Industry Leaders Discuss the Future of Transportation in MN

June 22, 2023
Industry leaders in Minnesota’s clean transportation sector gathered to discuss the future of clean transportation in Minnesota.

The leaders of MN’s clean transportation sector

Clean Energy Economy MN (CEEM) hosted a roundtable discussion that brought together a strong group of leaders in the sector to exchange ideas, concerns and discuss solutions regarding the future of transportation in Minnesota. This is an especially critical time to be acting as transportation remains the largest emitter of carbon in Minnesota, producing 25% of the state’s emissions. With conversations like this one, smart policy at the state and federal levels and innovation in the industry focused on reducing this number, hopefully this number will drop drastically in the coming years.

CEEM welcomed four panelists to lead the conversation:

  • Carolyn Berninger, Transportation and Fuels Public Policy Manager, Great Plains Institute
  • Carrie Desmond, Manager of Electric Bus Infrastructure, Metro Transit
  • Jim Steffes, Vice President of Business Development and Strategy, Zeus Electric Chassis
  • Richard Trebtoske, Electric Vehicle (EV) Chargers Sales Consultant, Pump and Meter

The recently passed transportation bill, along with federal funds from the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program, provide significant resources for improving infrastructure, expanding public transit and encouraging electric vehicle adoption. The panelists emphasized the importance of user-friendly electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, strategic placement of chargers and addressing the needs of medium and large trucks in electrification efforts.

The 2023 Transportation Bill: Funding A Clean Energy Future

In addition to the panelists, Senator Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) joined the event to share insights on the massive transportation bill passed this session. Senator Dibble chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and is a member of the Senate Energy, Utilities, Environment, and Climate Committee. He kicked off the conversation with an overview of the transportation bill that was passed during the 2023 legislative session. The $7.8 billion transportation bill is the state’s first major transportation bill since 2008. It includes a massive list of provisions, some of which include:

  • Over $750 million of state funds to match those from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)
  • $194.7 million for the development of the Northern Lights Express passenger rail between the Twin Cities and Duluth and Chicago
  • $50 million for an extension of the Metro Transit Blue Line into the northwest suburbs
  • $3 million for a rapid transit bus line along Highway 169 and Highway 55
  • Fully funded transit in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota
  • State contribution to the NEVI program
  • Full electrification of the Metro Transit bus fleet
  • Pilot programs for HourCar to bring short-term car rentals to low-income neighborhoods around the Twin Cities metropolitan area
  • Funding for a state level IIJA funds coordinator position
  • Tax credit for the purchase of electric bikes
  • Tax credit for the production of sustainable aviation fuel

Dibble and other advocates hoped to pass a Clean Transportation Standard (CTS) with the transportation bill. While the CTS did not pass, the bill does establish a working group to investigate how to best set a standard for clean transportation. A CTS would help reduce the use of high-carbon transportation fuels while providing incentives to deploy cleaner alternatives.

Expanding EV Infrastructure

Minnesota is adopting electric vehicles at an increasing rate, but is still behind leading states in adoption and for valid reasons. Minnesota is a unique state, home to cold weather and long stretches of highway and interstate – both a concern for the average driver looking to make the switch to an electric vehicle. Panelists and attendees had ideas on steps Minnesota can take to quicken the rate of EV adoption.

The time to ramp up expansion is now, the panelists stressed. Minnesota is receiving $68 billion in federal funds for EV infrastructure through the NEVI program, and the state will match this amount. New state and federal financial incentives will make the cost of EVs more affordable for customers, and it is essential that infrastructure is in place and can meet the demand since reliability is a key concern amongst Minnesotans. The panelists agreed that mobilizing NEVI funds efficiently is critical.

The NEVI funds will be used to install charging stations every 50 miles along the I-35 and I-94 corridors. These stops will feature four DC fast chargers capable of delivering 150 KW hours of power. Additionally, each location will be conveniently situated within a mile of the interstate and equipped with amenities like restrooms. It is imperative to extend these efforts to include other major highways as well.

