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Green machines: Hennepin County will convert its fleet to electric cars

Change comes slowly.

Change comes slowly. Hennepin County

Here's some good news for any multicellular organism concerned about climate change: Hennepin County is switching its vehicle fleet to electric cars. The unsurprising catch for anyone who knows how these changes happen: It could take a while.

The county committed to the switch after a $25,000 study by the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment determined that a green fleet could work. The study was based on Hennepin’s transportation needs and what’s been working for other local governments.

Currently, the county owns 144 light-duty vehicles – everything from sedans used by inspectors to squad cars. The plan is to gradually start paring down uneeded vehicles and replacing gas-powered cars with electric models. According to a report by the Star Tribune, the transition could save the county $300,000 in short-term fuel costs and vehicle maintenance.

Assistant County Administrator Carl Michaud says if they start the replacement process now, it will probably take several years to convert the whole fleet to electric vehicles. These, he’s quick to point out, are little, tentative steps toward an environmentally friendly measure, and that’s by design.

Urgent as the need for clean energy can seem under the threat of climate change and pollution, Michaud says governments have to adopt these new technologies slowly. He gives LED lights as an example. Cities and counties across the country have been using them in traffic signals since the late ‘80s.

“Years ago, we said, ‘yeah you should do that,’” Michaud says. But back then, LEDs were more expensive and less efficient. The county decided to wait until the product improved, cheapened, and became safely mainstream before jumping on the bandwagon. To do otherwise, Michaud says, would have meant gambling with taxpayer dollars. Hennepin County didn’t fully upgrade its stoplights until 2015.

Right now, Michaud says, we’re “right on the edge” of where it’s sensible to jump into electric vehicles. But the truth is, we couldn’t take the leap all at once if we wanted to.

Take our state government’s electric car program for example. Its fleet already includes several hundred hybrids, and the goal is to get 20 percent of its gas-powered vehicles converted to electric cars by 2027. The reason: That’s about as fast as Minnesota can get its hands on them.

Department of Administration Assistant Commissioner Curtis Yoakum told the Star Tribune that far more electric cars get sent to the coasts than the Midwest, which creates a bottleneck. On top of that, there aren’t enough charging stations in our area to sustain them in the first place. These must slowly be built to keep up with gradual increase in demand.

Michaud’s feeling pretty confident about the county’s slow but steady trajectory, but a lot can happen in five years. It could be that expanding infrastructure, like the new Southwest Light Rail Transit project, will make cars less necessary to the county in the first place. Maybe it will start making more sense to have employees take Uber or Lyft to job sites. Or, maybe electric vehicles will get efficient enough that the county can start replacing its heavy-duty trucks and construction equipment with electric models.

“If it makes sense to switch to electric, then it’s our intent to do that,” he says