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EV owners in and around Rochester see a boost in charging, vehicle options

EVs in Olmsted County have increased more than 500% since 2018, and the EV infrastructure is becoming more common across Southeast Minnesota.

Chatfield Level Two Electric Vehicle Charger
A new public Level 2 electric vehicle charger in the back parking lot at the Chatfield Center for the Arts on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Chatfield. According to People's Energy Cooperative, a Level 2 charger can add nearly 60 miles of range to an electric vehicle in an hour of charging.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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CHATFIELD — On a brisk November afternoon in Chatfield, a group of power industry and city leaders unfurled a long red ribbon, passing the ends down to the people beside them. One person wielded the large scissors to cut the ribbon.

That day, Nov. 21, they celebrated the opening of Chatfield’s first public electric vehicle charging station, located in the parking lot behind the Chatfield Center for the Arts.

“We call this a destination charger,” said Marty Walsh, economic development and key accounts manager for People’s Energy Cooperative. “An EV driver who is coming to a show at (the center) or is going to be spending some time in downtown Chatfield at any of the shops or restaurants, hiking the Lost Creek Trail, going to church for a wedding; park here for a few hours, and depending on their vehicle, they’re going to be able to pick up anywhere from 30, 50, upwards of 60 miles per hour of charge.”

The new Level 2 charger has two plug-ins and, courtesy of the Chatfield Alliance, will be free to use for the rest of 2022.

The availability of electric vehicle chargers in Southeast Minnesota has grown over the past few years, with smaller communities adding “destination chargers” to their lineup of local amenities. With electric vehicle ownership becoming more common through the region, cities, individuals, power providers and organizations are responding to a need for more EV education and public charging in more rural areas.

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Who’s driving electric vehicles?

Across Minnesota, there are 28,730 EVs on the road, making up 0.41% of all light-duty vehicles in use by state residents, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. About 65% of those vehicles are all-electric, and the remaining 35% are hybrids. If you spot an EV on the highway, it’s probably a Tesla — there are nearly 12,000 Teslas registered in Minnesota, making up 40% of the state’s EVs. Other popular models include the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the Chrysler Pacifica.

As of Oct. 1, 2022, 1,362 of Minnesota’s registered EVs — accounting for 4.7% of the state’s total — are registered in Dodge, Fillmore, Houston, Goodhue, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona counties. Olmsted County is home to most of those EVs with 878. The number of registered EVs in Olmsted County has increased more than 500% since 2018, when MnDOT recorded 143 EVs in the county.

“It’s been absolutely a highlight for both my husband and I driving electric,” said Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, who drives an all-electric Chevrolet Bolt. Her husband drives a Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid. “I wouldn’t go back.”

112222.N.RPB.EVWF - graph.jpg

When asked if she considered Rochester to be an EV hub for the region, she said, “It’s not enough of a hub.

“We started to be a leader in the area years ago with Rochester Public Utilities,” Norton said. “They put in a free charger; they bought a (Nissan) Leaf; they were one of the very first electric vehicles in the whole city.”

More than a decade after RPU installed that first charging station at its service center, there are 19 stations around the city, spread between four downtown parking ramps, Rochester Community and Technical College, two Hy-Vees and more locations.

“I would just say we've been a little slow on the uptake,” Norton said. “There are a few around town, but I would not call this as much of a hub as I had hoped we would be and that I hope we will be in the years ahead.”

But it’s been enough of a hub for some Rochester residents to make the switch from gas to electric. Dave Reichert, a retired IBM engineer, purchased his Tesla Model Y in February 2022. Before he bought the Tesla, he drove a Toyota Camry Hybrid. Reichert said a full charge can power his Model Y for 235 miles at interstate highway speeds.

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“We have the ability to charge at home,” Reichert said. “We can pretty much fully charge it overnight, so we’re fine going around town. When we hit the road and we go 200 miles — which we do fairly often, because I have a place that we visit in Wisconsin fairly regularly — I also have a place over there to plug it in.”

For longer trips, like to Chicago, Reichert said he uses Tesla’s network of superchargers.

“The Tesla charger network is extensive,” Reichert said. “If you’re going on interstates, I think you can go just about any place in the country.”

