It's not just the auto industry turning electric.
Minnesota manufacturers of consumer products and industrial vehicles are converting them to electric power, away from gas and oil. And they're encountering the same tradeoffs seen for cars and trucks.
Battery-powered devices don't emit polluting gases. But they have to be recharged, and that adds a time consideration that influences the usefulness of some products.
For the recreational vehicles of Winnebago Industries, based in Eden Prairie, the amount of battery power needed for a cross-country trip is not yet economical. But the company is developing a market for battery-run RVs with medical clinics, libraries and other businesses that can use them for relatively short distances.
For the yard equipment at Bloomington-based Toro, the demand and recharge equation makes greater sense and the conversion to battery power is well underway.
Beyond products, the transition to electric power gives companies a chance to move forward on broader sustainability goals, including those tied to climate change.
"Our carbon footprint, the vast majority, is the usage of our equipment by our customers," said David Strohsack, vice president of global marketing at Tennant. "So for us to reduce our carbon footprint, one of the single biggest levers is to make our equipment more efficient."
Some critics of the gasoline-to-electric power conversion argue that consumers are substituting one form of polluting energy for another, because much of the nation's electricity is generated by coal or natural gas.
Even so, manufacturers focus on what they can control, such as making devices that charge efficiently and hold battery charges as long as they can. Here's a rundown of what's happening at five large Minnesota manufacturers.
Eden Prairie-based Tennant Co. has electric options across its lineup of industrial and commercial cleaning equipment, from small vacuums to ride-on sweepers.
"The power density and runtime of battery continues to expand, which allows us to continue to expand our portfolio where we offer a full battery option," Strohsack said.
Tennant is making some of its equipment autonomous. It has several autonomous industrial robotic floor scrubbers, which are used in commercial settings like grocery stores.
Those scrubbers do need some human interaction, but Tennant aims to limit that to save the time and costs of its customers.
Traditionally, Tennant built bigger scubbers to get the job done faster so the person on top who is running it can have more time. But with machines that run on their own, smaller is in because small machines don't need as much supervision.
Polaris Inc., based in Medina, has a history of producing electric vehicles. In 2011, it acquired Global Electric Motorcars LLC (GEM), a manufacturer of premium electric-powered vehicles for the low-speed vehicle market and Goupil, a maker of on-road light-duty commercial electric vehicles.
Last September, executives said they were going to amp up the electric strategy, which they called rEV'd up. They formed a 10-year exclusive partnership with Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Zero Motorcycles to develop electric off-road vehicles and snowmobiles using Zero's powertrain technology, hardware and software.
Polaris more recently said its first product under the partnership with Zero would be anall-new 2022 electric utility side-by-side that may be available in late December. "This will be one of the most technically advanced off-road vehicles on the market," Mike Donoughe, the company's chief technical officer, said when it was announced.
In March, Polaris announced another partnership, teaming up with Boston-based Optimus Rideto develop fully-autonomous electric-powered vehicles that are aimed at corporate and academic campuses.
Toro is much further ahead than some other manufacturers on the proliferation of electric power in its mix of lawn mowers and other products. It also has examined a mix of hybrid, bio-fuels and other technologies.
"We are committed to developing electric products that offer both power and durability with no compromise on performance," Toro's chief executive, Rick Olson, told analysts on its most recent quarterly earnings call.
In addition to the lower-emission and clean-air benefits associated with battery-powered devices, they are also quieter to operate. That's beneficial for golf course and turf managers who like to get out and mow early in the morning or operate close to homes and businesses during the day.
Toro has electric fairway and greens mowers, Greensmaster e1021 walk greensmower, a 60V commercial walk behind mower, and an e-Dingo compact utility loader for indoor construction work. Its Workman GTX series of golf utility vehicles comes in gas, lead-acid battery powered, and a just released lithium-Ion battery powered version.
St. Andrews Golf Club in Scotland recently purchased more of Toro's electric offerings, including two new electric green mowers and six 3360 eTriFlex hybrid green mowers.
The rise of electric and hybrid options means Toro had to supplement its mechanical engineering talent with more electrical and software engineers.
Toro also has an increasingly popular line of residential products that rely on a 60-volt rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can be swapped between devices. The Flex-Force interchangeable battery can be used in string-trimmer, hedge clipper, chainsaw and even a 22 inch lawn mower. Toro this winter will roll out a two-stage snowblower that uses the same battery.
In its latest quarterly results, Olson said the Flex-Force battery-powered products helped drive a 20% sales increase for its residential business segment.
Bloomington-based Donaldson is known for air filters for trucks and heavy equipment. But one of its business units is increasingly developing new products for electric vehicles.
One of the latest helps the large sealed electric vehicle battery packs have a longer life. The Donaldson product reduces pressure differences within the battery as it goes through various operating conditions and environments. It allows pressure to equalize without letting in outside contaminants.
"Our presence within the automotive market is growing with the EV products. In addition to the battery vents, we also have a line of powertrain vents on e-motors and e-axels," a Donaldson spokesperson said.
The power tradeoff doesn't work as well for recreational vehicles as it does for sedans and SUVs. But Winnebago Industries does have an all-electric platform that since 2018 has been aimed at customers with short-range commercial needs.
The vehicles hold enough charge for eight hours of use and a range of up to 125 miles. Some have been used for mobile medical clinics, bloodmobiles, bookmobiles and mobile classrooms.
Winnebago continues to improve the off-grid capabilities of its RVs through the use of lithium ion batteries to run various subsystems, mostly on its Class B motorhomes.
"This type of capability will be vital moving forward because we continue to see that normal RVs are starting to go to a lot of places where even gas stations don't exist, let alone electric charging infrastructure," said Winnebago spokesman Sam Jefson.