By summer, the heart of Alaska’s road system will feature a string of fast-charging stations for electric vehicles, part of an effort to prepare the state’s highways for an increasingly electrified future.
The Alaska Energy Authority, a state agency, is building out the network, from Homer and Seward on the Kenai Peninsula to Healy, south of Fairbanks. The trip takes a day for cars with internal combustion engines, but is usually not an option for electric car drivers due to the lack of charging stations.
The energy authority is spending $1 million from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement to pay for the charging corridor. Private businesses such as Three Bears Alaska will host the charging stations and contribute $500,000.
The chargers will help Alaska better support electric vehicles, which aren’t widely used in the state because of concerns over factors like cold weather performance, observers say.
Electric car drivers say the vehicles lose some power in cold, but remain much cheaper to operate than conventional cars and have other benefits, such as reducing emissions.
The number of electric vehicles in Alaska has grown rapidly in recent years. Many believe the growth will continue as automakers increasingly shift their production focus to electric cars.
“It’s the wave of the future, in a sense,” said Curtis Thayer, head of the Alaska Energy Authority. “And if we can play a role in encouraging it, providing a safety margin as far as charging goes, that’s what we want to do.”
From Homer to Fairbanks
The idea is that with nine stations each separated by less than 100 miles, drivers will be able to travel from the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks without fear of losing power, energy authority officials say.
The first station went up in Homer in September, at AJ’s OldTown Steakhouse and Tavern. It currently provides free power. The other stations will be built by the middle of next year, and won’t be free, officials say.
Generally, the new sites will allow electric cars to add significant power in 30 minutes to an hour, electric car drivers say. That’s better than the hours-long waits at slow-charging sites, typically centered in urban areas such as Anchorage.
The state plans are a good start, electric car drivers say.
“It is a major thing, because we had nothing last year,” said Dimitri Shein, a Tesla driver who leads the Alaska Electric Vehicle Association.
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Some businesses and utilities are also installing additional fast-charging stations in Southcentral Alaska, unrelated to the state effort.
ReCharge Alaska, an Anchorage company, installed a fast charger this fall in Cantwell, more than two hours south of Fairbanks. It’s currently undergoing repairs after a power surge disabled it. It will be back online soon, said Kris Hall, ReCharge owner with his wife, Sara.
The company plans to install others to support more electric vehicles in Alaska.
“Build it and they will come,” Hall said.
Electric car sales are growing
Alaska is in its “infancy” when it comes to electric cars, according to a 2021 report by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Electric-car sales in Alaska trail most other states. About one in every 280 cars in the state is electric. But their numbers doubled in recent years, to about 1,500, the report says.
Concerns abound, the report says. The cold saps batteries. Repair options for electric vehicles are limited in Alaska.
But the right environment can help promote more use, it says.
The fast-charging stations will give Alaska drivers more reasons to consider electric cars, said Thayer with the state energy authority.
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As electric cars add range and charging times fall, demand for the vehicles will grow, he said. Electric trucks, soon to be released by Ford and others, will stoke interest, too.
“We like our trucks and SUVs,” he said of Alaskans.
The northernmost fast-chargers in the U.S.
Private businesses will host the charging sites along the corridor. Some will install slow-chargers, too.
Three Bears Alaska grocery stores in Chugiak, Trapper Creek and Healy will install fast and slow chargers under the program, said Jim Kolb, marketing director for Three Bears.
“It’s just another means to help Alaskans out and bring business into the store and provide a service,” he said.
Kolb, who lives in Wasilla, said he might buy an EV one day. But their prices must fall further.
The charging network will help Alaska catch up with its Lower 48 peers, he said.
“Those charging stations being readily available, that’s a huge thing,” he said. “They are everywhere down south. You don’t have that up here, so you’re stuck to charging in your house, and that takes overnight.”
Earlier this month, Golden Valley Electric Association installed the first fast chargers in Fairbanks. They’re the northernmost in the U.S., said Meadow Bailey, spokeswoman for the utility.
Electric car manufacturers are now calling the utility, Bailey said. They want to test their batteries in subzero temperatures. The charging sites will support that.
Defeating “range anxiety”
Mark Wiggin, a former deputy commissioner with Alaska Department of Natural Resources, owns a red Tesla.
On a family road trip a couple summers ago, the car’s computer flashed a warning. Turn around and return home, it said. There were no known charging stations nearby, about two hours north of Anchorage.
But Wiggin found a campground outlet and plugged in for a slow charge, he said.
“I was literally sweating,” he said. “I had four people in my car with me and they counted on me. I begged someone to let us park the Tesla next to their camper so we could charge it in the campground.”
It took a few hours, while the family hiked.
The charging network will help prevent such “range anxiety,” he said.
Wiggin works for Kuukpik Oil Field Services, and serves on the board of Chugach Electric Association, which has built the slower charging stations at its Anchorage headquarters. Wiggin said electric cars support the oil and gas industry because natural gas is used to generate power.
Despite the close call on his road trip, Wiggin said he never wants to buy a gas-fed car again. The electric vehicle is much cheaper to operate.
“It just makes economic sense,” he said. “And I love the fact that there are no exhaust pipes on my car.”
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Michelle Wilber, with Alaska Center for Energy and Power, drives an electric Chevy Bolt in Anchorage.
She doesn’t use it for road trips because of the limited charging options. She once drove it to Hope, a 180-mile round trip, but charged it overnight at a friend’s house.
When the network is up, she’ll drive the car to Fairbanks. And she’ll strap a dipnet to the top to fish for Kenai River salmon.
“There are all kinds of things I can do once I can charge,” she said.
Other charging efforts
ReCharge Alaska, the private company installing fast chargers, plans to add the next charger at Healy, also south of Fairbanks. Next summer, Hall plans to add sites along the Richardson Highway, so electric car users can conveniently drive to Valdez.
“This was a selfish endeavor,” said Hall, a Tesla owner.
He started his effort before the Alaska Energy Authority came up with its plan, so he could have places to charge.
He might profit in 15 years, as more Alaskans buy electric vehicles, said Hall, who works for Little Red Services, an oil field support company.
In Soldotna, the Whistle Hill destination development will soon host a Tesla supercharging station near the shops, restaurant and restored railcars.
It will open in the coming weeks, said Henry Krull, an owner in the development. Whistle Hill already features slower charging stations for Teslas. Krull gives away that power because he wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, he said.
The new station will be operated by Tesla, and won’t be free, he said.
The Alaska Electric Vehicle Association installed a fast charger in Talkeetna last month, a first for the group.
The growth in charging stations is just beginning, Shein said.
“All these charging stations are good, we just need more of them,” he said.