On an overcast Saturday that eventually relented to sunshine, the east parking lot at the Dimond Center in south Anchorage transformed into the city’s first “Electric Vehicle Car Show,” put together by the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) and the Alaska Electric Vehicle Association (AKEVA). Rows of flashy models lined the pavement. Newly painted parking spaces lay beneath a sign advertising that this would soon be a fast-charge station.
These were not the electric vehicles (EVs) that most have become accustomed to during their daily commutes. The smooth but unassuming staples, like the Ford Focus or the Chevy Volt, were present – but wildly upstaged by Tesla’s Model X and other sports cars from Ford, Toyota, Cadillac, Ferrari, Frisker and (not a sports car, but perhaps the most well known in Anchorage) Solid Waste Services.
Dozens of car enthusiasts and unsuspecting mall-goers, lured out by curb appeal, milled about, asking company representatives about the emerging market. One question, however, was ubiquitous in each exchange: Is there really a market for EVs in Alaska?
“Absolutely. Yes,” Sarah Hall said, smiling. Hall is with ReCharge Alaska, a group headed by her husband, Kris. The group aims to install enough charging stations to bridge the 600 mile corridor between Homer and Fairbanks – a distance currently beyond the range of most EVs – which has thus far been financed through grants awarded by AEA, funded by Alaska’s share of a 2016 settlement with Volkswagen. The German automaker used “defeat devices” to cheat emissions test, resulting in a $2.9 billion settlement with the EPA; $8 million of which went to Alaska, and $1 million of which funded the EV charger grants.
“We only had enough money to do a skeletal fast-charging system,” Betsy McGregor, the Volkswagen settlement program manager for AEA, said. “We selected nine sites and they will have fast-chargers installed – some of them this Summer and all of them by next Summer.”
Hall noted that one fast-charger station – capable of fully charging an EV in about an hour, versus the overnight chargers typically used at home – had been installed two weeks ago at Jack River Inn in Cantwell. Eight other locations range from AJ’s Oldtown Steakhouse and Tavern in Homer, to the Seward Chamber of Commerce, all the way north to Three Bears Alaska in Healy. Hall believes the market will follow (ReCharge’s website features the “Field of Dreams” quote: “If you build it, [they] will come.”)
She noted the impending arrival of the new Ford F-150 Lightning EV, which despite being electric is the fastest F-150 model and can travel 300 miles on a single charge.
“We have a very large truck culture here. I think there are going to be a lot of people really excited about that,” Hall explained, and then offered a locally-relevant perk: “You can connect it to your house and charge your car, and in the event of a power outage you can connect the car to your house and run your house, which is super exciting.”
And EVs work in Alaska. Larry Moore brought his girlfriend’s 2014 Cadillac ELR to show off. Battery life, he said, wasn’t an issue. “That was a worry. And I ask her all the time about this. But, no. The charge seems to be exactly the same – 50 miles or so, which is a long way in Anchorage,” he said. “I thought the batteries would die, [since I work] in television. You know, all my batteries, if you leave them outside, they die in a heartbeat. But these things don’t seem to have that problem.”
Moore said that even though the ELR was a hybrid, his girlfriend “filled up about six times in the last four years.”
The sparsity of charging stations will take time, but not as long as many might think. After all, the first gas station opened in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1905. By 1929, there were over 120,000. This time around, by starting out with fast-charge stations, the strategy is to ensure that the infrastructure is there when the market takes off.
As for the EVs themselves?
“They’re fun, they’re efficient, and fast,” Sen. Josh Revak (R-Anchorage) said after chatting with a Tesla representative. “They’ve definitely made huge strides and seeing these things up in Alaska – it’s exciting to see us stepping into the next generation of technology.”
Revak sponsored Senate Bill 69 earlier this year, a bipartisan bill renewing a 2010 exemption on independent power producers from regulation by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. The new extension will last seven years and is meant to encourage long-term, private sector investment in renewable energy production. Revak was recognized as the “2021 Conservative Clean Energy Champion” by Conservatives for a Clean Energy Future (CCEF), a conservative nonprofit that advocates for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
One herculean obstacle remains: cost. The explosion in gas-powered cars was in large part fueled by the introduction of Ford’s Model T in 1908, which started at $260 – about $7.5k today. Moore’s 2014 Cadillac costs between $28k and $40k today – used. The F-150 Lightning is expected to start at $41,669. In a Marketwatch list of the top ten “affordable” EVs, published in April, prospective buyers are looking at a price tag between $29,900 and $39,995. Tesla’s 2021 Model X ranges from $89,990 to $119,990. And buying an EV right now does not guarantee that consumers will recoup the difference in cost through savings at the pump.
Consider a hypothetical Anchorage resident who currently owns a 2018 Chevy Malibu, but is mulling the idea of purchasing this year’s Chevy Volt, a popular EV. The Malibu would have cost around $18k while the Volt is currently priced at $31k – a wide gap. The average Alaskan drives just under 10,000 miles per year. For the gas-driven Malibu, at today’s prices, that tallies to $1,196 spent filling up every year. The Volt’s annual equivalent cost is only $229. But an annual savings of $976 is likely not going to tip the scales toward a car that is $13k more expensive than the one presently owned. And this is the lower end of EVs, price-wise.
Congress passed a tax credit thirteen years ago, which can reduce the cost (after the fact) by up to $7.5k, but that is only if the applicant owes the federal government that much money or more. Otherwise, whatever you paid in federal taxes is the cap for the credit. The existing credit also phases out automakers after they sell 200k qualifying vehicles, already precluding GM and Tesla.
In a pandemic, with a statewide unemployment rate nearing seven percent, high energy costs, high rent, and a $10.34 minimum wage – even if one qualified for the full tax credit – it’s hard to justify that sort of purchase for a potential middle-or-lower-income buyer. Without the credit, even going from the Malibu to the Volt, it would take 14 years to recoup the price difference. The average lifespan of a car in Alaska is 13.6 years. One can forgive themselves if the incentive of being able to plug your house into your car dims when the car starts to rival the price of a house. But when the market starts getting competitive, and the charging stations are there, a lot could change. And, if we want this planet to stop being on fire, that’s a good goal.