Public charging stations are less of a concern for Rochester resident Brian Webb. His 2013 Ford Focus Electric’s battery has a 76-mile range. Since he works from home, Webb primarily uses his EV for commuting around Rochester.

Electric Vehicle Driver - Brian Webb
Brian Webb with his 2013 Ford Focus Electric outside Rochester home Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“It’s perfect for what we use it for,” said Webb, who also owns a plug-in hybrid vehicle. “It would not be good as my only vehicle because of the range, but newer ones, they got plenty of range.”

Webb and Reichert both described their vehicles as quiet and low-maintenance.

“The entire maintenance schedule on the thing is to change the coolant at 10 years, and then every five years after that,” Webb said. “Other than that, it’s just rubber — change your wiper blades, change your tires when it’s needed.”

Busting EV myths

For prospective EV owners, there are a few barriers to entry that could influence their car-buying decisions. One, said Norton, is range anxiety.

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“I think some people think they drive more than they do,” Norton said. “The reality of it is, my car right now … in winter, my range is a maximum of 231 miles. I probably won’t use that in a week.”

Another common misconception is that EVs don’t work during Minnesota’s chilly winters. While the vehicle’s battery storage is reduced at lower temperatures, most drivers won’t have any issues getting where they need to go, said Diana McKeown, Metro Clean Energy Resource Teams director at the Great Plains Institute.

“Those handful of days that are 10-below or colder, we’ll see some of those issues,” McKeown said. “Acknowledging it does decrease the battery, it still provides most of the range people need for their daily trips.”

And though charging stations are helpful for long-distance travels, the majority of EV users can charge their vehicle at home, negating some worry about where to charge. Walsh said homeowners can have an electrician install a 240-volt outlet — the same voltage needed for a clothes dryer — in their garage and connect an EV charging cable to it.

“You just need to have the capacity on your panel and the plug in your garage, and pretty much any electrician is able to do that,” Walsh said.

Drivers can even use a standard 120-volt wall outlet to charge their EV overnight at a slower rate. However, charging at home is trickier, or impossible, for renters, especially those in multifamily buildings.

“Even though we’re a primarily rural utility, we have plenty of multifamily housing in our service area, new stuff being built all the time,” Walsh said. “This is an area where it’s really important for developers or building owners to come talk to the utility, and we can help them figure out what’s right for their site because it is very dependent on what they have.”

EV education

For Jonny Yucuis, a big barrier to EV ownership is just the lack of knowledge about electric cars and trucks. His passion for EVs began after his daughter was born in 2017. He recalls holding his infant daughter in one arm and using his open hand to read articles about the 2018 UN IPCC report on climate change impacts. Motivated to help reduce emissions, Yucuis was determined to buy an electric vehicle — he needed to replace his current car, anyway, he said.

“What I found was, you know, the information out there was really limited or was confusing, and it’s kind of hard to follow and understand,” Yucuis said. “I didn’t know anybody that had an electric car, so I didn’t really have anyone to ask questions to.”

Yucuis ultimately bought an EV and later established Rochester Electric Vehicles, an online resource where people can find information about EV test drives, charger installation, EV owner testimonials and even listings for EVs for sale in the Rochester area. Through Rochester EV, Yucuis hosts EV meetups where curious drivers can ask EV owners about their experiences.

“It’s one of the bigger investments you’re going to make, aside from your home or some of those other bigger purchases,” Yucuis said of buying an EV. “So you want to make sure you’re well-informed and comfortable with that decision and fully understand what you’re getting into.”

Education and exposure are key in promoting EV uptake, said Moaz Uddin, Great Plains Institute electric vehicle policy specialist.

“These are two very important things, you know — getting people into EVs, having them know the EV facts and where the state of the technology is,” Uddin said.

More choices and declining price points can also work in consumers’ favor.

“Most of this past decade, when this current generation of EVs were introduced, they were either compact vehicles or the super high-end, luxury Teslas,” Uddin said. “There wasn’t a lot of variety there. … Now, we’re getting to the point where you’re seeing more economical vehicles, pickup trucks, SUVs. As these come out, you’ll see more uptake of EVs anyway.”

