HEA takes a look at electric vehicles

Of the attendees who drove from the central Kenai Peninsula to Homer for Homer Electric Association’s annual member meeting on Thursday, at least two made the trip in electric cars.

HEA information service analyst Joe Halstead was behind the wheel of the cooperative’s 2018 Chevrolet Volt, which HEA recently purchased as a practical test of how electric vehicles perform in local conditions.

“We’re going to use data from this car, so we can say ‘this is what we like, this is what we don’t like, this is what it’s costing us,’ things like that,” Halstead said.

Kenai surgeon Henry Krull also drove his Tesla electric car to Homer for HEA members to see alongside the cooperative-owned Volt. The owners of an electric BWM also displayed their vehicle at the meeting.

Electric vehicles are becoming popular in Southeast Alaska communities like Juneau. The southeast has an abundance of cheap hydro-electricity and relatively short road distances, but electric drivers on the Kenai Peninsula are in a different environment, both in geography and electricity costs.

What Halstead has found so far is that driving style and amenity use have big effects on an electric car’s range. On the Volt’s dash is a sliding-scale display of four factors that affect its power efficiency: technique, terrain, climate settings, and outside temperature. The car also has internal features that can help it get better mileage. In addition to traditional pedal-brakes, the Volt has a switch on the steering wheel that triggers its regenerative braking, which charges the batteries with energy drawn from the wheels as the car slows down.

With heavy regenerative breaking, the interior amenities turned off, and the car doing lots of downhills, Halstead estimated a full charge could take the Volt over 240 miles.The U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s range estimate is 238 miles.

“Driving in Homer conditions, going up and down hills, seat-heater on, rocking out to AC/DC, it might be a little different,” Halstead said. “That’s why we have this car, so we can say ‘this is what the manufacturer says, this is what the EPA says, this is what the Department of Transportation says, and here is some practical data.’”

Crossing the peninsula isn’t a challenge for the Volt. Thursday’s drive from Kenai to Homer took about half its charge, Halstead said, though he was driving to experiment with the car’s limits more than to conserve power.

“Going up and down hills, we didn’t see a big effect,” he said. “Adding to the draw, then we see an effect.”

The Volt will be based at HEA’s Homer office, Halstead said, though it’s likely to be going back and forth with the staff who travel between Homer and the Kenai office. Data gathered from this travel will be eventually be collected on an HEA website page about the car’s performance, Halstead said.

HEA General Manager Brad Janorschke said he knew of 15 electric-car owners on the Kenai Peninsula. Though he was initially skeptical about electric vehicles, he said, they’re “something to keep on an eye on as battery storage grows and the technology improves.”

“My suspicion is that they’re where flip-phones were not that long ago,” Janorschke said. “A lot of people had flip-phones, and then the really cool people got Blackberries, and the next thing you know everybody had an iPhone. I suspect this may go the same direction.”

Of the pratical limits that electric cars face on the Kenai Peninsula, Halstead said the biggest is a scarcity of chargers in the area. Long charge times are one common concern about electric vehicles — the Volt takes about 30 minutes to get roughly 90 miles’ worth of charge, according to a Chevrolet information pamphlet. One solution used in the Lower 48 is placing chargers in business parking lots, where cars can charge as their owners eat or shop. Halstead said HEA plans to approach local businesses about placing chargers in their lots.

One Soldotna business, the Brew@620 coffeeshop — owned by Henry Krull’s wife Mary Krull — already has a charger, albeit one with a specialized plug for Tesla vehicles.

In the absence of high-voltage public chargers, electric drivers can also use emergency chargers that plug into ordinary wall sockets, which take longer to charge.

Solar Project

By 2019 HEA could be operating a solar installation near Anchor Point. This depends on several future decisions, including the willingness of members to pay for the facility, as measured by an interest survey HEA began Thursday.

HEA’s long-planned solar project has been in limbo since its eight directors tied in a vote at their March 12 meeting over whether to give Anchorage-based LIME Solar a contract to build a 975 kilowatt-capacity solar installation. If approved, that facility could have been operating by July and would have had the highest capacity of Alaska’s planned or existing solar farms.

HEA normally has nine directors, but former director Don Stead’s resignation in February allowed the tie vote — meaning no action was taken. Stead’s seat was filled Thursday by Roy Champagne. HEA Director of Member Relations Bruce Shelley said the LIME contract is now off the table. To proceed, HEA will have to seek new proposals and award a new contract.

Like the similar solar project that Chugach Electric Association plans to build in late summer or early fall, HEA’s solar farm wouldn’t be funded by the cooperative’s general budget, but by members willing to buy a unit of its capacity in return for a share of its output credited against their normal electric bills.

HEA members interested in solar power can start buying into the project now — the cooperative is collecting member commitments to buy units worth 100 kilowatt-hours per month through a form available on its website. After the project’s details are worked out, a different form will let members make a final commitment.

Buying into the solar project will shrink the amount of carbon released by a subscriber’s energy use, but it won’t shrink their bill. HEA general manager Brad Janorschke said the cost of natural gas-fueled electricity — about 90 percent of the power HEA produces — is around 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, while solar power will cost around 17 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“If you do the math, that 10 cents per kilowatt-hour higher cost adds up, with 100 kilowatt-hours, to about $10 per month,” Janorschke said. “You can participate voluntarily with 100 kilowatt-hours or 500 kilowatt-hours, and it’ll show up as a surcharge on your bill.”

HEA will be collecting interest forms, with which members can tell HEA how many units of solar-power they’d be willing to commit to, until late fall.

“Then we’ll take that information back to the board and let them determine whether there’s enough member commitment to proceed,” Janorschke said. “If there is, we’ll go to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, and ask for their approval of the plan. With their approval, I expect this project to come online sometime in the summer of 2019.”

Election results

HEA members cast 3,171 ballots by mail in the 2018 director’s election, which began in March, plus 25 cast during Thursday’s meeting.

HEA’s nine-member board of directors has three members representing each of its three districts. Serving three year terms, one director from each district is up for election each year.

This year incumbent Dave Carey, a former mayor of Soldotna and of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, ran unchallenged for the seat representing Kenai, Nikiski, and parts of Soldotna. At the end of this three-year term, Carey will have served 30 non-consecutive years as an HEA director.

Roy Champagne, a logistics consultant who’s worked mainly for retailers in the Lower 48 and moved to Alaska in 2016, ran unopposed to represent Homer, Seldovia, and part of Kasilof. Incumbent Don Stead resigned from that seat in February.

This year’s only race was for the seat representing Kenai, Nikiski, and parts of Soldotna, which was contested between incumbent Dave Thomas — an environmental engineer specializing in contaminated site clean-up, who earned 771 votes — and Jason Ross, a commercial driver and U.S Army veteran who earned 247 votes.

In next year’s election, the seats of HEA Directors Dan Chay, Ed Oberts, and Bill Fry will be up for vote.

Reach Ben Boettger at bboettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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