Volkswagen settlement: What we've heard

The MPCA held a series of public meetings to discuss the settlement and to answer questions regarding settlement details. We received hundreds of written comments and responses to online surveys. We then wrote a draft plan for the settlement funds and gave Minnesotans an opportunity to review it and let us know if they think their input was appropriately incorporated into the plan.

Input on Minnesota’s draft plan

The MPCA released a draft state plan for public comment in February and March 2018. The plan sought to balance and reflect the large amount of wide-ranging input we heard during our first year of engagement. On the draft plan, we received 581 written comments; 96 were individual comments and 485 were form comments. See materials from our public meetings here.

Key themes. Comments on Minnesota’s draft plan were overall positive. We heard from Minnesotans on a wide variety of issues, including many comments on both sides certain topics. Here are some of the major themes and issues that commenters indicated are most important to them.

School buses

We have heard from many Minnesotans that the VW funds should reduce emissions from school buses to protect the health of children. 24% of all comments and 14% of individual commenters specifically wrote to support the proposed school bus grant program. Some commenters recommended the MPCA require applicants to use certain fuel types in their new buses.

Electric vehicles

During the MPCA’s early engagement, support for electric vehicles was the most common comment we received. Electric vehicles continued to be a main focus of comments on our draft plan. 90% of all commenters and 36% of individual commenters specifically supported the proposed heavy-duty electric vehicle grant program, many saying we should dedicate even more funds to this category of vehicle. 65% of all commenters and 21% of the individual comments recommended replacing diesel school buses and transit buses with electric versions. 91% of all commenters and 45% of individual commenters wrote in support of the proposed electric vehicle charging station program. They offered many suggestions about type of charging stations that should receive funding. Many commenters recommended that the plan in some way support the use of renewable energy for charging vehicles.

Health and environmental justice

Throughout our engagement efforts we have heard that Minnesotans want the MPCA to focus on reducing harmful exposures to diesel pollution, especially in lower-income communities and communities of color that are often disproportionately impacted by air pollution. 87% of all commenters and 24% of individual commenters wrote in support of including these issues Minnesota’s plan for the VW funds.

Summary of plan changes

Some commenters provided recommendations for changes to the draft plan. In deciding which updates to make to the plan, we considered any new information that commenters provided that we did not have before writing the draft. We also considered how possible changes might impact the overall balance of the plan. Since the input we received on the draft plan was generally positive, the MPCA decided not to make changes that would change the overall direction or balance of the plan. The three-phase structure of Minnesota’s program will allow us to consider any larger changes to the program for Phase 2 based on our experience with Phase 1 and additional input from Minnesotans between the phases.

School bus grant amounts

The MPCA received new information from school districts, school bus fleet owners, and school bus vendors indicating that $10,000 grants would not be sufficient to incentivize fleet owners to retire working diesel buses early. We received a range of recommendations on appropriate grant amounts. Since school bus emissions expose children to diesel pollution and were a main focus of public comment, we want to make sure that the school bus grant program will encourage bus owners to retire their old, dirty vehicles. Therefore, in the final plan the MPCA has increased the grant amounts for school buses to $15,000 and $20,000 for low-income school districts.

Electric vehicle charging stations

We received many comments on our plans for electric vehicle charging stations. Many of the comments focused on factors that they believe are most likely to encourage people to use an electric vehicle. We heard a strong call for us to allow 50 kilowatt (kW) stations along highway corridors rather than requiring 150 kW stations. 50 kW stations do not charge cars as fast as 150 kW stations, but they are much less expensive. Commenters said that it was most important to install a large number of stations across the state so that people all over the state can travel by electric vehicle. Commenters recommended installing 50 kW stations during Phase 1, then considering upgrades to faster stations in later phases. The MPCA recognizes the benefits of installing more stations and therefore changed the final plan to allow 50 kW stations along highway corridors.

The MPCA received some comments recommending that we increase the amount of funding allocated to Level 2 charging stations. We decided not to change this allocation amount because during our outreach and engagement efforts in 2017, we heard that Minnesotans are most interested in using electric vehicle charging station funding to increase fast charging along corridors.

Aggregation of applications

At many of our public meetings, we were asked if we would allow aggregation of applications. In the final plan, the MPCA clarified that groups of vehicle owners can come together and apply for funding as a group, including using a third party to submit a joint application. We not only will allow aggregation of applications, but expect and encourage it.

Heavy-duty electric vehicles

Many commenters wrote in support of the heavy-duty electric vehicle grant program. Many recommended that the MPCA allocate additional funds for heavy-duty electric vehicles. For Phase 1 of this program we have decided not to increase the funding for this grant program. The program will allow an initial investment in heavy-duty electric equipment in Minnesota and allow us to begin to try this technology here. However, this equipment is still significantly more expensive than other fuels, so we will be able to achieve greater emissions reductions through the balanced approach outlined in this plan. We plan to reconsider the level of funding for this category for Phase 2 when we hope and expect the cost effectiveness of heavy-duty electric vehicles will improve and that there may be more opportunities to invest in this technology at that time.

We also received several comments stating that heavy-duty electric vehicles would require a larger grant in order to encourage people to try the new technology. We decided to eliminate the 25% funding cap for this category in order to provide a greater incentive. We may set a new, higher funding cap through the request for proposal process.

Clarifying eligibility and program structure

Commenters highlighted a variety of areas in our draft plan that required clarification or changes for consistency. We clarified that gasoline vehicles are not eligible for funding under the terms of the national settlement and that airport ground support equipment and forklifts are eligible for funding under the heavy-duty electric vehicle grant category.

