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Electric cars sales, efficiency continue to grow

Pam Schmidt, customer service solutions analyst for Minnesota Power, describes the several varieties of electric and hybrid electric cars on display at the DECC Tuesday afternoon. To her left is the Chevy Bolt, a fully electric car. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 3
Jasmine Robertson (left) and Lisa Lancaster, both with the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation, get a feel for a Tesla Model 3 electric car at the energy conference at the DECC Tuesday afternoon. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 3
Alan Wernke, a volunteer from Minneapolis, describes the features of his Tesla Model 3 electric car to Jasmine Robertson (left) and Lisa Lancaster, both with the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation. The vehicle has no controls on the dashboard, instead using a display console. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH—If Northlanders really wanted to be like Norwegians we'd stow the cross-country skis and stoic love of cold and buy a Tesla.

Norway reached a milestone in December when electric vehicles accounted for 52 percent of all new vehicles sold in the country. All-electric Tesla models were the first and second most popular cars sold in Norway. It was the first time more than half of all new vehicles sold in Norway (or any other country) were electric, and that number is expected to only increase in years to come.

Lightbulb moment here, Northland: The Norwegian climate is much like ours. Electric cars work in the cold.

This week one of the very first Tesla Model 3s unveiled in the Midwest was at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, part of Minnesota Power's 28th annual Energy Design Conference & Expo. The Model 3 is the first widely available all-electric car to break the 300-mile range barrier. Also on display are Chevrolet Bolts, battery electric compact cars that can drive 238 miles between charges. Both are all-electric cars with no gas engines.

"I've been driving Teslas since December 2013. I use it in town. I road trip long distances a lot. It's my daily driver. I've got 74,000 miles on all-electric vehicles," said Alan Wernke of Edina, Minn. Wernke drove his shiny red two-week-old Tesla Model 3 to Duluth this week to help promote electric vehicles, or EVs. He's an evangelical salesperson who doesn't get paid, passionate about reducing air pollution and his carbon footprint. He drives an EV "because I want to avoid fossil fuels. But it's also fun," Wernke said, describing himself as an "early adopter" and noting he pays a little extra each month for his electricity at home to make sure it's from renewable sources like solar and wind.

"But I don't pay for gas or oil changes," he said.

To highlight how fast EV technology is advancing, Wernke noted his first Tesla cost nearly $100,000 and could go 200 miles between charges. His new one, just four years later, cost $51,000 and goes 50 percent farther on the same charge. The base Model 3, with a 200-mile range, starts at just $35,000.

"It's battery cost and technology. They keep getting better and cheaper," he said.

As far as Minnesota's winters go, Wernke said temperatures above freezing don't impact EV range much. Between 32 and zero, he estimates up to a 20 percent loss in range as batteries get cold. Below zero, it can be up to half. But for him, that's still over 150 miles.

"The average person drives about 37 miles per day. Most people can go all week without charging," he noted.

Minnesota Power also has two new 2017 Chevy Bolts on display, which were recently added to the company's fleet. They are all-electric vehicles that, on a mild day, can travel 238 miles on a full charge. There are also hybrids — where a gas-powered engine helps recharge batteries that run out of power — including the Chevrolet Volt sedan, a Mitsubishi Outlander hybrid SUV for people who might need all-wheel drive and a Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan for those who need more space for kids and gear.

"We've already delivered about 30 Bolts," said Bob O'Hara, fleet manager at Ranger Chevrolet in Hibbing. So far, most have been for corporate or government fleets. But he's expecting more individuals to kick tires now that more Bolts are showing up on showroom floors across the region. "They've been hard to get."

O'Hara was guiding test drives Tuesday, explaining how he has driven the all-electric from Hibbing to Bloomington without stopping to charge. He drove one from the Twin Cities to Duluth in a snowstorm earlier this week.

Just as O'Hara promised, the Bolt accelerates fast and smooth and, of course, quietly. Push the regenerative braking button and the car slows and even stops itself when you let off the gas — one-foot driving — charging the battery each time you slow down.

"This car is going to make people more comfortable with electric," O'Hara said of the Bolt.

The U.S. may lag far behind Norway in the shift to electric vehicles. But the trend is clear toward both plug-in hybrids, PHEVs, and battery electric vehicles, BEVs. According to, there were about 200,000 electric vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2017, up 32 percent from 2016 and accounting for about 1.2 percent of all auto sales. Those numbers are expected to hit 325,000 and nearly 2 percent this year.

By 2025, more than 3.5 million electric cars are projected to be sold in the U.S. annually, accounting for more than one in five new vehicles sold. Experts say any major increase in gasoline costs could push the trend even faster, as could federal policy that further encouraged the transition.

GM plans to launch 20 EV models by 2023, while Ford announced last month it plans to invest $11 billion in EVs, with a goal of having 40 models by 2022.

Meanwhile rapid charge stations are popping up along freeways and in cities nationwide, including in Duluth's Canal Park, Sturgeon Lake and Pine City. These stations can fully recharge EVs in less than an hour. Other plug-ins that take overnight for a full charge are available in parking ramps, hotels and resorts across the region. Tesla has its own network of charging stations.

"Some people worry about charging stations. But something like 90 percent of charging is done at home," said Pam Schmidt, Minnesota Power customer solutions analyst. Minnesota Power offers a reduced electric rate for overnight home vehicle charging — a second meter is required.

"We want to do more to help dealers" sell more electric vehicles, Schmidt said. "Do we stick with helping people charge in their garages or do we jump into more public charging stations? We're still deciding how far to go and how fast."

Chevy Bolt battery electric vehicle

Minnesota Power has added two all-electric Chevrolet Bolts to its corporate fleet. According to the Bolt has:

• A range of 238 miles in mild weather, less in frigid weather.

• A a 60 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery pack.

• 16.9 cubic feet of cargo space.

• Pricing starting at $37,495.

• A federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

• A top speed of 91 mph.

• A top safety pick by the Insurance Institute of highway Safety.

All-electric vehicles (with no backup internal combustion engine) also are available from Kia, Ford, Nissan, Hyundai, Tesla and BMW.