minnesota’s state government fleet electrification goal.
The Minnesota Department of Administration set a target in 2020 to make 20% of its vehicle fleet electric by 2027, part of an overall strategy to reduce state fleet fossil fuel consumption by 30% by 2027 from a 2017 baseline.
The state would have had to replace more than 400 gas vehicles with electric models per year since 2021 to meet that target, but state officials contacted by the Energy News Network were unable to say exactly how many electric vehicles the state has purchased overall. The Department of Transportation, a leader in electric vehicles among agencies, has 14. The Department of Natural Resources has four.
“We’re moving forward slower than I would like,” said Holly Gustner, fleet and surplus director for the Department of Administration.
The state has more than 15,000 vehicles, with the most progress on electrification in the light-duty category, which represents a third of the vehicles.
In 2021, the state’s light-duty category was dominated by flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on high ethanol blends, accounting for 55%. Hybrids followed at 22% and regular internal combustion engines at 15%. The rest were electric, plug-in hybrid and diesel-run models.
The state’s plug-in electric, hybrid and flex-fuel vehicles contributed to a 17% drop in emissions from light-duty vehicles in 2020 and 2021, according to administration data.
Vehicle cost plays a role when agencies make purchasing decisions, but the total cost of ownership favors electric. While electric vehicles command a higher initial expense, electricity costs less than gas, and the cars require less maintenance, said Marcus Grubbs, director of the Department of Administration’s Office of Enterprise Sustainability. Agencies also like the advantage of having fully charged vehicles available every morning so staff will not have to refuel during the day.
But agency leaders say many state vehicles have no easy electric replacement option yet, and manufacturers of those that do — typically cars, pickups and SUVs in the light-duty category — are often months behind in deliveries.
Automakers have been prioritizing states such as California and Massachusetts, which have requirements to make electric vehicles available. Gustner said one factor expected to increase Minnesota’s access to electric vehicles is its adoption of clean car standards, which have helped increase supply in other states as their demand increased. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency adopted the California-developed standards last year and has been finalizing rules.
“I think once that rulemaking is completed, and we actually sign off as one of the clean car states, I think we’re going to see more cars coming this way,” Gustner said.
Replacements hard to find
Grubbs said the government uses vehicles in such specific ways that finding electric replacements has not been easy. As an example, he pointed to a new electric transit van that “looked great” until he discovered it had no lift for disabled passengers.
“Availability has been the greatest challenge,” said Jed Falgren, state maintenance engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
His agency may have the biggest obstacles in meeting the state goal because light-duty vehicles are only 13% of its fleet. The rest are medium- and heavy-duty vehicles — including 800 snowplows — which currently have no practical electric replacement models available, he said.
Falgren said the agency has spoken to trucking manufacturers about replacing heavier vehicles with models fueled by hydrogen or compressed natural gas, which pollute less than plows now being used, he said.
New, greener snow plow models have begun to come onto the market, but how well they work remains a question. For example, a recent test in New York City found electric snowplows “basically conked out after four hours,” according to a city official there.
“Our plow trucks have got to run and be available to run 24 hours a day,” Falgren said. “So there’s a lot of technological nuts to crack before we can go widespread on some of those [vehicles].”
The Department of Natural Resources wants to add to its four-vehicle electric fleet and has ordered more. Aaron Cisewski, fleet and materials manager in the DNR’s Operations Services Division, said the agency covers a huge geographical area of Minnesota, with state parks and other offices spread far apart. Employees have expressed concerns about range reduction caused by cold weather and trailer towing, which the agency does a lot of in state parks.
The department has deployed Chevy Bolts in state parks, where they operate in a limited area and are recharged nightly, he said.
Gustner said developing a charging network for state vehicles has been a challenge. Parts of the system are robust, such as around the Capitol complex, where 65 chargers operate. But outstate Minnesota is a different story even as the state continues to add chargers in more rural locations.
Fast chargers are becoming a priority because most state workers will be “topping off” their vehicles rather than needing a full charge, Gustner added. But for now, the charging infrastructure in some areas “does not enable the flexibility [of long-distance travel] right now, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t perceived to exist,” he said.
Minnesota is better poised, despite the weather, to take advantage of transitioning to electric vehicles than some other states. The state government could replace more than half of its light-duty vehicles, a better average than Colorado or North Carolina, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory 2022 study of state fleet electrification.
Using 2-year-old data, the study found the driving range of electric vehicles on the market can meet 93% of the state’s light-duty needs. The study projected a $4.7 million savings over the lifetime of vehicles and a reduction of more than 10,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases.
While the new clean car standards are expected to help, Brendan Jordan, vice president of transportation and fuels at the Great Plains Institute, said Minnesota’s state government could have an easier time procuring electric vehicles if the state had additional policies that incentivize their purchase by residents and businesses.
“Other states offer incentives on the medium- and heavy-duty side, which we don’t offer,” he said. “Companies look at what kind of policy environments are in place when they’re deciding where to ship the cars.”
The Minnesota Future Fuels Coalition, which includes the Great Plains Institute and Energy News Network publisher Fresh Energy, has been advocating for the recently introduced Clean Transportation Standard Act that would require the carbon density of fuels to decline to zero by 2040.
There’s also legislation that would “establish a preference” for electric vehicles for the state’s fleet. Other preferred vehicles include hybrids and those that can run on cleaner fuel. The law would solidify a preference already practiced by agencies.
Should either or both bills pass, they would give the state government an extra benefit of removing some obstacles from electric vehicle acquisitions, Jordan said.
Either way, preparations continue for an electric future. With assistance from Xcel Energy and a consultant, MnDOT created a software tool that uses data captured from its vehicle fleet to determine suitable electric replacements, he said. In addition, plans are emerging for training mechanics to work on light-duty electric vehicles.
And the agency must get used to paying more upfront for electric vehicles while understanding the cost of ownership will be less in the long run.
“MnDOT does not mind being on the leading edge of technologies,” Falgren said. “The leading edge is a good spot to be.”
Fresh Energy staff, board members and funders do not have access to or oversight of the Energy News Network’s editorial process. More about our relationship with Fresh Energy can be found in our code of ethics.