Ready or not, electric vehicles are coming

By Michelle Wilber

August 3, 2023

Every week seems to bring a new announcement about the latest electric car, truck or SUV, or the expansion of charging infrastructure.  The announcements around electric vehicles (commonly shortened to just ‘EVs’) are so commonplace that when Volkswagen said they were changing their name to Voltswagen as an April Fools prank in 2021, no one thought it was a joke!

But are we ready for EVs in Alaska? Certainly, they are already here: there are over 2200 registered in the state. Recent and upcoming pilot projects include electric garbage trucks in Anchorage, city buses in Juneau, electric cars for municipalities and utilities (including Kotzebue Electric), and even a school bus in Tok. Cold weather, small electric grids, and current policies may slow us down a little. However, with the opportunity to learn from these pilots and the advances happening in other parts of the world, we can forward the state of knowledge on cold weather and grid-supportive EV performance and maybe even help other regions in their EV transition.

Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) has a Beneficial and Equitable Electrification initiative that seeks to investigate where it makes sense to move energy use (like for transportation or heating) to electricity, and how to make sure everyone wins in the process.  Looking deep into the details of how EVs fit into Alaska’s energy picture is right up our alley!

ACEP researcher Michelle Wilber stands with a charging EV
ACEP researcher Michelle Wilber with a charging EV

Cold Weather

The colder it is outside, the more energy an EV needs to keep the occupants warm, and also to keep the battery warm. This is true while driving down the road, but in the case of the battery it is also true while parked. Batteries can be damaged, especially when charging, when it is too cold. To keep this from happening, most cars use energy from the plug or from the battery to keep the battery from getting too cold, or to warm it up before charging or driving. In a really cold climate like Fairbanks, this can lead to the vehicle using about two and a half  times the energy in a year as it would in an ‘ideal’ situation where it is always 70F (not that such a place exists…).  This also means that on cold days, where the battery is providing warmth as well as mobility, that the total range on a full charge is less– it can be half or less of the summer range on a really cold winter day.

Screen shot of world map with color gradients based on cold temperatures and electric vehicle ranges
A screenshot from the ACEP EV Map

Because fears about the effects of a cold winter on the practicality of driving an EV loom large in prospective EV owners' minds, we at ACEP worked to understand what is known about these effects and what remains to be discovered. We conducted a review of the literature and personal experience and compiled a report: Cold Weather Issues for EVs in Alaska. We used the information we found about the relationship of energy use and range to temperature to create a set of metrics and a map to help researchers and prospective EV owners evaluate the technology for their region. The metrics include an EV Score to quantify how ‘EV-friendly’ a location is based on the range loss and driving energy expected based on a location's temperatures over the year, a maximum range loss expected for the coldest day from the last 10 years, and a ‘Must Plug in Days’ for the number of days in a row that might be below -20C, the temperature below which most manufacturers recommend plugging in the EV to allow it to keep the battery warm. A screen shot with sample locations’ metrics is shown below.  Much like a USDA Growing Zone map can help a gardener decide which perennials to plant, this map could help decide how close together charging stations need to be along a highway, or whether or not you need a plug available at the ski resort you are driving to, or how big a battery you absolutely need for your winter commute. The relationship of Energy Use to Temperature also allowed us to create a web-based calculator for Alaskans to estimate their emissions and fuel costs from an EV compared to a gas vehicle.

Screen grab from the Alaska Electric Vehicle Calculator
A preview of the Alaska Electric Vehicle Calculator

Using this calculator, it is clear that in many communities in Alaska, more no- or low-carbon sources of electricity will be required to see emissions benefits from EVs, but in communities that already use high amounts of hydro, wind, solar and even natural gas to generate electricity and/or have a milder climate, EVs can be a great choice for reducing carbon emissions and lowering fuel costs.  Even in places like Fairbanks, with high energy needs for EVs and coal generation in the mix, switching to EVs may help avoid certain types of harmful particulate emissions and lead to healthier air, and electrifying bigger vehicles like school buses might help the most.

The transition to electric vehicles is happening– rapidly in some places and more slowly in others. ACEP is committed to working with Alaskans to determine what questions still need to be answered to make this an equitable and beneficial process for the state and to help with finding the answers to those questions.