An expanding charging network

To accommodate more EVs on the road, MnDOT is investing $68 million over five years in new fast-charging stations along Interstate 95 and Interstate 35, which are the state’s existing Alternative Fuel Corridors. With that MnDOT initiative focusing on other areas of the state, some Southeast Minnesota cities have taken steps to install charging stations. As part of the Great Plains Institute’s Cities Charging Ahead programs in 2018-2019 and 2020-2021, leaders in Rochester, Red Wing and Winona worked on advancing their city’s EV charging infrastructure.

“When we finished that program, each city kind of identified best practices they wanted to work on and did some work,” McKeown said. “Rochester and Red Wing have been involved in at least one other process that we’ve been involved in related to EVs nationally, so they’re just really in the game.”

Electric Vehicle Charging Station Map 2022

The Cities Charging Ahead initiatives resulted in the installation of a Level 2 charger at Bluff Country Co-op in Winona and a direct-current fast-charging port in downtown Red Wing.

While the Great Plains Institute is developing an EV information program for smaller, more rural cities, some communities in Southeast Minnesota are already one step ahead. Lanesboro, population 778, is the smallest city in the region to have a public EV charging station. There, EV commuters can find a Level 2 charger with four available plug-in ports in a parking lot near Bass Pond just off of Fillmore County Highway 21. It was installed in 2018 using Lanesboro Public Utilities conservation improvement funds.

“We recognized there was a need for it,” said Michele Peterson, Lanesboro city administrator. “Our public utilities commission felt that that could be a benefit to our community, to have something like that to just allow additional opportunities for other visitors to come and experience our community.”

Another charger is coming to Lanesboro in 2023 through CHARGE EV, a EV charging installation created by 31 electric cooperatives in the Upper Midwest, including MiEnergy Cooperative and People’s.

“We ended up doing eight chargers,” said Kent Whitcomb, vice president of member services at MiEnergy. “Then, we got one in our Rushford office here as well. So, we’ve got nine in the community.”

While Rushford, Harmony and St. Charles have their Level 2 chargers online, Lanesboro and Houston are still in the process of installing those stations, Whitcomb said.

In People’s Energy’s area, Walsh said the co-op installed the Chatfield charger and partnered with Kwik Trip to place a fast charger at the north Kwik Trip in Stewartville.

“Then, we also have one that’s in the process of being installed in Plainview with High Plains Cooperative, and one that’ll be installed at Bennett's Eyota Market over in Eyota,” Walsh said.

Chatfield Level Two Electric Vehicle Charger
Flanked by officials from the city of Chatfield, People's Energy Cooperative and Dairyland Power Cooperative, Mike Henke, center left, president and CEO of People's Energy Cooperative, and Sara Sturgis, center right, coordinator of the Chatfield Alliance, cut a ceremonial ribbon for a new public level two electric vehicle charger in the back parking lot of the Chatfield Center for the Arts on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Chatfield. According to People's Energy Cooperative, a level two charger can add nearly 60 miles of range to an electric vehicle in an hour of charging.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Both co-ops offer special rates for at-home charging, particularly during off-peak hours when energy demand and prices are low.

As energy providers, regional co-ops are gearing up for the eventual increase in power demand as more drivers switch to EVs. Whitcomb said if everyone switched to EVs overnight, the current power grid couldn’t handle the demand. But the reality of gradual EV adoption gives energy providers more time to adjust.

“This is going to be a five-, 10-, 20-year process of people changing over to electric vehicles,” Whitcomb said. “But over time, here, we’re going to continue to build more (power) generation, and our facilities will be able to handle it.

“We’ve been providing power to the rural area for over 85 years now,” Whitcomb continued. “And this is probably the most change that we’ve seen in the last 10 years that we have in the 75 years before that. We have employees and resources here to help navigate the changes in technology that we’re seeing right now with EVs.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated which organization is sponsoring free charging at the Chatfield port through the end of 2022. The Chatfield Alliance is providing free charging.

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's region reporter, covering the greater Rochester area. Before joining the Post Bulletin in 2022, she attended Kansas State University and served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and news director for Wildcat 91.9, K-State's student radio station. Readers can reach Dené at ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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