Electric Road Trip

The quest to make a Minn. river town EV-ready

RED WING, Minn. — A book given to Bill Gehn as a Christmas gift in 2015 sparked a passion for electric vehicles. Indirectly, it also started this Mississippi River city's journey to install the first municipal fast charger in Minnesota.

That book, former E&E News editor John Fialka's "Car Wars," led Gehn to buy a 2014 Ford Focus electric on Autotrader.com for $10,500 that his daughter drove to and from school and work. The car got 76 miles in the summer but less than half of that in the dead of a Minnesota winter.

The range was limited but the car served its purpose, Gehn explained over breakfast at Bev's Cafe in downtown Red Wing, a town of 17,000 about an hour southwest of Minneapolis.

Gehn is a mechanical engineer at Xcel Energy Inc.'s Prairie Island nuclear plant, and it was the EV's easier upkeep that first appealed to him. But the experience of owning and driving the car, and understanding its environmental benefits, prompted him to buy a second one — a Chevrolet Bolt — even if it meant giving up his sports car.

"I'm a gearhead. I had a Corvette Stingray," he said. "But I fell in love with [the Bolt]."

The EV experience also made Gehn acutely aware of the need for charging infrastructure, especially in southwestern Minnesota. Although he could find chargers going north on Interstate 35 toward Duluth, the same wasn't true along Highway 61 near Red Wing.

So Gehn walked into a meeting of Red Wing's Sustainability Commission and made a pitch.

The commission went along and, with the City Council's blessing, sought and got a $2,000 grant from the Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Teams, a public-private partnership, to help fund the project, said Evan Brown, the chairman of the commission at the time who now serves on the council and also drives a Bolt.

With a price tag of $55,000, a 50-kilowatt fast charger was out of reach for the city of 17,000. But Gehn found a 25-kW charger for about $11,000 (though the total cost of installation ran about $23,000).

The upfront cost wasn't the only obstacle. The city had to figure out who would pay for the power. The city was reluctant to pass through the cost to residents. So, the Chamber of Commerce recruited a group of 14 businesses that agreed to pay the electricity bill. In return, the businesses, including Bev's Cafe, get to advertise with their logos on the charger, which is in a city parking lot downtown.

The city and chamber also sought a way to track who was using the charger — whether it was local residents or tourists. To do that, they borrowed an idea from a local bike-sharing program launched by area high school students.

EV drivers who want to plug in must text their ZIP code to a given phone number. Within a minute, they get a return text with a code to open a lockbox with an access card inside.

Brown said usage data collected since the charger went live in November shows it's mostly used by visitors.

"You can tell where people are coming from, and 85% of those ZIP codes are outside of our area," he said.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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