Nathea Burnet holds both a plastic ax and her grandmother, Patricia Forrest's, hand while looking at electric vehicles during Juneau Electric Vehicle Association's road rally Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. On a per capita basis, there is one electric vehicle per 76 residents in Juneau. There were 418 EVs registered in Juneau as of November 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists: Electric vehicles with Devon Kibby

The clock is ticking to fast-track Alaska’s electric vehicle ecosystem.

By Anjuli Grantham

“I want to be able to drive my car anywhere.” Devon Kibby, founding member of the Alaska Electric Vehicle Association and Juneau’s electric vehicle guru, says his interest in electrical engineering led him to buy a “laptop with wheels,” but his motivation in the burgeoning sector is simpler. When electric vehicles first started trending in Juneau, he realized that his efforts could help a new wave of electric vehicle owners drive electric further.

“I want to be able to drive my car anywhere.” Devon Kibby, founding member of the Alaska Electric Vehicle Association and Juneau’s electric vehicle guru. (Courtesy Photo / Brian Wallace for Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists)

It was as recent as 2012 that electric vehicles made a growing appearance on Juneau’s roads. Within the decade, Juneau has become a hot-spot nationally for electric vehicle adoption, thanks to the work of individuals like Devon and organizations like the Juneau Electric Vehicle Association, AEL&P, the Juneau Economic Development Corporation, and the Alaska Electric Vehicle Association.

[Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists: Boosting heat pumps with Andy Romanoff]

On a per capita basis, there is one electric vehicle per 76 residents in Juneau. There were 418 electric vehicles registered in Juneau as of November 2020. But this laudable number still only account for 1.6% of the over 20,000 locally registered vehicles.

Globally, the transportation sector is only second to the generation of electricity when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of global oil usage goes to fuel over one billion cars and trucks (there are over 5.6 million electric vehicles). Locally, 29% of Juneau’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to highway transport. We may be a leader in electric vehicle adoption, but even Juneau needs to expand what Devon calls the “electric vehicle ecosystem” if we are to achieve 80% of our energy coming from renewable sources by 2045, as articulated in the Juneau Renewable Energy Strategy.

Since Juneau generates its electricity from renewable hydropower, driving an electric vehicle results in zero emissions. Emission reductions are but one reason why electric vehicles make sense in Juneau. Juneau’s moderate climate extends battery longevity—not too hot—without severely impacting performance—not too cold. The cost to operate an electric vehicle is relatively low and stable, as annual maintenance is very minimal and the price for locally-generated electricity used to power the vehicles fluctuates less than gas or diesel.

Access to electricity is less likely to be impacted by global events or shipping issues. Moreover, so-called “range anxiety” related to the distance one can travel between charges is less of an issue in the water and land-locked town of Juneau, simply because we don’t have far to drive. With over twenty electric vehicle charging stations stretching from Eagle Crest to Eagle Beach, Juneau electric vehicle drivers can get anywhere they need without being far from a no-cost charging station. This is in part thanks to the donation of eleven used charging stations to JEVA and Devon doing the maintenance work to keep them operating.

While the reasons to purchase and drive an electric vehicle are myriad, to create a thriving “EV ecosystem” will take not only simply purchasing an electric vehicle, but also reevaluating infrastructure, the regulatory environment, and more. While Juneauites can currently drive from Douglas Harbor to Eagle Beach, charging at both points and places in between, it’s still not possible to drive an electric vehicle up the Alcan, and it’s barely possible to drive—let alone quickly— between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

“Solving all the chicken and egg problems,” is what Devon spends much of his time doing these days, as he works with statewide and nationwide electric vehicle advocates to grow this nascent transportation sector within Alaska. And there are many such problems, from the more simple— do we need more electric vehicles in a community before we install charging stations, or should we install charging stations to show that electric vehicles are possible in the community?—to more complex, like convincing regional utilities to create a rate structure for electric vehicle charging before there are even electric vehicle chargers in the region.

“There’s not just one thing to work on,” Devon explains. “To get a solution in place, there are five or six organizations that need to be coordinated.” He provides several examples. “You need fast chargers, which face a barrier from electrical demand charges,” a utility regulation issue that goes to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. “There’s legislative issues that pop up, like resale of electricity or road taxes,” referring to the fact that some road maintenance is funded in part through taxes on gas, and EV drivers don’t pay gas taxes. “There’s the municipal angle: what role do towns and cities play, how should limited resources be allocated, and which stakeholders bear the cost? Then there’s the simpler stuff, like how to get people to buy EVs. Each of these has to happen at the same time to make this ecosystem advance.”

But the ecosystem is advancing. The RCA is exploring rate structures for fast charging stations across Alaska. Tesla has a facility in Fairbanks for testing and tuning their electric vehicles. Southeast utility Alaska Power and Telephone offers a rebate for customers who purchase electric vehicles. AEL&P has a special rate for clients who charge electric vehicles during non-peak hours on a metered charger. Federal grants totaling nearly $9 million are going to electrify Capital Transit, which has received its first electric bus with the potential for complete conversion to electric around 2030.

Thanks to advancements in battery storage and ongoing advocacy on the part of electric vehicle drivers, large-scale adoption of electrified transportation is in reach. Alaska has plenty of work to do to adapt to this transportation and energy future, attract investment and build the required infrastructure. And with General Motors’ recent announcement that the company is phasing out gas-powered cars by 2035, the clock is ticking to fast-track Alaska’s electric vehicle ecosystem.

Anjuli Grantham is a public historian and museum curator who serves on the board of Renewable Juneau and is vice chair of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists is a series that features 10 local solutions to climate change and 10 people who exemplify the solutions. The solutions are based on Project Drawdown, a global project that quantifies the most effective methods for halting global warming. The series was produced with support from a Juneau ArtWorks grant. It appears weekly in the Empire.

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