Charging Up Minnesota with Volkswagen Funds

October 13, 2020 | | Education

On July 30, 2020, the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) and Drive Electric Minnesota (DEMN) co-hosted a webinar, “Charging Up with Volkswagen Funds,” to provide insights about Phase 1 of Minnesota’s plan to disperse the Volkswagen (VW) settlement dollars received by the state and to provide an outlook for Phase 2. This blog post shares insights and highlights from the webinar presentations and discussion.

VW agreed to settle allegations that it violated the federal Clean Air Act by selling vehicles that emit air pollution over the legal limit and cheating on federal emission tests to hide the excess pollution. As part of that settlement, the State of Minnesota receives $47 million over a 10-year period that began in 2018, paid from a settlement fund “created to help states and tribes clean up the excess air pollution emitted by the violating VW vehicles.” The state is spending the money in three phases and can spend the money primarily on replacing older, more polluting diesel vehicles and investing in electric vehicle technology.

Insights from Phase 1

Level 2 Chargers

Mark Sulzbach, clean diesel grants project manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (the agency in charge of managing the settlement funds), reviewed the MPCA VW program goals, relayed information about the funding distributions from Phase 1, and provided an outlook for Phase 2 funding.

The MPCA’s VW program has several goals:    

  • Achieve significant emission reductions 
  • Ensure statewide benefits 
  • Help people and places disproportionately affected by air pollution 
  • Reduce exposures to harmful air pollutants and maximize health benefits 
  • Balance cost-effectiveness of projects with other goals 

Sulzbach shared information about the Level 2 charging station grants from Phase 1, including the total amount awarded, number of applicants, and types, as shown in the chart below. These grants will help expand EV charging station availability for the public by funding charging stations in public places, workplaces, and multi-unit housing. The MPCA received $3,200,000 in requests for 75 Level 2 stations and granted $158,000 for 25 dual port chargers (view awarded grants on the MPCA website). Approximately $7,500 was awarded per station. At the time of the webinar, only one project has filed for reimbursement.

Kris Acuña, program associate at the Great Plains Institute (GPI), discussed his experience with Level 2 grants as MPCA awarded funds to GPI to work with the cities of Fridley and Coon Rapids to install Level 2 chargers. He reviewed some of the grant requirements for the installations, including site plans, dedicated parking spaces, the need for bollards, ADA compliance, a 5-year warranty, cord management, signage, and renewable energy. Acuña shared the checklist and other charging resources that can be accessed on the Drive Electric Minnesota website.

Brandy Toft, environmental deputy director at Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, shared her community’s story about the Level 2 charger they installed. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is a rural community about the size of Rhode Island, with over 70 percent made up of water or wetlands. They serve 9,000 people in 11 communities. The EV charger was a no-brainer for the Leech Lake Band as they are already on their EV journey, with chargers at their casinos, retrofitting and repowering a large number of diesel vehicles (including buses), and an EV infrastructure and procurement policy.

Toft said that they see the benefits from EV infrastructure for their community (fuel security, economic, greenhouse gas emission reductions, health, and leading the charge) as they continue their work. “I’ve always said this is a fuel the dream scenario. If you build it, they will come. So, we’re putting all these EV chargers in–in the hopes that this will create an EV fleet for Leech Lake. You gotta have the infrastructure before you bring on the fleet, and this is the first step,” said Toft. Their project is the only one that the state has reimbursed for installation at the time of the webinar, as it was the only project that had filed for reimbursement.  

DC Fast Chargers (DCFC, often referred to as “fast chargers”)

The MPCA awarded ZEF Energy all the contracts for the DCFC corridors in Phase 1. Jim Goodman, vice president of customer development at ZEF Energy, provided some feedback from the developer perspective related to recruiting community hosts for the charger installations. He was overwhelmed with the positive response received from potential community hosts, including those with a local champion to shepherd the process along. One piece of advice he would give to potential host communities is that “turf is your friend, and parking lots located next to turf are even friendlier!” He elaborated, saying that it’s so much easier to install the chargers in the ground vs. concrete.

