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

An electric school bus drops off students at Tok School in January of 2021, when temperatures were -38 F.
Courtesy of Gerald Blackard
An electric school bus drops off students at Tok School in January of 2021, when temperatures were -38 F.

The adoption of electric vehicles is surging in the lower 48 and in Southeast Alaska. Now, a research program is seeking to answer whether electric vehicles could be a good fit in rural Alaska too. Here’s what those researchers already know about how electric vehicles would work in rural Alaska, and what they’re looking to answer.

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

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

“So your iPhone doesn't try to keep its battery warm, but most electric vehicles do. So they're operating very, very well, even to negative 40 Fahrenheit,” Wilber said.

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

“That really depends. It depends on what the price of electricity versus the price of fuel is in a community. It depends on how much it drives every day,” Wilber said. “If you are driving all day, you know, you're a delivery driver or a cab driver, then it's probably, you know, a slam dunk that that is better fuel cost-wise. And your carbon emissions, that’s definitely a better deal.”

Wilber and her team have built an online calculator to tell whether an electric vehicle or a gas-powered one would be better fuel cost-wise and in terms of emissions. You just enter the cost of gas and electricity and the miles you drive in a day, and it will factor in the temperatures in your community. In Bethel, you would have to drive around 8 miles a day for an average electric car to start seeing cost savings over a gasoline-powered car. You’d need to drive 17 miles a day for an electric car to start seeing emissions savings.

But that’s all theoretical at this point. Wilber and her team want to test out electric vehicles on the ground in rural Alaska to see what real-world problems they run into, but that’s further down the line. Right now they’re gathering information, going to Bethel, Galena, and Kotzebue to ask residents questions like what kind of electric vehicles are they interested in.

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

Wilber and her team will spend two years in this information gathering period. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation. In subsequent research, her team plans to look at what kind of charging stations are needed in rural Alaska, and whether the Power Cost Equalization program should be adapted to encourage electric vehicle adoption.

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

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

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

The Alaska Center for Energy and Power hosted a workshop on electric vehicles in Bethel on April 6 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Yupiit Picaryut Cultural Center. Researchers asked residents what they would want out of electric vehicles, and what the barriers to adoption could be.

Greg Kim was a news reporter for KYUK from 2019-2022.
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