It’s been a good few weeks for electric cars.
Elon Musk’s first Model 3s are about to roll off the assembly line. Rival automakers are lining up to prove they’re not out of the game, with VW claiming they’ll undercut the Model 3 on price and Volvo declaring they’ll be phasing out the internal combustion engine from their cars starting in 2019. France pledged to ban selling gas powered cars by the 2040. And Minnesota lawmakers, watching the numbers of Electric Vehicle registrations rise, are mulling a local charging network to help encourage the transition to battery powered mobility.
But even with all these successes, electric cars still face “range anxiety” fears. Enthusiasts are more than willing to point out how an EV with a range of 100 miles is adequate for 95% of all car trips, but unfortunately, climate change can’t wait for us to argue one-on-one with every suburbanite who thinks they can’t possibly live without the option to go on an impromptu road trip, despite having never gone any further from their hometown than Treasure Island Casino. No, we’re going to need to make getting an electric car as easy as possible for most people, including those who drive longer distances.
A more robust local charging network would be a great help in getting the average driver over their range anxiety, regardless of how legitimate or irrational fears about range may be. But when we think of charging infrastructure, there’s a potential player that could help bridge the gap between the auto-industry owned interstate Superchargers and the home charging port – the electric company.
Utility companies stand to profit greatly from the electrification of transportation. If predictions about the coming EV revolution are correct, electric cars could be quietly consuming volts in countless garages around the country over the course of the next decade. But if companies like our local Xcel Energy want to see this come to fruition, they can take a proactive step to encourage this future by helping to build out the charging network. And they wouldn’t even be the first to do it.
Kansas City probably isn’t the first place you’d think of being on the vanguard of electric cars, but EV adoption over Q1 2017 increased 78% over the previous year. The next cities down the list, Las Vegas and Raleigh/Durham, were left in the dust. That’s because in 2015, Kansas City Power & Light rolled out a plan to install 1,000 EV charging stations through the metro area. The company placed charging stations in parking lots of businesses, apartments, and public places, in order to make them ubiquitous around the city. Since that time, the city has seen incredible growth in their EV fleet, as charging stations are nearly as easy to find as a gas pump.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Xcel hasn’t done anything to help with the adoption of electric vehicles in the MSP metro. They offer a special off peak charging rate for EV customers, and have offered rebates on Nissan LEAF models to their customers in the past. But the success of KCP&L should be a sign that the largest obstacle to EV adoption is in the mind, not the wallet. Surround people with proof that they’ll have a place to charge, and they’ll come around. And, while the initial rollout of the Kansas City charging network gave power away for free, these charging spaces offer a potential way for utility companies to get a return on their investment while still playing a major role in cleaning the transportation sector.
The electric car market in 2017 is much more favorable than the one KCP&L built a network for in Kansas City. With cheaper, mass market EVs hitting the road, Xcel can use their blueprint for success to bring electric cars to the mainstream in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. According to the map of existing charging stations available on Plugshare, there’s already stations distributed fairly well across the metro area. Maybe you’ve seen one at a HyVee, Goodwill, or in a Minneapolis parking ramp. Imagine adding 1000 more, and seeing one nearly everywhere.
It’s worth noting that electric cars won’t make Minneapolis-Saint Paul streets any safer for cyclists and pedestrians than regular cars. They won’t fix dependence on subsidized parking, or offer an alternative to highway infrastructure we have no political will to pay for. But they can at least help us to reduce the pollution and carbon emissions inherent in our current transportation fleet, and given that’s a problem we have limited time to solve, I’ll take what I can get.