Glossary of terms

The MPCA’s Environmental Justice Advisory Group recommended adding a glossary of terms to help readers understand some of the more technical terms in the state’s plan. A glossary (Appendix 8) was added upon their recommendation.

Early engagement

Through public meetings and written comments, we heard from hundreds of Minnesotans before drafting our state plan. Listening session attendees were asked to identify the three factors that matter most to them by placing dots on an interactive poster. The same questions were posed in an online survey. Use this interactive tool to see what we heard.

Key themes

The following is a summary of comments received by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) regarding the use of Volkswagen settlement funds in Minnesota and the shaping of Minnesota’s Beneficiary Mitigation Plan as of January 5, 2018.

We have received 311 total comments, submitted by 274 unique commenters. We have received a wide variety of input emphasizing the importance of many different issues and providing lots of excellent suggestions. Not all of the ideas we have heard could be captured here. The following, therefore, are some of the major themes and issues that commenters have indicated are most important to them.  

Electricity can power light-duty cars as well as some heavy-duty vehicles and equipment. Funds from the VW settlement could be used for electric charging stations for light-duty vehicles or to replace heavy-duty vehicles and equipment with electric versions.

Of the 274 unique comments, 126 of them (46%) support the addition of EV infrastructure, including charging stations. This is the highest proportion of comments received on any single topic. Commenters make suggestions for the locations of the charging stations, including major roadways and travel corridors, especially at small, locally owned gas stations and convenience stores, and multi-family dwellings. Many commenters support the use of renewable energy, especially solar, to power these stations.

We received 54 comments in support of the use of electric buses, predominantly for public transit, but also school buses. There are a total of 77 comments that recommend replacing fleet vehicles; of those, 41 (53%) specify that the funds should be spent to electrify fleet vehicles.

Fuels such as propane or natural gas can power many heavy-duty vehicles and equipment instead of using diesel. Funds from the VW settlement could be used to replace old diesel equipment with equipment powered by other fuels.

Of the 274 comments, 36 of them (13%) are in support of propane school buses, particularly in Greater Minnesota. Many of these same commenters (19, or 53%) are in support of propane-run fleet and freight vehicles, in addition to school buses. Many commenters also supported opportunities for using compressed and liquid natural gases. These fuels were especially supported by commenters whose businesses rely on the use of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, such as waste haulers.

Diesel emissions are harmful to human health, and in Minnesota people of lower income and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to diesel pollution. Funds from the VW settlement could be focused on projects that would provide most health benefits, especially to vulnerable communities.

Of all the comments received, 47 (17%) support environmental justice-related uses of the VW funds. The majority of these comments focus on concerns about helping low-income communities. There are 45 comments relating to health and exposure concerns (16%), most of which focus on children.

The settlement outlines a very specific list of project types that are eligible for funding through this program. Within that list, Minnesota has the flexibility to select or emphasize project types that reflect the state’s priorities.

Some commenters stated preferences for project types that they feel will bring the most benefits to Minnesota. We received 76 comments (28%) support replacing school buses with cleaner equipment, nearly all of whom specified preferences for either propane or electric options. Forty-nine commenters (18%) support funding upgrades to transit buses, half of whom recommended adopting electric technology. 

Many commenters also supported using funds to replace diesel trucking fleets (46 comments, or 17%) and grow Minnesota’s Diesel Emission Reduction Act program, which upgrades a wide variety of heavy-duty equipment, including construction equipment.

The comments offer a wide range of other suggestions, some of which are not eligible for funding based on the requirements of the settlement. Ideas include using funds for rail and light rail-related projects, supporting clean energy and infrastructure development, offering rebates for the purchase and ownership of EVs, supporting biofuel research, helping to improve indoor air quality issues, and grant matching for EV purchases for fleets.

Community meetings

The MPCA held nine community meetings around the state in 2017. Some of the key themes we heard as part of those meetings include:

Many meeting participants told us to ensure that funding reaches across the state and benefits many communities in ways that make sense for those areas. In Greater Minnesota, we heard about community concerns about the exposure of children to emissions during long bus rides to school, as well as concerns about traffic along busy roadways. We heard a strong call to make sure that funding is invested in rural areas and smaller metropolitan areas, as well as the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

In the Twin Cities, we heard many community concerns about the many pollution sources that people are exposed to in urban areas, and especially concerns about environmental justice. Many community members told us to focus efforts in areas where there are intersections of pollution sources, poverty, and communities of color. We heard about the importance of reducing emissions from transit buses, especially since they are a critical mode of transportation for many lower-income people. Many community members also commented on garbage and recycling trucks that drive down every street making stops.

We have heard from many participants that the MPCA should strive to develop a simple, user-friendly application. We have heard that we should provide information and answer questions to help applicants fill out any necessary forms. Many community members also expressed that the MPCA should work on ways to get the word out, especially in communities that have historically struggled to access state grant funding.

At many meetings we have heard an interest in advancing Minnesota’s transportation sector towards alternative fuels. We heard a lot about the advantages of fuels such as propane, natural gas, and electric in terms of lower emissions and reduced maintenance and operating costs. We heard from many people who have first-hand experience with different fuel types being used in different types of equipment and different operating conditions.

We have heard from many Minnesotans who would like to see funds invested in electric vehicle charging stations across the state. Participants have expressed particular interest in fast-charging corridors that would allow all Minnesotans to travel around the state by electric vehicle. We heard from EV users and people who would like to use an EV all over the state who encouraged us to provide the infrastructure that they need to use their EV more broadly to travel outside their immediate communities, especially in Greater Minnesota.