Gearing for a century in spin

PHOTO: Chris Yarzab, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

In recent weeks my wife and I have been thinking about buying a car. We haven’t decided on one, nor are we in a hurry, but it’s been fascinating to research different vehicles. 

Being from the Iron Range I always think about where cars are made before buying one. In the case of modern cars, however, global supply chains have grown so complex that it’s difficult to say where some cars come from. Detroit, yes, but not always and often with parts from other places. Meantime, foreign makes like Honda, Volkswagen, and Toyota run factories across the American South.

In fact, according to the 2020 “American-Made” index, only four of the top ten “most American” cars come from the traditional “Big Three” U.S. automakers of Ford, G.M., and Chrysler. The rest of the top ten includes the all-electric models from Tesla in California and certain American-made Honda models. (Importantly, some American companies refuse to divulge the amount of foreign-sourced parts for many models, so the list is incomplete). 

I can’t afford a Tesla, but if I could I imagine I’d get more dirty looks at the county dump with a Model S (#3 on the American-Made index) than I would in a Honda Ridgeline pickup truck (#6). And I think that’s because our obsession with foreign vs. domestic vehicles has been replaced by a different sort of political and cultural calculation on nearly everything we experience. 

Electric cars mean acknowledging climate change, you see. I’ve seen online ads encouraging me to take political action in favor of gasoline-powered cars. But it occurs to me that I’ve always driven internal combustion engines because that’s what was available to me. I think the horse people went through something similar in the 1910s. 

You’d have to be a real clod to not see electric vehicles coming on strong. Detroit automakers are investing heavily in them, especially G.M. based on their latest advertising blitz. I know I’ll be driving an electric car in my lifetime. Maybe not this next car, but probably the one that replaces it. 

We often think about the conversation to electric cars as near-impossible because there aren’t enough plug-ins spaced all over the country for us all to use. But this thinking is tied to the notion of the gas station, which will no longer be necessary in a world of electric cars. You don’t need plug-ins every 10 miles along the highway. You need plug-ins at places where people stop: restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, and places of business. The charging station you’d use most often would be the one in your garage or parking spot at home. 

So what about the gas station? What happens to them? More importantly, where will we get our road snacks and use the bathroom?

We’re already seeing the answer to that. Expanded service stations like Kwik Trip, which offers discount groceries and household items, are becoming more popular than the traditional snack-oriented fare at typical gas stations. And their prices are far better than the marked up groceries that often sit on shelves for far too long at other places.

Look at a store like ALDI. Northern Minnesota now has several ALDI grocery stores, including in Virginia, Grand Rapids, Duluth and Cloquet. ALDI’s success comes from low prices, which are possible because the store focuses on staple items in cost-controlled store brands. The food is of good quality, so once people get used to buying the store brands they no longer care about the loss of name brands. A sophisticated supply chain keeps shelves stocked without enormous staff time. That’s how Kwik Trip works, too. 

In fact, I expect that discount groceries will become keystones of “recharging stations” of the future. This might also present huge opportunities for tourist destinations and fast food restaurants to expand their product lines.

Locally-owned businesses may compete by creating destination “recharging” experiences for people who no longer need gas. Boutiques, locally-made goods, and regional specialties could drive their business plan.

The Iron Range is known for mining, which remains our largest industry in terms of gross domestic product. (It’s not our largest industry in terms of employment, but that’s for another day). The biggest steelmaker in the United States now is Cleveland-Cliffs. For much of the history of the Iron Range that sentence alone would have caused experienced mining executives to spit their scotch. Heck, that might have been true even five years ago.

But Cliffs is booming right now, against all odds, and they’re doing so by betting big on automotive steel in North America. In the short run they have an improving economy to fuel sales. However, in the long run, I suspect Cliffs cares little about how cars use their steel (so long as they pay for it), or what method of propulsion those cars use. Their future, like all of ours, may yet depend on the very conversion to electric vehicles that so few here seem excited to embrace at this very moment.

Our reluctance to accept change is an ironic result of our disassociation from nature. Animals don’t lament the loss of a favorite feeding ground. They find new food. So will our descendants. Think of how much more successful they will be if we prepare them for this.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 11, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. You are on to something with this article. People need to get OFF the notion that going electric is a political statement… No, it’s a time-saved argument (esp. once fast charging and/or ranges are improved for elec batteries), and a SPACE SAVED argument as less space is needed in the city to support the ICE.

    One part of the business I work for is an environmental division that works on NEPA assessments and I can only think of how busy they will be once gas stations are replaced by commercial/residential structures in need of reclaiming that soil previously housing the fuel tanks… Could be 15 years away, but I would call it a bullish forecast for sure.

  2. You’re probably on REA power of some sort. Unless they cutus a deal like charging off peak at night we will be paying $0.23 / kW like allour other power, at least on Lake Country COOP, which hurts the numbers. Should have sold out to Minnesota Power when we had the chance, but that’s another story.

    The power draw for charging overnight is similar to a welder or big compressor, so many of us have the basic infrastructure for a charging station at home.

    Commercial chargers are equipped with credit card readers, much like a gas station. You pay there too. Someplace like a restaurant, grocery store, or box store might make sense for a location. People stop there for a longer time anyways.

    Nobody talks about the power draw on the grid if a significant number of electric cars get put in use. They also don’t talk about where the power comes from. Our REA power comes mostly from a lignite burning station in North Dakota. Minnesota Power is about half coal and lignite and half renewable of some kind like wind, hydro, or biomass. You don’t want to drive a coal powered car.

    Then there’s charging time. The current batteries can only be charged so fast to prevent damage. A 10 minute charging time with a 300 mile range would be a good goal.

    I’m guessing my next passenger car will be gas, but my next pickup, which stays pretty close to home, could be electric if someone gets off their duff and builds one at a reasonable price.

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