EVs face many barriers in Alaska, but experts say the time to act is now
Lack of charging stations, gaps in electric grid must be overcome to ease use
An electric vehicle charges during the Arctic Road Rally. Temporary charging stations like this one helped EVs travel the Dalton Highway last year. (Photo courtesy of Tim Leach)
As the electric vehicle market is booming nationally, Alaska is struggling to keep up. The lack of infrastructure to charge vehicle batteries is one of the biggest barriers to creating a long-lasting and effective system for EVs to run in the state, according to those working to expand their use. However, with the remoteness of much of Alaska and the state’s many separate power grids, creating charging infrastructure for electric vehicles has proven to be difficult.
Most EV owners charge their vehicles at home. They can do this in many ways, but one of the more popular methods is to plug their car into the same port that washing machines or electric stoves will typically use. This type of charging is known as Level 2 charging and it can be done inside or outside of the home. But it is commonly used within personal residences because of the time it takes. When powering an EV through Level 2 charging, the vehicle will usually need to be plugged in overnight, because of the low levels of power that Level 2 charging provides.
This type of charging is great when an EV owner knows they will be close to home. But when an electric vehicle travels farther away, the need for faster, more efficient charging arises. This type of charging is known as Level 3 charging, or direct current fast-charging. Because of the use of direct current power, fast-charging can power up an electric vehicle faster than other types of charging can, which makes it an efficient way to charge a vehicle that won’t have access to a home charging point.
Fast-charging stations are essential to broadening EV use in America because they allow electric vehicles to go farther distances, according to experts. And while there are over 50,000 fast-charging stations in the United States, only a handful are in Alaska. What fast-charging stations do exist are most often concentrated in city hubs like Juneau and Anchorage.
Charging Problems in Alaska
This becomes a problem when residents need to travel through much of Alaska — such as between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The highway between the two cities does not currently have enough fast-charging stations along its designated Alternative Fuel Corridor. It needs to have a fast-charging station every 50 miles, among other requirements, to be a true AFC, according to the Alaska Energy Authority, a public corporation that’s been charged by the state with a mission of reducing the cost of energy. A priority of the authority is to build out the designated alternative fuel corridor in Alaska so that charging stations are more frequent.
“One of the challenges we have in Alaska is the distance between communities,” said Curtis Thayer, who is the executive director of the Alaska Energy Authority, a public corporation whose mission is to reduce the cost of energy. “Our holes within the grid are different.”
Some of these holes are found in the vastness of Alaska’s power system, which is often unreliable in some places. Many rural communities in the state are not connected to the larger power grids.
Between areas of connection to the grid and towns that are powered independently of it are dead spots of no power.
And if there is no power, there can be no charging stations. This is a problem for EV owners who want to drive their vehicles throughout Alaska, said Sara Hall, who is the co-founder of ReCharge Alaska alongside her husband, Kris.
The Halls founded ReCharge Alaska in 2020 as a response to the lack of public infrastructure for electric vehicles. The company installs fast-charging stations across the state to help increase access to fast-charging. The Halls received financial assistance from the Golden Valley Energy Association to install their first EV charging installation, in Cantwell. Now, the company has stations across the state, including in smaller cities like Delta Junction and Glennallen. However, the installation process hasn’t been easy, especially when it comes to finding a place to put the charging stations.
“Honestly finding site hosts has been one of the larger challenges for us,” Hall said. She noted that in addition to finding places to install chargers where there was enough power, many potential site hosts were hesitant about electric vehicles in general.
“It’s too early,” she continued. “You know, we’re really early adopters, and I think there are a lot of people who are like, ‘Well, I’m not super opposed to electric vehicles, but I’m going to wait and see.’”
The couple has been interested in EVs for years now. Kris Hall was curious about the vehicle’s potential for efficiency. And when there were little to no options in Alaska for fast-charging, he decided to do it himself. Because, as he put it, “I’m tired of waiting.”
But making better EV infrastructure a reality has been difficult for the pair. The company has experienced issues with regulations in installing its charging facilities, in addition to the problem of finding site hosts and reliable spots of power.
One of the issues they experienced was how they would charge for the power that people used to charge their EVs.
