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MSA advocates for an all-electric vehicle fleet, University cites challenges with supply and cold winters

The University plans to continue gradually adding electric vehicles to its fleet as they become more readily available on the market and technology improves.
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

In March, a Minnesota Student Association (MSA) resolution requested that the University of Minnesota purchase only electric-powered vehicles when adding to its vehicle fleet.

In addition to only purchasing electric vehicles (EVs), Jack Flom, author of the resolution and MSA’s representative to the Student Senate Consultative Committee, requested that the University define EVs as battery-powered (not hybrid or biodiesel) and provide an updated sustainability report each year going forward.

“The future is, obviously, electric vehicles,” Flom said. “I think that my mindset was that instead of doing incremental stuff that costs a lot more, we could just jump right to the destination that costs about the same, if not less, to just buy electric vehicles.”

Flom met with Ross Allanson, the director of Parking and Transportation Services (PTS), and Michael Berthelsen, the vice president of University Services, along with other administrators in May to discuss the feasibility of MSA’s proposal.

Challenges to an all-electric fleet

Both Allanson and Berthelsen demonstrated support for more EVs in the fleet, with Allanson adding that the University will start to gradually purchase more EVs “over the next few years.”

However, Allanson said challenges such as charging infrastructure for a fleet, upfront costs, manufacturing limitations, harsh winters and market availability create obstacles to only purchasing EVs, as the MSA resolution requests.

There are 35 charging stations for EVs available for public use on the Twin Cities campus, according to Shane Stennes, the University’s director of sustainability.

Although these stations provide adequate charging infrastructure for personal vehicles, Allanson said that the University does not have the capacity to charge a whole vehicle fleet.

In a 2017 letter to the Minnesota Daily voicing support for EVs, Allanson noted that each charging station can cost between $8,000 and $10,000. That money will come out of PTS’ budget unless otherwise subsidized by state or federal grants, he added.

In the same year, the University purchased six all-electric Chevrolet Bolt vehicles as a pilot test to see if EVs would operate well in the fleet.

“One of the issues that we discovered through that process was that Minnesota’s cold winters significantly impacted the range of those vehicles,” Allanson said. “We also learned that charging those vehicles in the winter was a challenge.”

Environmental impact

Although the vehicle fleet does contribute to the University’s total carbon emissions, the contribution is small compared to other factors, Stennes said.

Less than 1% of the University’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from the vehicle fleet, while other factors like fossil fuels used to heat buildings and people commuting to and from campus make up the majority of total emissions.

Of the 823 University vehicles across all five campuses, 41 are hybrid and seven are fully electric. There are 559 vehicles on the Twin Cities campus used for purposes such as maintenance, rental services and construction.

Though hybrid cars emit fewer pollutants, traditional hybrids still operate with one electric motor and one gasoline engine.

“Instead of just baby stepping into the future, we should jump into the future,” Flom said. “Because hybrids are obviously, you know, baby steps, but we are going to have to replace them eventually.”

EVs run solely on a battery and do not use oil, gasoline or have an internal combustion engine. They are also shown to not only decrease air pollution, but drastically reduce the cost of charging when compared to average gasoline prices, according to the US Department of Energy.

More universities on the path to zero-emissions

The University of Michigan plans to acquire more EVs and have an all-electric bus fleet by 2035. Their plan would involve purchasing multiple Electric Bluebuses at the cost of around $750,000 each.

The University of California predicts that EV or hybrid vehicles will account for at least half of all its new light-duty vehicle purchases by 2025.

“There are some burdens and obstacles to overcome in that space as well, but we are optimistic about the trajectory that electric vehicles are on and the commitments that manufacturers are making to them,” Stennes said. “We do believe that this is going to be sort of the wave of the future and that we will be headed that direction. It is mainly a question about ‘when and what vehicles’ and ‘how’, and less about, ‘if.’”

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