Electric vehicles were the topic of discussion Wednesday as local business leaders gathered for the first Kenai Chamber of Commerce Luncheon of the year.
Members of both the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce met at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center to hear a presentation from Bruce Shelley, Director of Member Relations for the Homer Electric Association.
During his presentation, Shelley spoke about the future of electric vehicles on the peninsula and HEA’s role in electrifying Alaska’s roadways.
One major initiative that Shelley brought up was a plan to build charging stations along Alaska’s highway system that is made possible by a lawsuit the EPA recently brought against Volkswagen. In 2017, the federal government reached a settlement to resolve a lawsuit alleging that Volkswagen had violated the Clean Air Act and cheated on emissions tests for its diesel motor vehicles between 2009 and 2016.
The state of Alaska received $8.125 million in that settlement, and the Alaska Energy Authority plans to use about $950,000 to install electric vehicle charging stations along the Railbelt.
“That is coming, and our goal is to energize our highway from Fairbanks to Homer,” Shelley said.
The electrification was scheduled to begin in the fall of 2019, but Shelley said that the project has been delayed until the Railbelt utility companies can determine how they will deal with the change in demand rate and the recovery of costs associated with it.
Beyond the announcement about the highway electrification project, the theme of Shelley’s presentation was that electric cars are already becoming commonplace and will be the optimal mode of transportation in the future.
“You’re probably sitting there under your breath laughing at me and saying, ‘Oh sure, Bruce,’” Shelley said. “Well let me take you back a few years.”
Shelley compared the advent of electric vehicles to the development of the cellphone, which began as clunky bag phones or brick phones in the 1980s that people, including Shelley, made fun of, and now smartphones are used by many people on a daily basis.
Shelley said during his presentation that two of the biggest hurdles still to overcome in making electric vehicles more commonplace on the peninsula are the lack of range that these vehicles have and the lack of electric trucks and SUVs on the market.
The maximum range for electric vehicles currently available is about 300 miles on a single charge, Shelley said, but companies like Ford and Tesla are in the process of developing trucks that would have a range of upwards of 400 miles.
HEA owns a Chevy Volt that has a range of about 238 miles, but Shelley said that he can usually get more than that when he drives it.
“I did take it to Anchorage and I was able to get to Anchorage with about a third of the battery still left,” Shelley said. “That was on a nice day.”
Shelley noted that the battery tends to drain faster in colder weather, and waiting for the vehicle to warm up before driving on cold days can also drain up to a third of the battery.
The batteries also die and need to be replaced eventually, Shelley said, but some manufacturers have a warranty of up to eight years and 100,000 miles on the batteries in their new electric vehicles. Shelley said that the cost to replace the battery in a Chevy Volt, like the one owned by HEA, is currently about $5,000.
In addition to building fast-charging stations on the highway, Shelley said he hopes to have additional public charging stations scattered across the peninsula to make driving electric vehicles in the area more viable.
There are no public charging stations in Kenai, but Shelley said that HEA will be installing one at its office by the end of March. Soldotna has two public charging stations, one at Whistle Hill and one outside of River City Books. In Homer, a public charging station is available at the Pioneer Art Gallery.