In some of their sites, the Halls can charge customers by the kilowatt hour. In other locations, like their Glenallen location, they must charge by the minute. This charging structure is determined by the electric companies that supply the power to the Halls’ charging stations. Sara Hall said that charging by the minute led to people paying more for power in the winter when their batteries would take longer to charge. This stood in stark contrast to charging during the summer when prices would be lower despite customers needing the same amount of power to charge their vehicles.
State and Federal Involvement
The issue of charging for power came to the attention of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska in part due to a petition filed by the Alaska Electric Vehicle Association, a nonprofit that promotes EV use. AKEVA sought to ease the burden of the cost of power that came with charging an electric vehicle outside of the home, as well as easing the cost of operating charging stations. The petition eventually led to a formal order by the RCA in 2021 aimed at accomplishing both goals: creating regulations that make EV charging stations cheaper to use and operate.
AKEVA is still working to promote increased EV charging infrastructure throughout Alaska, according to its executive director, Dimitri Shein. They also work to connect people (and particularly potential site hosts) with the Alaska Energy Authority, so that more individuals might apply for a federally funded grant.
The National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure, or NEVI, grant program will provide $52 million over five years to Alaska so the state can build out its fast-charging station network. Individuals and organizations can apply to receive a portion of the funding through the Alaska Energy Authority.
Charging stations funded by NEVI will help Alaska see an increase in fast-charging stations soon. However, even with millions of dollars backing the project, there are still considerable problems with getting EV infrastructure up to where the state wants it to be.
“I think the biggest challenge we have is the availability of the power for these large charging stations,” said Thayer. He discussed the availability of power as it related to smaller, more rural communities within the state that are not connected to the main power grid. There is concern that these smaller, more localized communities will struggle to meet the demand of charging electric vehicles in the future, he said. Because no matter how much money is designated for the improvement of infrastructure, it can’t happen without access to power.
Looking ahead: the future of EVs in Alaska
Tim Leach has firsthand experience with dealing with charging an EV in places without electrical infrastructure and established fast-charging stations. Leach is the transportation lead for Launch Alaska, a nonprofit working to decarbonize the state in areas like transportation. The organization, along with AKEVA and support from various other organizations including the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions, held an Arctic Road Rally last year. The event aimed to increase electric vehicle awareness, and the problems that may arise with charging them, by having a fleet of EVs drive the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Oliktok Point.
Driving through many areas of the state that lack electrical infrastructure required innovative solutions. Leach said that temporary charging stations were installed along areas of the route that lacked existing electrical infrastructure. He highlighted the help of a few of the event’s sponsors — including ConocoPhillips — in setting up the temporary charging stations.
He said that some of these charging stations used to power the fleet of EVs that participated in the rally were mobile, which he thinks could be a potential solution for creating charging stations in places where robust electrical infrastructure is not present.
“[T]hat’s where some of these more mobile or movable solutions for EV charging can come into play,” he said. “Those can be fueled by different types of inputs and that could be natural gas as an input fuel. And you could do that with, you know, some combination of renewable energy resources.”
This raises the question of the environmental impact of EVs that are powered by electricity generated from fossil fuels. The Environmental Protection Agency states that electric vehicles will likely have lower emissions than combustion engine cars even if the electricity that powers them comes from fossil fuels. However, Leach pointed out that if the generation of electricity comes from fuel sources like diesel, emissions might actually be greater.
Despite the complexity of determining the environmental impact, Leach is still very much on the side of electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure they require.
“EV infrastructure is critical or will be critical for us all as we’re considering whether to purchase an electric vehicle or a traditional internal combustion engine vehicle,” he said.
This decision creates an added layer of complexity, one that Audrey Alstrom recognizes as well.
“What comes first, the chicken or the egg?” she said.
Alstrom, who is the director of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs with the Alaska Energy Authority drew attention to the small number of electric vehicles in the state.
“There’s not a whole lot of electric vehicles on the roads right now within Alaska,” she said.
There are only about 2,500 registered electric vehicles in Alaska. While the demand is likely to continue rising, Alstrom said that the lack of strong demand is still an issue.
“Do you put in these big EV charging stations before we have a whole lot of electric vehicles, or do you wait for the electric vehicles?” she said.
This question, compounded with issues of cost, remoteness and lack of power spell a complicated future for Alaska’s electric vehicle infrastructure. But despite the concerns, the answer seems clear to people like Thayer.
“If not now, when?”
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