What comes to mind when you think of North Dakota? For folks who haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting, it might be cold winters with plenty of snow, affable residents with a quirky dialect or the 1996 Coen Brothers’ film “Fargo.” What people don’t usually think of is technological innovation, vibrant communities and plenty of sunshine. Sunshine? Yes, and these elements are all coming together to revitalize communities, attract young tech workers and power electric vehicles somewhere you’d least expect it. Speaking of Fargo, in this first of a three-part series on the burgeoning electric vehicle (EV) scene in North Dakota, we travel from the state’s largest city to Norway and back again.
In 2010, the city of Fargo put out an RFP for a comprehensive plan asking people, “What kind of city do you want Fargo to be by 2030?” According to the city’s current parking commissioner and former deputy mayor, Mike Williams, “We got 8,700 responses. If an idea was good, others would second it, and the best ideas rose to the top. In the top 10 were renewable energy and conservation.”
Based in part on that poll, city leaders set about implementing the Go2030 sustainability plan, which includes remaking Fargo by revitalizing the downtown core and implementing an ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. “A lot of people realized that emissions from transportation was one of the biggest causes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and electric vehicles can help with that. Developing EV infrastructure and paving the way for electric cars was identified as a key initiative by our residents back in 2010,” Williams says. “And it’s been our mission to try to achieve that goal.”
Bringing EV best practices home — from the source
In 2018, Williams worked with energy consultants John Flory from eSmart Systems, a provider of AI-powered infrastructure solutions, and Paul Jensen from Green Ways 2Go, which helps companies develop clean transportation strategies, to find out how feasible it was to invest in EV charging in a place where temperatures regularly average below freezing during the winter. Flory observed that Norway is No. 1 in electric vehicles per capita in the world, so eSmart organized a “smart innovations learning tour” of the country. “We don't know what we don't know, but we do know what's been successful,” Williams says. “We always hear that you can't have EVs in cold weather, so we wanted to go to Norway.”
In 2018, he traveled to Norway along with Flory and Jensen as well as Terry Sando, the mayor of Hillsboro, North Dakota, and 12 others. The first stop was a mixed-use parking ramp that had a hundred EV chargers. According to Flory, the trip laid the groundwork for a pilot project supported by the State of North Dakota. The project brings solar power and EV charging to the recently completed seven-story, state-of-the-art, 458-stall parking facility in downtown Fargo called Roberts Commons Garage (RoCo ramp for short). The garage is surrounded on three sides by mixed use residential, retail and dining.
Along with reducing emissions, we need to help get people where they need to go for less, and in a cleaner way. Electric vehicles are a good way to do that, and we want to help pave the way for that transition. — Mike Williams, Parking Commissioner, City of Fargo
Harnessing the power of the sun — and adding value
Flory now works for risk management firm The Alliance Risk Group and runs the pilot project for the state. “Initially, we were going to have the 48 solar panels deliver power to some stand-alone EV chargers. Paul Jensen convinced us to install five intelligent dual-port ChargePoint Level 2 EV charging stations at RoCo ramp instead,” Flory says.
Solar not only provides energy, but it also helps the city avoid peak utility demand charges. Three 15kW smart lithium-ion batteries store that solar power to further cut emissions and costs. “In Fargo, a lot of times, we aren’t the earliest adopters,” Williams says. “We sometimes call it ‘the leapfrog effect’ because we like to sit back and see what’s working, maybe add a little bit of value, and then implement something that best applies to us.”
In Fargo, a lot of times we aren’t the earliest adopters. We sometimes call it ‘the leapfrog effect’ because we like to sit back and see what’s working, maybe add a little bit of value, and then implement something that best applies to us. — Mike Williams, Parking Commissioner, City of Fargo
Norway wasn't the only country Williams’ team looked at for inspiration. “Germany is the largest solar producer per capita by far, and we have a better solar resource than Germany — the sun shines quite a bit here — and so solar is feasible,” he says. In fact, Fargo boasts 200 sunny days per year on average, compared with 158 for Germany.
Making transportation easier — and cleaner
“What we found in Go2030 is that our residents spend more on transportation on average — on their cars, parking and everything else — than they do on housing. It’s the opposite of what happens in a place like San Francisco,” Williams says. “So, along with reducing emissions, we need to help get people where they need to go for less, and in a cleaner way. Electric vehicles are a good way to do that, and we want to help pave the way for that transition.” With 20,000 people working in the downtown area and another 5,000–6,000 living there, there wasn’t any room for error when choosing an electric fueling partner.
I spoke to some folks in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and they really liked working with ChargePoint and were happy with the support. It was obvious that people were familiar with ChargePoint. When someone buys an electric vehicle, a lot of times they'll already have a ChargePoint card. — Mike Williams, Parking Commissioner, City of Fargo
ChargePoint’s sophisticated reporting features and intelligent software were a crucial component of pulling off such an ambitious plan focused on smart energy use, Williams says. Brand reputation and recognition were important as well. “I spoke to some folks in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and they really liked working with ChargePoint and were happy with the support. It was obvious that people were familiar with ChargePoint. When someone buys an electric vehicle, a lot of times they'll already have a ChargePoint card.” As of this writing, Fargo was in the process of installing a ChargePoint DC fast charger in front of city hall. “We'll have our first fast charging station three blocks from where we have our 10 ports at the Roberts Commons,” Williams says, noting that, when it comes to sustainability, Fargo is just getting started.
In part two of our North Dakota series, we head to one of the state’s smallest towns, Hillsboro, to find out how ChargePoint is impacting the community there. In part three, it’s off to the state capital, Bismarck, to conclude our trilogy on one of our favorite states to charge.