Alaska Beginning to Embrace Electric Vehicles
Challenges remain but public interest piqued
On the face of it, it would seem that driving an electric vehicle (EV) in Alaska—either all-electric or a plug-in hybrid—would be challenging. There are a lot of miles between major cities with the likelihood of charging stations few and far between. And many believe that the state’s harsh winters would wreak havoc on the life of the vehicle.
And while EVs are still relatively new to the state, there are some places in Alaska where EVs are not only growing in popularity but are proving to be an impressive asset. In Juneau, for example, there are almost 300 EV owners, and the borough has already placed an order to add an electric bus to its fleet. The Anchorage Public Transportation Department has spent the last four months testing a fully electric bus—the first such experiment in Alaska—and plans to expand its fleet with more electric vehicles in the future.
“There is a lot of skepticism regarding electric vehicles in Alaska, and we wanted to create an opportunity to diffuse any misperceptions,” says Abul Hassan, director of public transportation for the Municipality of Anchorage. “The technology is here to stay, and we need to move with the times or get left behind.”
JEVA’s Round Up, part of National Drive Electric Week, has grown from two cars in 2014 to more than 150 at the 2016 event which was held at the Sandy Beach Recreation Center in Douglas, Alaska.
Southeast Driving Interest in EVs
While some of the more remote areas of Alaska may not lend themselves to the use of EVs, Southeast Alaska seems to be tailor-made for the vehicles.
“When we started the Juneau Electric Vehicle Association [JEVA] three years ago, I owned the sixth electric car here—we’re close to 300 now,” explains JEVA co-founder Duff Mitchell. “There are certain places in the world where electric vehicles make a lot of sense, and Southeast Alaska is one of them.
“At first, I was leery—would it run in the snow, would it make it up hills, and of course, there are range anxiety issues,” he adds. “That’s one of the reasons we started the association—not only to share information and ideas but to help each other out if one of us got stranded.”
Happily, no one ever needed these services, and as EV technology has evolved so has the range that they can travel. Mitchell says that about 90 percent of the electric vehicles in Juneau are Nissan Leafs, with the later models getting approximately 150 miles to a charge. Considering that there is only 30 miles of road in the capital city, the chance of becoming stranded isn’t very likely, especially since there are now a number of charging stations both downtown and “out the road.”
“At the beginning, it was hard to promote electric vehicle use without the security blanket of being able to charge it when you were outside your home,” says Mitchell, who estimates that 85 percent of EV owners charge their cars at home overnight. “The Juneau Economic Development Commission got together with the Juneau Community Foundation and private businesses in town and put together a grant proposal that raised $50,000 to install twelve chargers around Juneau.”
The chargers are located in both public and private facilities that allow public use. JEVA also recently received a donation of eleven fast chargers from EVgo, the nation’s largest public EV fast charging network, and is working on raising public funds to install a few of them around town in the near future.
So how do EVs handle Alaska roads, and more importantly, Alaska winters?
“It turns out that here in Southeast, we have a great climate for batteries—we’re in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ where it’s not too hot and not too cold,” laughs Mitchell. “In places where it’s very hot or often freezing, it really messes with battery life, but we have the perfect climate here.”
Mitchell shares the story of a Nissan technician who flew up to Juneau and, while conducting a computerized diagnostic on a Nissan Leaf battery, was amazed that there was no degradation. “The gentleman who owned the Leaf had 67,000 miles on it; in southern California, usually by 50,000 miles, EVs have lost a significant chunk of battery life because of the weather,” he explains.
There are other benefits to driving an EV in Juneau. Because the city runs on hydropower, electricity is relatively cheap, and—depending on the cost of gas—hybrids have about half the operational costs of vehicles with traditional internal combustion engines.
“It’s a slightly tougher sell in diesel generation communities, though Gustavus has quite a few vehicles, and there’s a growing number in Ketchikan and Sitka,” says Mitchell, adding that Cordova Electric just bought a Nissan Leaf. “But Juneau’s really leading the pack—it’s become sort of a Southeast thing.”
