University takes first step on campus vehicle electrification project

If completed, the electric vehicle switch will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption.

A+University+bus+drives+on+campus+on+Wednesday%2C+April+27.

Ray Shehadeh

A University bus drives on campus on Wednesday, April 27.

by Tess Fitzhenry

The University of Minnesota’s Facilities Management and Fleet Services are collaborating with Xcel Energy to convert all campus vehicles to electric power, a step toward the University’s goal of net zero carbon emissions.

Over the course of eight months, project leaders will evaluate the potential costs and logistics of this project by collecting data on campus buses and vans with a device called Geotab. The device tracks and records the number of miles traveled, location and average idle time, according to the Director of Parking and Transportation Services Ross Allanson.

This data will be collected from 100 vehicles over the course of 90 days. After this sample is complete, the Geotab software will be transferred to 100 other vehicles for an additional 90 day period, Allanson said.

The data collection will help the University determine the total cost of owning and maintaining electric vehicles in comparison to gasoline or diesel powered vehicles, according to Director of Central Services in Facilities Management Linda Weingarten.

Although the total cost of electrifying campus vehicles is unknown, it would include the purchase price of the vehicles, maintenance and operations costs and the cost of installing charging locations, Weingarten said. The cost of the data collection and assessment will be fully covered by Xcel Energy.

The data collected from the Geotab will help identify locations for charging stations where vehicles will recharge overnight. The data will also help determine how many stations will be necessary to charge all of the vehicles, Weingarten said.

The University already switched many campus vehicles from gasoline to hybrid electric, which have been shown to run three times more efficiently than gasoline and diesel vehicles, according to the University sustainability website.

According to reporting from the Minnesota Daily in June 2021, the University owns approximately 40 hybrid vehicles.

“Converting vehicles can save a significant amount of energy and emissions,” Director of Sustainability Shane Stennes said. “Electronic vehicles convert over 77% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels.”

In comparison, conventional gasoline vehicles only convert about 12% to 30% of the energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The electric vehicle models will rely on batteries powered with renewable energy from Xcel Energy, such as solar and wind power, Stennes said.

Science, technology and environmental policy graduate student Eric Barry said electrification often happens as a form of greenwashing, where companies appear to be sustainable, but under the surface are still relying on fossil fuels such as coal.

“It comes down to a two-part solution, you can electrify your transportation [buses] as long as you decarbonize your source,” Barry said.

Although a complete switch to electric vehicles could take years to complete, data samples will continue to be collected from additional vehicles, Stennes said.

“The conversion to EVs [electric vehicles] is expected to take place over a number of years, which will allow us to take advantage of new technology and expected lower costs of EVs as the market expands,” Stennes said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the environmental impact of electric vehicles.