Researchers are investigating whether electric vehicles could work in a place like Bethel

Electric vehicle adoption is booming in the Lower 48s and Southeast Alaska. Now, a research program is investigating whether electric vehicles might also be suitable for rural Alaska. Here’s what these researchers already know about how electric vehicles work in rural Alaska and what they’re looking to answer.

If you’ve ever used your phone outside in the cold, you might have noticed that the battery drains much faster than normal. So the first question rural Alaskans often ask when they hear about electric vehicles is, “Would their batteries work in sub-zero arctic temperatures?”

The short answer is yes, according to Michelle Wilber, a research engineer at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“So your iPhone isn’t trying to keep its battery warm, but most EVs do. So they work very, very well, even at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit,” Wilber said.

Wilber said that a electric school bus in Tok, Alaska, and an electric car in Kotzebue prove that electric vehicles can operate in very cold climates. But she said it takes a significant amount of energy to keep the batteries warm in such cold temperatures. And if that electricity comes from a diesel generator, which powers most of rural Alaska, are there really any cost or emissions savings?

“It really depends. It depends on the price of electricity relative to the price of fuel in a community. It depends on how much he drives each day,” Wilber said. “If you drive all day, you know, you’re a delivery driver or a taxi driver, then it’s probably, you know, a slam dunk that’s better in terms of fuel cost. And your emissions carbon, it’s definitely a better deal.

Wilber and his team built an online platform calculator say whether an electric or gas-powered vehicle would be better in terms of fuel cost and emissions. Just enter the cost of gas and electricity and the miles you drive in a day, and it will take into account the temperatures in your community. In Bethel, you would need to drive around eight miles a day for an average electric car to start saving money compared to a gas-powered car. It would take 17 miles a day for an electric car to start reducing emissions.

But this is all moot at this point. Wilber and his team want to field-test electric vehicles in rural Alaska to see what real problems they encounter, but that’s further down the line. At the moment they are gathering information, traveling to Bethel, Galena and Kotzebue to ask residents questions, such as what kind of electric vehicles are they interested in.

“Do they think, you know, an electric snowmobile would be a good idea? Or would an electric school bus be a good idea? Or would an electric car for food delivery or taxis be a good idea? said Wilber.

Wilber and his team will spend two years in this information gathering period. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation. In future research, his team plans to examine what type of charging stations are needed in rural Alaska and whether the electricity cost equalization program needs to be adapted to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles.

It will take time to answer all of these questions. Wilber doesn’t expect widespread adoption of electric vehicles in rural Alaska anytime soon because the new technology needs people to develop it.

“And we don’t really have early adopters because it’s so scary to have a vehicle where nobody in town, you know, can work on that electrical system or that battery when something happens, isn’t I get it,” Wilber said.

His hope is that federal government agencies could test electric vehicles in rural Alaska first, because they could afford the risk of unexpected costs more easily than the average resident.

The Alaska Center for Energy and Power held an electric vehicle workshop in Bethel on April 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Yupiit Picaryut Cultural Center. The researchers asked residents what they would expect from electric vehicles and what barriers to adoption might be.

Maria D. Ervin