As for the cars’ ability to handle Alaska roads, Mitchell says that since he bought his Leaf in October 2013 he’s never had a problem making it up the steep hill on which he lives or had difficulty on snow. “It has front wheel drive and a low center of gravity. It’s really good at grabbing the road,” he says. “It’s also virtually maintenance free. Since I’ve had it, I’ve only changed the brakes, put on winter tires and replaced the windshield wipers.”
Sales and Service
Even with growing public interest in electric vehicles, it hasn’t always been easy to get these types of autos to the 49th State.
“When Chevrolet first came out with the Chevy Bolt, we thought it would provide an extraordinary opportunity for Juneau since the city runs on 100 percent hydroelectric power,” says Steve Allwine, president of Mendenhall Auto Center. “Drivers could live in the Valley, commute downtown, and pay nothing in fuel consumption while also leaving no carbon footprint. The vehicle is truly hydro as far as emission standards go.”
Ready to invest the roughly $25,000 in tools and training that it would take to carry the new car line, Allwine was surprised to find that GM would only provide two of the cars in the next three years, hardly making it worth the risk. It took a call from Senator Lisa Murkowski to the president of GM to convince them that Southeast needed more.
“The next thing you know, we got a call from the factory saying that they could get us five a month,” says Allwine. “Unfortunately, we’ve only gotten three and have one coming now, and it has taken six months for that.”
Customers can order new hybrids through Mendenhall Auto, as well as get maintenance for any Chevy, Toyota, Subaru, Honda, and Chrysler product. Anchorage and Fairbanks both have Nissan dealers, and there are also Chevrolet dealers in those two cities.
A new Chevy Bolt, which has a range of 235 miles on one charge, can cost between $37,000 and $40,000, though the federal government is currently providing a tax credit of between $2,500 and $7,500 (depending on the size of the battery) for those buying new plug-in vehicles.
Used or off-lease EV vehicles cost much less. “A lot of people down south lease for two or three years and then trade up to newer technology,” says Mitchell. “They might have had a Leaf that got 85 miles per charge, and that number is now up to 150 miles. But an 85-mile charge car works fine for Juneau, so people here snap them up. If you shop around, you can get a used vehicle for $10,000 to $15,000.”
Allwine sees a future for EVs in Alaska and expects their growth to continue. “If the price of oil goes back up to $80 or $90 a barrel, I believe the sell rate will go significantly higher; it will also increase as batteries continue to evolve, taking the range to over 300 miles,” he says.
“The downside is that if EVs really take off, the oil that supports Alaska’s economy and our communities will take a hit,” he adds. “If we swing toward a lot of vehicles not using internal combustion engines, it will have a big impact. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
A Proterra 40’ Catalyst E2 bus, an electric mode of public transportation.
Commercial Vehicles and Public Transportation
In January 2018, Anchorage’s Public Transportation Department, in conjunction with Solid Waste Services, began a four-month pilot program using a forty-foot Proterra Catalyst E2 electric/battery powered bus to run three of its routes.
“Public transportation is declining in ridership nationwide, and we have to do something radical to shift services; we have to come up with innovative concepts to generate excitement about the benefits of public transportation,” Hassan explains. “An electric bus creates excitement—people bring their kids to see it, and that’s our future target audience. If they learn about reliance and sustainability now, it will create a better society later.”
The bus is 100 percent electric, emitting zero tailpipe emissions or pollutants and reducing CO2 emissions by 243,980 pounds annually per diesel vehicle replaced. It also substantially reduces noise pollution. Because the bus has a similar drive train to a garbage truck, it is being used to help the municipality research the possibility of electrifying garbage trucks in the future.
It is also creating quite a buzz among the general public. “People think that it’s cool, and it’s funny to see cars pull up beside it to hear the sound it’s not emitting,” says Hassan of this much quieter mode of transportation.
