Minnesota will add EV charging stations along I-94 and I-35 to counter range complaints

Minnesota transportation officials are moving ahead with their build-out of an electric vehicle charging network after winning federal approval this month.

Minnesota stands to get $68 million over five years from the 2021 federal infrastructure law. In the first phase, state Department of Transportation officials expect to install a total of 16 charging stations along interstates 94 and 35 by the end of 2024.

"Ultimately the goal is to create a convenient, accessible, reliable network throughout the state," Siri Simons, MnDOT's project lead on the EV infrastructure plan, said in an interview. "We know it won’t happen in the first year, but we do hope that by the end of the program many more Minnesotans feel comfortable driving EVs throughout the state of Minnesota."

Electric vehicles now account for 6% of auto sales nationwide, but fewer than 3% of vehicles sold in Minnesota are electric. Industry officials say range anxiety and decreasing battery performance in the winter present hurdles to adoption. Building out the state's charging network is key to driving sales, they say.

Minnesota has 524 public chargers. Only 100 are Level 3 fast chargers that are capable of charging a car's battery within 30-40 minutes and make long road trips possible.

The new stations along I-94 and I-35 will be no farther than 50 miles apart to comply with federal rules. MnDOT won't choose a contractor until deciding where to put the chargers, which will involve a public input process this fall.

In the mix are restaurants, gas stations, and big-box stories where drivers have access to amenities while waiting for their vehicles to charge. Rest stops are out, Simons said.

"They just don’t offer some of the same amenities that we can get at privately owned sites – things like access to restaurants, gas stations, other amenities," she said.

The federal program is designed to spur private development of a charging network in each state. Companies such as Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, have installed chargers outside grocery stores in the Twin Cities, while gas station owners in other states have made EV chargers part of their revenue model.

Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, said the state needs to speed up the pace of opening new charging stations.

"People need to know that they can get an easy charge on these (cars)," Lambert said in an interview. "And that’s just not there right now. We need to build that up before we can really expect a big, big increase in these vehicles."

The five-year funding will allow MnDOT to move beyond I-94 and I-35 in the next few years. Interstate 90 is a likely next step, according to the state's application to the federal government.

Federal officials approved Minnesota's plan even though the state hasn't identified a source for $17 million in required matching funds. The Legislature didn't approve the money this spring, when it got wrapped up in end-of-session negotiations over a transportation bill that never passed. Private partners could deliver some of the matching funds, and MnDOT will ask the Legislature again in 2023, Simons said.

Electric vehicle owners say the cars are great as daily drivers but present a challenge on long road trips if there aren't public fast chargers where they're going.

"You really kind of have to plan your route, especially outside the (Twin) Cities, to make sure there’s going to be enough stations where you need to stop," said Kenna, who preferred to use only her first name, as she charged her six-week-old EV at an Electrify America charging station in Woodbury. "We definitely need more."