Touring by Tesla: From The Mexico Border to Fairbanks

Seconds after Guy Hall pulled into a parking lot full of Subarus at KTOO in Juneau on Monday, five reporters were gawking at his sleek, red Tesla Model S.

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Hall is the president of the Sacramento Electric Vehicle Association. He spent 17 days driving from the California-Mexico border to Fairbanks, and now he’s on the return leg. Reporter Jeremy Hsieh hops in for a ride.

Guy Hall poses with a battery cell in hand. His Tesla Model S has more than 7,000 of the cells built into the undercarriage. It has a range of about 265 miles.
Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO.

“I’m driving Guy Hall’s Tesla. He’s a retired Hewlett-Packard research and development guy and an electric car evangelist. He’s got two more modest electric cars at home in Sacramento: a Nissan Leaf and a Chevy Volt,” Hsieh says.

But it’s the sporty, high-end Tesla that made the 3,400 mile journey north and has the wow factor.

“Punch it,” Hall says.

“Whoa. Wow. It’s pretty fun,” Hsieh says. “OK, I think I’ve got the Tesla grin. Alright, I’ve got to slow down so I don’t get pulled over.”

“I won’t say what the speed is that we saw that go up to, but it was worthy of a ticket-me-red color car,” Hall says.

There’s no fuel to pump, no engine to rev, no gears to shift, no transmission. Pressing on the accelerator translates into electrons moving at the speed of light to the electric motor driving the rear wheels.

Where you’d expect an engine compartment up front is a second trunk. Hall calls it “the frunk.” Another big difference is at start up.

“There you go, you’re now in drive. Do you hear that?” Hall says.

The windshield wiper makes more noise than the drivetrain. Almost no sound compared to a gas car.

Inside, a big touch screen panel in the center console breaks up the leather. It has controls for adjusting the suspension, handling, regenerative braking system, sunroof and more.

The battery is a heavy, flat panel that makes up much of the undercarriage. Its shape evenly distributes the weight and the location keeps the center of gravity low; that’s good for handling. The battery is actually made up of a series of more than 7,000 cells, each about the size and shape of a shotgun shell.

Hall says besides spreading the word, his trip was about seeing if an electric vehicle could even make it. His battery has a range of about 265 miles and charging stations are rare.

“But I was able to determine you can do it. There’s sources of electricity everywhere you go,” Hall says.

According to Tesla, a full charge would take more than 3 days from a standard 110-volt outlet. It takes about 9 hours through a less common 240-volt outlet. Beefy appliances like laundry dryers and water heaters use those in the house. Electric car owners get them installed in their garages.

The 240-volt outlet is also a common hookup for RVs. So on the road, Hall charged up at RV parks. He says he even traded rides for some charging time at industrial shops and garages along the way.

“I wanted to set a baseline of how long it takes to get from the Mexican border up to Fairbanks. And once that’s set, now others can try to beat it. And as someone gets a new record for it, trophy will go on to them and it’ll rotate around,” Hall says.

Right now, the only public charging station on Juneau’s isolated road system is at Alaska Electric Light & Power. But more are coming. The Juneau Economic Development Council helped raise $50,000 in grant money to build infrastructure supporting electric vehicles.

The council’s Zach Wilkinson says five two-outlet electric vehicle chargers are on their way to Juneau thanks to the grant. They’ll be installed at the Eaglecrest Ski Area, downtown parking garage, new Mendenhall Valley library that’s under construction, University of Alaska Southeast and Eagle Beach State Recreation Area.

And Wilkinson says there’s money to buy a few more single-outlet chargers for local businesses willing to pay the installation cost.

“Part of what we’re aiming for is to lead the nation in public charging stations per capita,” Wilkinson says.

By his math, Juneau would only need 14 outlets. Wilkinson says some may be in place and available for public use before the end of the year.

Duff Mitchell is the vice president of the startup Juneau Hydropower, one of the local groups that chipped in for the grant. He’s been driving a Nissan Leaf since October and says electric cars are a great fit for Juneau.

“We don’t have range anxiety, it’s a lot cheaper and more effective to use electricity that’s home grown, sustainable, rather than importing other fuel sources into our community,” Mitchell says. “It leaves those dollars here, and also, leaves more money in a person’s pocketbook at the end of the month if they’re using electricity for their transportation needs.”

“I call it beer math-it costs me less than a 12-pack of beer to drive my car all month.”

The vehicles can be pricey. Teslas start around $71,000, the Nissan Leaf starts at $29,000 and the Chevy Volt at $34,000, though the IRS offers up to $7,500 in tax credits for buying an electric vehicle.

Mitchell and Wilkinson estimate there are about 20 electric cars in town now.

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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