Now that the pilot project is over, information will be compiled, though it will come with some caveats. “You can only lease a specific prototype that has half the battery size of a bus that would normally be in the fleet,” says Hassan. “While a bus would typically have eight battery packs and a range of 300 miles on a single charge, the prototype has four battery packs and can go up to 150 miles on a single charge.”
A purchased bus would also have a cold weather package, which includes a stand-alone diesel heater that does not come with the prototype. “This way, you’re not tapping into the batteries to provide interior heating,” says Hassan. “The leased version doesn’t come with this, so we have been drawing off the battery to heat the cabin, which impacts electrical consumption.”
While the cost of a new E-2 bus is $950,000, about twice the cost of its diesel equivalent, Hassan says that the reduction in maintenance costs over the life of the vehicle make up difference. He plans to order six buses during the next replacement cycle, creating a mixed fleet. In the meantime, he’s targeting “low hanging fruit” by updating infrastructure in the warm storage facility to meet the demands of the future fleet. The municipality is already using hybrid four-door sedans to shuttle employees back and forth and plans to go fully electric when replacing these relief vehicles as well.
The City and Borough of Juneau has been exploring electric bus technology since 2015, and when they received a low/no emission federal grant that would pay for half the cost, they decided to add a Proterra electric bus to their fleet, which will arrive in late 2019. They borough already uses electric vehicles in their Streets and Fleet Division.
“The main reason we want to do this is that it’s zero emissions; it’s quieter and cleaner,” explains Ed Foster, Streets and Fleet superintendent. “We won’t have to buy fuel for it, though we will need to buy electricity. Studies show that the maintenance requirements are also lower.”
Once the bus arrives, it will be used on all of the routes to see how it performs. “We think with its range, we can probably get away with just having one charger at the bus barn to recharge it every evening, but that has yet to be seen,” says Foster. “We’ll know better once we get it on the road; we may need to do a quick charge halfway through the day.”
The bus manufacturer will provide training for maintenance staff and operators because the buses get more mileage if they are driven correctly. “Really, the only concern we have is how running the heaters during the winter will affect the charging system,” says Foster. “We’re going to utilize auxiliary heaters, which we hope will get us around any problems.”
While electric cars and buses seem to have come a long way since their inception, the technology is lagging behind when it comes to mid-sized passenger vehicles, such as those used to transport tourists around the city.
“There are small fourteen-passenger vans available, but those can’t meet tour companies’ needs,” explains Bob Janes, owner of Gastineau Guiding. “There are also large coaches being built, but they cost a half-million-plus, which certainly won’t work for most tour operators in Alaska who work for a solid five months of the year.”
Three years ago, Janes started scouring the market for an electric twenty-to-thirty passenger bus, and when he couldn’t find one, he bought a new bus and electrified it with hybrid system. “Because it’s still new technology, there are a lot of R&D issues to deal with,” he says. “You have to be committed because it’s an expensive endeavor to get into. We’re doing it because we believe in the future of electric power and clean energy.”
Janes adds that there are other hurdles to overcome, including the fact that archaic Department of Transportation laws do not allow certain types of low-speed electric vehicles on the highway. He is currently working with Senator Dennis Egan on legislation to allow these types of vehicles, which could be used to transport tourists from the Mendenhall Glacier parking lot to the visitors’ center, for example.
Janes is also working on the idea of using electric boats as water taxis in downtown Juneau. “The technology in Europe is working its way to US, but it’s not here yet,” he explains. “These types of boats would be challenging for whale watching because they only go eight knots, but the outboard and inboard engines are improving every day. It would also require changing certain Coast Guard regulations to accommodate these new types of boats. I believe we’ll see it happening, but it will still be a few years before it becomes commercially viable.”
Vanessa Orr is a freelance writer and former editor of the Capital City Weekly in Juneau.