One of the community hosts for a DCFC station during Phase 1 was the City of St. Cloud. St. Cloud is the largest population center in central Minnesota. It is the tenth-largest city in Minnesota, with a population of 68,462, according to 2019 US census estimates. Tracy Hodel, St. Cloud’s public services director, shared the timeline and story for their installation. Additionally, she talked about how the EV fast charger fits into the “decarbonizing transportation” goal for the city’s broader energy and sustainability initiative.

Looking ahead: VW settlement program Phase 2

Phase 2 will span 2020-2023, during which the state will disperse half of the VW settlement money. For the EV charging RFPs, that will mean $3,525,000 dispersed, with 10 percent allocated for Level 2 charging stations in public locations, mobility hubs, workplaces, and multi-unit housing, and 90 percent allocated for DCFC stations along highway corridors. So far, MPCA has released three RFPs in 2020, including the one to fund DCFC corridors in Greater Minnesota. The Level 2 RFP is expected to come out in the very near future.

DC Fast Chargers

The map for the Phase 2 DCFC corridors is below. The investment in EV DCFC stations in Greater Minnesota will expand the statewide EV charging network by approximately 2,544 miles, enabling more Minnesotans to use zero-emission vehicles beyond urban areas.

Source: Map by MPCA, Minnesota’s Volkswagen Settlement Beneficiary Mitigation Plan Phase II (2020 – 2023) (February 2020), 16.

Note from report: “MPCA is not proposing to fund any DC fast-charging stations within the seven-county Twin Cities metro area due to the present publically available options for charging.”

Those applying to the EV fast charging station grants RFP must apply to install DCFCs along the entire corridor. For local governments and other entities, the primary opportunity is to become a site host along the corridor. Jim Goodman talked about what makes a good host site according to ZEF Energy. A public or private parking lot that clearly “fits the spec” includes the following characteristics:

  • Close to corridor
  • 24/7/365 access for the public
  • Well-lit
  • Within walking distance to services/retail/dining
  • Has room to add more chargers
  • Has 3-phase power very near with a “lower” distribution voltage
  • Near turf
  • Will be redeveloped or newly developed (reduces installation costs)

Goodman also talked about how important it is to have a community champion, preferably someone that has a contact with the local electric utility.

Level 2 Chargers

Katelyn Bocklund, program manager of transportation & fuels at GPI, shared some tips about what would make good community and site locations for Level 2 chargers, pointing to resources on the Drive Electric Minnesota website. Bocklund told the audience, “It’s good to think about the charging gaps in your community.”

One important consideration is to install some chargers near multi-family housing where it may be difficult for residents to access charging on-site otherwise. It’s also important to remember that a typical user will spend two to four hours at a public Level 2 charger, making places like parks, theaters, libraries, hotels, and downtown areas great locations. Another important consideration is whether you are redeveloping or developing new parking lots/ramps—that’s an excellent time to lay conduit to save money for future chargers. If you have a shovel-ready site where conduit has already been laid, you may have an ideal location for installing a charger with VW funds.

One of the five goals for the VW settlement funding is to “help people and places disproportionately affected by air pollution.” The MPCA created an “Understanding environmental justice in Minnesota” interactive map with different views including pollution, people of color, and people living in poverty. Grant applications from these areas get additional points added to their score.

Bocklund also provided some tips when looking for an installation location on-site. One factor is to locate the charger close to an existing power source, where there is less concrete and additional capacity in the breaker, mostly to save money.

Lastly, Level 2 chargers can be powered with renewable energy. On-site solar with an EV charger is a great pairing, especially for workplaces. You can also purchase renewable energy from your utility.

Open RFPs

On August 27, the MPCA announced the RFP for Greater Minnesota fast chargers. The funding opportunity makes available more than $2.6 million to applicants who will install fast chargers 30 to 70 miles apart along seven proposed corridors. Grants are capped at 80 percent of total project costs, or $70,000 per fast charging station.

More information, application materials, and a map of Minnesota’s existing and proposed charging corridors are available on MPCA’s website: EV fast charging station grants. Applications are due by 4:30 pm on November 25, 2020.

In addition to the RFP for EV charging, there is an electric school bus pilot currently open. For more information about all the grant opportunities, refer to the MPCA website here.

Get more information about the Phase 2 plan with this handout created by the MPCA, including a map of the existing and proposed corridors.

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