A small but growing group of EV owners in Alaska show electric cars can work in the frigid north

A woman in an orange sweater leaning against her car.
Kelly Willett, an avid outdoor hobbyist, loads her fat bike on to the back of her Tesla on a recent April evening. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Kelly Willett has been driving a Tesla Model Y for about six months, and it’s made her 18-mile commute into Anchorage from Eagle River much more enjoyable.

As she pulled onto the Glenn Highway on a recent afternoon, she showed off the car’s instant torque, a feature common among electric vehicles.

“And then of course the acceleration onto the highway is nice, that’s probably my favorite, or one of my favorite [parts],” she said. “So I’m at highway speeds, and I can merge a lot more efficiently and safely.”

Willett is part of a small but rapidly growing community of electric vehicle owners in Alaska.

The Biden administration wants that number to rise significantly across the country in the coming years. He’s proposing strict new pollution limits that would require up to two-thirds of new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be electric by 2032. That could pose challenges in Alaska where EV infrastructure is minimal, but local owners say in most cases, it’s already fairly easy to get around in one.

“It’s been a great car so far,” said Willett. “I like the technology and the ride, and that there’s no maintenance. The only maintenance I have for the car is to put windshield washer fluid in it. And that’s it.”

Willett saved for more than 10 years to buy her Model Y. She’s been interested in the sustainability movement since studying biology in college, but says she was also tired of the maintenance costs for her Subaru.

She said the car also fit neatly into her Alaska lifestyle. Willett fat bikes, ice climbs and hunts – often with her dog Nala, who was laying in the back trunk area.

Chugach Electric Association estimates there are more than 2,300 EVs (including plug-in hybrids) on the road in Alaska. That’s still a tiny percentage of the total cars, but in Anchorage alone, that number went up by 120% since June 2021.

Chugach Electric Association has been keeping track of the number of electric vehicles registered in the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA) and statewide. (Courtesy of Chugach Electric)

Dimitri Shein is the Executive Director of the Alaska Electric Vehicle Association, a nonprofit that advocates for EV infrastructure in Alaska. He said electric cars are the next evolution of driving.

“People often like to connect electric vehicles to the environmental movement. But I think at a certain point, there’s a realization that the reason that electric vehicles are becoming popular and mainstream is because they offer something else, and they offer comfort and utility,” he said. “And they’re just fundamentally better vehicles.”

But Alaska’s famously long and frigid winters can be problematic for EVs. The batteries don’t work as well in the cold. Shein said the winter temperatures can deplete some electric vehicle batteries by more than 30%. But since modern EVs average about 250 miles of range, he said that loss usually isn’t an issue, especially for daily commutes.

“When driving my car during summertime, I can go probably three days without plugging in my car at home to charge overnight,” he said. “And driving in the wintertime, I have to plug in either every day or every other day, depending on how much driving I have done and how cold it is.”

He compared plugging in his car to charging his phone at night – it’s that simple.

Of course, charging that big battery does increase your electric bill. But Chugach Electric utility estimates it’s less than half the cost of filling an average car with gas.

Sean Skaling is a Senior Manager of Business Development at Chugach. He said EVs are also responsible for about 60% less carbon emissions, even though the utility still relies on mostly fossil fuels to generate electricity.

“Electric vehicles put the majority of the inherent energy that’s stored in the battery into forward momentum, whereas a gasoline vehicle, there are some estimates, and it’s quite a range, but let’s just say like 25% of the inherent value of the fuel energy value goes into moving the car,” he said. 

“And the rest of it, a lot of it is just waste heat. Some of it is when you’re braking – waste heat – you’re using friction brakes to brake rather than regenerating electricity to put back in the battery to use later. So the vehicles themselves are just so much more efficient.”

Attempting a long distance trip – especially in the winter –  can be a challenge, since the state only has a handful of fast chargers along the rail belt. But Skaling said there are more than you think. He said a colleague drove 1,200 miles across the state on a recent weekend.

“He went Anchorage, to Homer, to Fairbanks, Glennallen, back to Anchorage – all in a weekend. Used ten high speed chargers,” he said. “I mean, it’s just evidence that I think we’re more ready than most people realize. There are a lot more charging stations out there than most realize.”

Skaling said there are currently 12 active fast chargers on the road system in Alaska, but many more are on the way thanks to $52 million in recently approved federal infrastructure funding. The Alaska Energy Authority is currently seeking site host applicants to install those chargers.

Michael Fanelli reports on economics and hosts the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at mfanelli@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8445. Read more about Michael here.

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