Electric vehicles in Alaska — current state, potential future
With much current interest in the potential for the electric motor to take over from the internal combustion engine as the dominant power source in road vehicles, how might this transformation unfold in Alaska? On Feb. 12 during the Alaska Forum on the Environment a panel discussed the current status of electric vehicle use in the state, the advantages that the new technology can bring and the challenges that the technology faces in Alaska’s unique circumstances.
Juneau, with its relatively small road system and access to hydroelectricity, has pioneered the introduction of electric cars to the state. Alec Mesdag from Juneau electric utility Alaska Electric Light and Power said that there are now more than 200 electric vehicles in the city. Panelists commented that there are thought to be some 40 Tesla electric cars in the Anchorage area.
Sean Skaling, manager of business and sustainable program development for Anchorage based Chugach Electric Association, commented that Chugach Electric is actively preparing for the possibility of the more widespread use of the new technology.
“We are interested in electric vehicles because it seems like they’re coming and we need to get ready for them,” Skaling said. “So, we’re trying to get ahead of the curve and be prepared.”
Among other actions, the utility has purchased an electric car and has installed a car charging station at its Anchorage headquarters. A new electric vehicle plan will be going before the Chugach Electric board soon, Skaling said. The plan will encompass public education and a strategy for expanding the vehicle charging network - the intent is to work with other Railbelt utilities in planning a cost-effective network, he said.
Benefits of electric vehiclesA significant benefit of an electric vehicle is its low fuel cost compared with a gasoline or diesel rig - an electric motor is much more efficient than an internal combustion engine. The operation of an electric car, charged through a home’s electrical system, will typically increase the home’s electricity usage by about 50 percent, but with the resulting electricity cost for running the car coming in at about half of that of fuel for a conventional vehicle, Skaling said. Total annual fuel cost savings in Juneau from the use of electric vehicles currently amount to about $250,000, Mesdag commented.
Mark Spafford, general manager of the Department of Solid Services in the Municipality of Anchorage said that the municipality is investigating the use of electric trash collection vehicles and trash transfer tractors, to save on the cost of using the current gas-guzzling vehicles.
“We’re pretty much the best-case scenario for having an electric vehicle pay itself off in short order,” Spafford said. “And so we’re getting ready to purchase a refuse collection vehicle this year and looking at doing a couple of light duty vehicles in our fleet this year as well.”
Skaling commented that, with no tailpipes and with the use of electricity from efficient power generation systems, electric vehicle use generates significantly less emissions than does the use of traditional vehicles. Using power from Chugach Electric’s system, dominated by gas fired power generation, would reduce emissions by about 60 percent, he said.
And although the up-front cost of an electric vehicle can be high, maintenance costs are typically lower than for an internal combustion engine system, given that the electrical propulsion system requires a relatively small number of moving parts. Engine oil changes, for example, become a thing of the past.
Batteries and mileage rangeThe Achilles heel of the new technology has in the past been the cost of batteries and the relatively short mileage range of the vehicles. However, battery prices are dropping rapidly, Skaling said. And vehicle ranges are steadily increases.
Mesdag said that many of the electric cars in Juneau are older models with relatively low mileage ranges. Those ranges drop in cold winter weather, when some battery capacity is used for heating the car interiors. However, car owners charge their cars at home overnight. And there are public charging stations placed at a few strategic points on the road network, so that any car owner can complete any required round trip in the road system.
Skaling commented that in cold winter weather, an electric car’s heating system can be turned on while the car is still plugged in for charging, thus rendering the car’s interior warm by the time that the car is actually driven.
Dimitri Shein, owner of an electric vehicle in Anchorage, said that he charges his car at home overnight and finds that he has ample mileage range for his use of the car in the Anchorage area. The challenge, however, for an electric car owner in Anchorage would be longer trips, say to Homer or Fairbanks. For that to be possible there would need to be en route charging stations, he said.
Members of the panel commented that the provision of stations for swapping out car batteries, a possible alternative to charging stations, is likely impractical. A major obstacle to this option would be the high capital costs of holding the number of batteries required, especially since different car models typically use different models of battery. Moreover, the pricing of battery swaps would need to take into account the relative age and condition of the batteries being exchanged.
Charger levelsIn the parlance of electric vehicle technology there are three levels of car battery charger, each with a different range of charging rates.
Level one charging simply involves plugging the car into a regular 120-volt power outlet. Level two involves a 240-volt, 30 to 40-amp supply, similar to the power supply for a domestic clothes drier or electric range. Level three is unspecified but higher, 480 volts and upwards. Public charging stations would normally be level two or level three.
Mike Willmon, who has experience of converting conventional vehicles to the use of electrical power, said that it would typically take about 10 hours to charge a vehicle using a level one charger. Mesdag said that many Juneau electric car owners have level two chargers - these can charge a vehicle in about four hours, although, given the distances driven in Juneau, a car can typically be fully recharged in less than two hours, he said.
Presumably a level three charger, if available, would charge a vehicle significantly more quickly.
Mesdag commented that the availability of a level two charger can be a problem for someone who does not have access to off-street parking.
Betsy McGregor, environmental manager for the Alaska Energy Authority, said that AEA is investigating the use of some money from a settlement with Volkswagen to help fund an electric vehicle infrastructure in the state. The settlement, resulting from Volkswagen’s fraudulent rigging of diesel engine emissions systems, allows for up 15 percent of settlement funding to go to electric vehicle infrastructure. AEA’s proposal has to go through a public process.
“We hope to post the draft (proposal) by the end of February,” McGregor said.
Impacts on power distributionSkaling said that Chugach Electric is investigating the potential impact of charging electric cars on the utility’s power distribution system. One concern is that the simultaneous use of level two charging systems at multiple residences in a neighborhood could overwhelm the neighborhood electrical transformer, ultimately increasing power distribution costs. The utility is considering ways of achieving a balance, perhaps providing incentives for long, slow charging or staggered charging.
Alaska Electric Light and Power’s tariff has a demand rate to recover the cost of spikes in demand from residential customers. Mesdag commented that the utility also has a special rate for charging electric vehicles, although not many people use this rate.