Electric vehicles raise more questions than answers

Though electric cars are finding enthusiastic users in Alaska’s Southeast, how they would perform on the Kenai Peninsula is largely a speculative matter.

To date, the local peak of electric car popularity may have come when managers of Kenai’s Kendall Ford dealership, formerly Stanley Ford, added several models of hybrid and electric Ford vehicles to its stock.

Kendall Ford salesman Dave Bartelmay, who was with Stanley at the time, led a talk on electric vehicles at HEA’s Energy Technology Workshops on Thursday.

Electric vehicles are becoming popular in Southeast Alaska communities like Juneau — which, according to radio station KTOO, has an estimated 100 electric vehicles, 10 charging stations, and an advocacy group encouraging electric car-friendly infrastructure. One encouragement for electric cars in Southeast is an abundance of cheap hydro-electricity.

For many on the peninsula, however, electric vehicles seem less practical than in the more compact towns of the southeast, which lack long roads between them. The road distance between Homer and Anchorage is about 223 miles — roughly the range of a high-end electric car. Recharging an electric car can take from 30 minutes to 12 hours, leaving a hypothetical electric driver across the Kenai Peninsula with a potentially long wait time after making the trip.

One of the electric vehicles that Stanley Ford offered, the Ford Fusion Energi, fills an empty battery in 2.5 hours from a special 240-volt charger, or in 7 hours from a standard home outlet. A usual practice for electric drivers is to leave cars plugged in overnight.

The absence of public charging stations on the Kenai Peninsula was one factor that discouraged buyers from driving off any of Stanley Ford’s electric stock, Bartelmay said. The former managers of Stanley Ford planned to back up their electric offering by installing the peninsula’s first such station on their lot, Bartelmay said, though this never happened — Stanley Ford was soon after bought by Kendall, whose leadership scrapped the electric car plans.

Though Stanley Ford gave away an electric vehicle as a prize in a golf tournament — to an owner who remains happy with it, Bartlmay said — most of Kendall Ford’s electric cars are now in the fleet of Kenai’s Budget Car Rentals. By the time many left the lot, Bartelmay said, “nobody ever even cracked the door.”

Consumers nationwide have also shown disinterest in the vehicles Stanley Ford offered. Due to declining sales, Ford recently stopped production of the Energi and plans to stop the C-Max Hybrid by mid-2018.

Smoothing electrical demand

Though the local costs of owning an electric car are unknown, the rapidly advancing state-of-the-art may make them more attractive in the future. From a utility’s perspective, a large number of electric cars on the peninsula would create new electrical demand, meaning both new revenue and new problems. If electric vehicles become commonplace on the peninsula, technological changes to HEA’s grid could come with them.

“If there’s a huge spike in demand for electric vehicles, we as an electric utility might be in a bit of a pickle,” said HEA project engineer Brad Zubeck. “If the technology changes and all of the sudden an electric vehicle market booms, we could be looking at different ways to meet demand.”

Zubeck said that plugging in and charging 140 electric cars at once would put about a megawatt of electrical load on HEA’s system, which generates about 80 percent of its power with natural gas-fired turbines.

“To put that in perspective, our peak load is now about 68 megawatts during any given day,” Zubeck said. “It fluctuates a bit throughout the day — at nightime loads are low, and everybody wakes up in the morning and plugs things in, and we see a big spike. All day long, 24-7, there’s somebody at the throttle. Every time you flip a light switch on the load goes up, and somebody’s got to push the gas on our gas turbines out there to meet the demand. It’s automated, but we monitor that 24-7.”

HEA Director Ed Oberts — one of the cooperative’s nine member-elected directors who was present at an electric vehicle discussion during the workshop — said that if the new demand of charging vehicles were coordinated through centrally-controlled grid systems, they could help could stabilize the demand-spikes that decrease the efficiency (thus increasing the cost) of HEA’s generation.

Similar to the way cars get lower fuel mileage with stop-and-start town driving than at a steady speed on a highway, gas turbines are less efficient when they have to be throttled up and down to meet a fluctuating demand. Low-efficiency periods cut into HEA’s revenue and may lead it to run at a loss at times when revenue from their power generation is below the cost of natural gas fuel.

To avoid this inefficient climbing through peaks and valleys, utilities seek consistent sources of demand with a regular need for specific amounts of power at specific times, such as industrial or commercial buildings — or hypothetically, a community of electric vehicle users who will all leave their cars plugged in to charge overnight.

Emerging “smart grid” technologies could allow a utility to track this power use in real time, and — if the owners agreed — to control which car chargers turned on when, smoothing out a demand that would otherwise spike and plummet as drivers plug in their cars at random times of the night.

“So we would have a lot of controls to manage that load, and by managing that load, we’d keep generation assets in their sweet spot, to generate as much power as we can at the lowest cost,” Oberts said.

As an alternative to this technology, the utility could incentivize electric vehicle owners to charge at night by setting lower rates than in the higher-demand day. Oberts said that HEA’s board of directors has discussed setting time-of-day rates — used by several other utilities in the Lower 48 — but hasn’t made any definite move to do so.

Cheaper than gasoline?

A persistent audience question was the cost of charging an electric car — is it likely to be cheaper than a tank of gasoline?

Though the presenters didn’t have a definite answer, Zubeck said that based on calculations he’d done last year, an electric car driven every day and charged from an empty battery every night would cost about $2,500 to $4,500 per year. A 2017 study by the American Automobile Association estimated that fueling a gasoline vehicle costs about $1,500 annually, though costs vary widely based on distances driven, local fuel cost, and the fuel efficiency of specific vehicles.

“That’s with the technology, the battery capacities we have today, and with our local energy prices,” Zubek said. “A lot of variables could change and affect what it would cost to own an electric vehicle.”

Reach Ben Boettger at benjamin.boettger@peninsulaclrion.com.

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