It’s electric! Panel presents ‘The Case for Electric Vehicles’ in city forum

About 50 people filled the main viewing room of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Thursday night to listen as six panelists made the case for electric vehicles in Juneau. It wasn’t a tough sell.

Shortly after the forum started, City Manager Rorie Watt took a poll, by show of hands, to see how many people in the audience think the city should transition from gas to electric vehicles. Nearly everybody in the room raised a hand; lots of people raised both.

“It’s hard to get a room full of people to agree on anything these days,” said Michele Elfers, one of the panelists and a project manager for the city’s Engineering Department.

The almost-unanimous show of support for electric vehicles wasn’t entirely surprising. Two earlier polls by Watt revealed that about a quarter of the people in the audience already own electric vehicles and half of the rest want to.

It’s easy enough to imagine why. Juneau’s high fuel prices coupled with its relatively low cost of electricity — at least compared to the rest of the state — make electric vehicles desirable alternatives to their fossil-fueled foes.

During the question-and-answer portion of the forum, one audience member who recently bought a Nissan LEAF said that he saves about $130 per month on fuel and another $30 or so in oil change costs. By the time he factors in the money his new car saves him, his $200 monthly car payments are actually more like $50.

“I feel like it’s almost like LEAF is paying me to buy a new car,” he said.

Cost savings aren’t the only reason why several audience members said they traded in their gas-powered rides. Many people, including several of the panelists, talked about the environmental benefit of driving electric cars — especially in a city that relies on hydropower for nearly all of its electricity.

“Let’s face it: Climate change is a downer,” panelist John Neary said.

Neary is the director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, and when he heard the city was putting together an electric vehicle forum, he offered to host it. As the sun set during the evening forum, bathing the Mendenhall Lake and Mount Bullard in gentle hues of gold, Watt directed the audience to look out the window at the glacier.

“You’ve got a front row seat to a shrinking glacier, which is frightening and sad and depressing,” he said.

There’s a difference, though, between making the case for electric vehicles and actually making the switch, a point panelists didn’t shy away from.

Bill Hagevig, a panelist and representative of Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, spoke about the daunting capital costs that come with larger electric vehicles, such as buses.

Private tour companies in Juneau don’t typically have the money to purchase electric coaches, which typically go for about $800,000. What’s more, the tour season is short here; it only lasts about five months. During the other seven months of the year, the buses are sitting in storage, and companies aren’t making money to recoup their costs. Private companies also lack access to federal grants that might help them should the high sticker prices.

For these reasons, Hagevig said the city will likely be able to purchase electric buses first. And it has already started trying.

Last year, the city applied for a federal grant that would have helped the city buy two new electric buses for its Capital Transit fleet. Had the city won the grant, the federal government would’ve provided 80 percent of the funding needed to buy the busses.

The city didn’t get the grant, but Elfers, who helped put together the application, said that the process was helpful in and of itself.

“We started to get our head around what it would actually take for the city to do something like that,” she said, explaining that future grant proposals might be easier to put together as a result.

By the end of Thursday’s forum, the city still didn’t have a detailed roadmap to transition to an all-electric bus fleet. Most of the audience members still had to drive home in gas-powered vehicles. And the glacier was still receding due to climate change — which human activity has accelerated.

But the outlook of most people in the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center was still optimistic.

“The fact that we’re here talking about this is a start,” Hagevig said.

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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