Alaskan Capital Pushes to Become a Leader in EVs

By · July 18, 2013

Juneau Volt

Amy Skilbred drives one of five plug-ins featured in Juneau's 4th of July parade.

When you think about ideal settings for electric vehicle adoption, Alaska probably doesn't come to mind. But in Juneau, the conditions for plug-ins are surprisingly favorable—so much so that it could be only a matter of time before the Alaska capital joins the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles among the nation’s most EV-friendly cities.

A Future EV Capital?

A rare combination of factors makes Southeast Alaska a promising locale for plug-ins. It's not accessible to the outside world by road—all shipments and long-distance travel come by ship or through the air. The main road running through town, Route 7, spans less than 35 miles from end to end, so there’s only so far a vehicle can travel in any one direction. Thus, range anxiety isn’t much of an issue. “I think we actually have more miles of hiking trail than roads here,” said Zach Wilkinson of the Juneau Economic Development Commission, one of the entities spearheading the local push for EVs.

Geographic limitations also mean that it will require a relatively modest infrastructure investment compared to other areas to make every drivable area in the region charge-accessible. Wilkinson said that by the end of the year, Juneau is aiming to have the most charging stations per capita of any city in the United States. With a population of slightly more than 32,000 people, that should prove an easier goal to meet than in many other places.

Juneau’s energy mix also works in favor of EV adoption. Gas and diesel fuels have to be shipped in by sea and typically cost 15 to 20 percent more than the national average, making electric drive all the more attractive from a financial standpoint. Electricity comes almost entirely from hydroelectric energy, which puts Juneau among a select group of areas where you can truly drive “emissions free”.

Making Juneau EV-Ready

Being small and geographically remote does have its drawbacks though. Since there are few dealerships in Juneau and only one that is certified to work on plug-ins—a Chevy dealership that sells Volts—buying or servicing EVs can often require shipping them to or from the mainland, a costly and time-consuming option. Wilkinson said that finding private businesses qualified to repair EVs will be one of the early challenges to building the market.

The J.E.D.C. plans to contact local dealerships and manufacturers with the hope of encouraging more locally-available plug-in models as well as the hiring and training of certified EV service technicians. Wilkinson points to Juneau’s million-plus visitors each year as a compelling reason for EV manufacturers to consider devoting their attention and resources to the area. His group is currently looking to facilitate arrangements between manufacturers and local rental agencies that he said could help automakers sell cars to Juneau visitors after they’ve returned home.

“There’s a big opportunity for some major exposure to consumers,” he said. Short trips to local attractions could be easily handled by any of the currently available mass-market EVs, which would in turn provide daily exposure for the models being rented.

Efforts like these are being undertaken as part of J.E.D.C.’s Renewable Energy cluster group, which works with local businesses and city officials to facilitate growth in the renewable energy sector. One of the companies that is partnering closely with J.E.D.C. is Alaska Electric Light & Power. Last year, A.E.L.&P. launched an incentive program for plug-in owners, allowing them to save more than 50 percent on the energy they use to charge their cars during off-peak hours. As part of the program, A.E.L.&P. is collecting data from current owners to learn about charging habits and find the best locations for future public charge installations.

According to Alec Mesdag, energy services specialist at A.E.L.&P., the utility sees EVs making big headway in Juneau. “It’s almost a slam dunk here,” he told PluginCars.com. In addition to working with customers to facilitate home and public charging, A.E.L.&P. is also working to encourage federal, state and local government fleets to adopt plug-ins wherever possible. “It’s a pretty significant number of vehicles in town,” he said. When government fleet vehicles are electric, it should help to supply a local used plug-in market for consumers as well as improve infrastructure and servicing options in Juneau.

Juneau Public EV Charger

PlugShare pinpoints Juneau's sole public charger.

Currently, Mesdag said there are just nine mass-market plug-ins in town (four Chevy Volts, four LEAFs and a Prius Plug-in,) and “a few” conversions. Even as the town gears up to become the nationwide leader in EV charging per capita though, there is still just a single public charger available.

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