Trebtoske stressed the importance of making EV infrastructure user-friendly. People want to seamlessly charge electric vehicles while making quick stops the way they are used to with our current gas stations. Installing EV chargers in locations where people traditionally refuel their vehicles, such as truck stops, rest areas and exits along highways, and ensuring they have similar amenities, will make them feel accessible for consumers.

Range anxiety is a common concern – this is the fear that having an EV means you will not be able to drive where you want to go because of the lack of charging available. Installing more EV infrastructure will boost consumer confidence and the panelists agree that this, in addition to cost-savings on charging and maintenance, will drive more Minnesotans towards EVs.

Navigating Minnesota’s Utility Environment

Besides funding, utility costs are a factor in the expansion of EV infrastructure. Minnesota is unique in that it has a wide mix of large public utilities and smaller municipal and cooperative utilities throughout the state. Finding correct information about the programs and incentives through each utility and which applies to you can be a challenge for consumers in this system. Berninger mentioned that energy-focused organizations like Great Plains Institute are thinking about what kinds of resources might be helpful for consumers. “We’re trying to think about ways to point people in the right direction or have a common place where people can see who their utility is and what programs they offer,” explained Berninger.

However, the existence of multiple utility companies also has its upsides. Steffes said that in California, where over half of Zeus’s inquiries originate, he sees competition between utilities yielding innovation. Companies are formulating best practices based on lessons they learn from each other. This may allow utilities to create programs based on what makes the most sense in the communities they serve because the programs and rates that suit urban areas might not make sense in rural communities.

Beyond Cars: Electrifying Public Transit and Trucks

SW Transit Bus

In addition to EVs owned by individuals, improving public transportation options is also key to a clean transportation future. Metro Transit takes immense pride in its role as a pioneer in adopting new technologies in public transit. They have been among the first to embrace hybrid buses and have successfully piloted the use of electric buses on the Metro C line. Desmond emphasized that Metro Transit’s primary goal is to provide the community with safe and environmentally sustainable transit solutions. Although Metro Transit is just beginning to electrify its fleet, they are committed to doing so while also providing customers with reliable, frequent service.

A group of vehicles that current policy does not address are medium and large trucks. Panelist Jim Steffes works for Zeus Electric Chassis, a company that builds electric chassis for class 4-6 trucks, which include utility trucks, small busses and service trucks. This class of vehicles is left out of the NEVI program and Minnesota’s new legislation. Steffes points to California, where there are financial incentives to electrify class 4-6 vehicles. He says that providing the same here in Minnesota would boost the market.

Keys to the Future

The clean energy transition will provide vast economic opportunities. Going forward, there are several steps Minnesota can take to maximize these opportunities. The panelists had a few key ideas:

  • Maximize the funding that comes here: The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and IIJA allocate billions of dollars for sustainability work. Minnesota businesses need support securing these funds.
  • Get small businesses the resources they need to engage in the clean energy transition: Ensuring small, independent facilities, like convenience stores that want to install EV charging, that want to engage in the clean energy transition have the financial support they need to do so will accelerate the growth of clean transportation.
  • Collaborate: Desmond mentioned that she has been meeting with public transportation agencies in other states to share ideas about decarbonization. Going forward, she said, Minnesota businesses, agencies and other organizations will benefit from working together with peers across the country.
  • Invest in the clean energy workforce: Investing in the clean energy workforce, including specialized training programs, will further drive Minnesota’s progress towards a sustainable transportation future. According to Steffes, there are shortages in the talent pool for electrified automobile technicians. He is part of a steering committee at the University of Minnesota that is building a curriculum for vehicle electrification.

With the recently passed transportation bill and innovative industry leaders, Minnesota is poised to make significant strides in expanding clean transportation.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Our monthly newsletter includes updates from the Capitol, the latest clean energy news and blogs and important information about upcoming events!