Renewable Energy & EVs Are Slowly Happening in Rural Alaska

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In a previous article, I detailed the process I went through figuring out how to include Alaska in our EV charging station plan for the Biden Administration. After talking with people in Alaska, I figured out pretty quick that there are three very different kinds of Alaska to consider.

The first category: Alaska’s larger cities can mostly be treated like any other place in the US. They are connected to each other with roads and, in some cases, ferries. For most of them, the road system connects to Canada, and then onto the Lower 48. There’s an electric grid that can be transitioned to renewables, and they already use a lot of hydroelectric. Solar is awesome in Alaska in the summer, as you get a lot of daylight hours. In winter, it’s almost worthless because there are so few daylight hours. EVs are a good fit for these areas, and adding level 3 charging infrastructure makes a lot of sense.

The second category: There are a number of smaller towns that have ferry service, but no road or power grid connection to other places. People have cars at these towns, and there are a few roads, but nothing to go long-distance except by ferry. These towns often have small power grids, but are run by small-scale diesel plants in many cases. Level 2 charging makes sense in these places, but there probably isn’t enough power for Level 3. Level 3 also wouldn’t make much sense anyway, because there just isn’t a lot of driving to do locally. Trips via ferry to places with more road are all described in the last paragraph, and those places are starting to have Level 3 charging.

The ferries also go to to a town in Canada and to Washington State, both of which have Level 3 charging already, so owning an EV for trips and using those ferry stops as jump-off points makes sense if that’s something you do regularly.

The third category: People call it “The Bush.” There are no roads in and out of the little towns, camps, and people living alone in much of the state, nor is there ferry service. If you need something fast or need to go somewhere fast, you hire a plane or own one yourself. Otherwise, you have a barge come, and they can go up several of the rivers. Boats, snowmobiles, and ATVs are also used to travel between these isolated communities. A few of the larger “hub” communities have runways for larger commercial planes, but most places are served by small planes, many of which land on the ocean or a river on pontoons.

People do have trucks, generators, and gas- or diesel-powered construction equipment in these places, and have fuel delivered by barge once or twice a year. Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces are very common, and there’s an abundance of wood to burn.

The first two categories can be served by the grid-connected renewables or a mix of wind and solar power backed up by diesel for the times when renewables fall short. Greg Abbott won’t tell you this, but renewables are already in widespread use in northern latitudes, and work as long as you prepare the equipment to operate in the cold.

The third category is a much bigger challenge. Limited sunlight, limited infrastructure, and just how few people live this way make it hard to change things.

Do We Even Need To Worry About This?

Environmentally, the answer is not really. There are under 100,000 people living this way, and they’re spread out over a very wide area. The impacts of this aren’t zero, but we certainly have a lot of things that are a higher priority.

When it comes to human well being and economics, it’s something worth considering. If the rest of the US and the more populated parts of Alaska all move to renewables, we’d have a situation that magnifies the economic disconnect between urban and rural. When you consider that many rural Alaskans are already subsistence living at least part of the year, cutting them off from the rest of the economy even more is unconscionable. We need to make sure that they are either included in the energy transition as much as practically possible or take other measures to ensure their supplies of fuel and other necessities aren’t negatively impacted by the economic changes.

In short, we can’t have Americans falling through the cracks. Fortunately, people are already working hard on this.

Current Efforts

While this topic is new to me, I’m definitely far from the first person to think about this. For example, Renewable Energy Alaska Project is working on a variety of renewable initiatives throughout the state. Wind power, biomass, geothermal, and solar are common ways to get renewable energy out away from the grid. From what they have on the website, hybrid systems that use renewables as much as possible but have fossil fuel backups are already going in dozens of villages.

It’s already a proven thing in most areas, and they’re slowly adding renewable sources all over the state. It won’t happen as fast as other places, but it’s happening.

Transportation Electrification In “The Bush”

While it’s going to be tough to get people to buy EVs just to drive around a small town or on some logging roads, that’s an issue that will likely follow the automotive industry on the back of the curve. Alaskans I’ve talked to sometimes buy used cars from the Southwest because there’s little rust, and they take trucks to Alaska to wear out and rust away. Every few years, they scrap them and pick up another. Some even drive them up the Alaska Highway to save on shipping costs to their rural community.

As the used market gets suitable vehicles and renewable energy makes it cheaper and easier to charge them, that will be a natural fit. Not much range is needed, so used EVs with degraded batteries won’t be much of an issue in many cases.

The real question is other forms of transportation, like barges and air travel. While behind on other aspects of clean technology, rural Alaska might outpace the Lower 48 on this.

Electric seaplanes started testing over a year ago, and they’re working on getting approved for regular flights. As battery technology improves, it won’t make sense for current plane operators to keep burning gas. In fact, they may start flying to more places as cost of operations drop, so more rural communities and camps will get plane service this way.

In Europe, large river barges are starting to be swapped out for electric. To do this without getting in the way of operations, the battery packs are stored in shipping containers. Once at a port, the battery packs are unloaded like any other container, and set aside to slowly charge while charged ones are put on the barge. Alaskan cargo boats, especially on the rivers, are much smaller, but they could likely do something similar. Battery packs could be swapped at docks in hub communities and charging in the most rural communities may be possible if the barge company partners with the community on power projects.

The last thing we’ll probably see switch over are the snowmobiles and ATVs used to get around in some areas. The technology already exists, but power will need to be more available in the rural communities before they will be a viable option. Also, cold weather adaptations for batteries will be necessary.

After doing all this research, it’s clear that things are happening for clean technology in rural Alaska, even if slowly. It’s not something the rest of us need to worry about except to ask how we can help the people already working on this.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1950 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba