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AEL&P, UAS probe Juneau's growing electric car culture

Posted: June 10, 2012 - 12:07am
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Angel Drobnica discusses a plan to convert her 1983 Jeep CJ8 into an all electric vehicle with other participants in a class at the UAS Technical Education Center last week.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Angel Drobnica discusses a plan to convert her 1983 Jeep CJ8 into an all electric vehicle with other participants in a class at the UAS Technical Education Center last week.

The number of electric cars in Juneau is growing and Alaska Electric Light & Power is getting ready.

The utility runs an incentive program that offers cut-rate electricity for 10 electric vehicle owners to install a separate metered outlet and charge their cars during off-peak hours. The experimental rate can save owners more than 50 percent on each charge, according to AEL&P.

There is a very real possibility that many car owners will be driving electric vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years, said Debbie Ferreira, AEL&P spokeswoman.

“We wanted to be prepared for that increased load,” she said.

The promotion also gives the utility usage data on its EV customers, Ferreira said. It can help the utility meet growing electric vehicle loads and plan for the addition of charging stations throughout the city, she said.

The federal government incentivizes the purchase of new electric vehicles with a $7,500 tax credit. A 2012 Chevy Volt costs around $39,000 before the discount.

A less expensive and more hands-on approach is to convert a gasoline-powered car into an electric.

Angel Drobnica picked a 1983 Jeep CJ for her electric car conversion.

“It had a blown engine, it was relatively light weight for its size and it was big enough to haul commercial fishing gear,” Drobnica said.

Drobnica is the clean energy coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. Her organization worked with the University of Alaska Southeast to offer a class based around the conversion of her Jeep.

Stopping by their automotive bay at the UAS Technology Center late on their final day of class, students soldered electrical boards while others handled thick battery cables and others discussed some minor glitch and rubbed their chins.

The engine bay of the Jeep is mostly occupied by an aluminum tray of lithium-ion batteries with the surprisingly small electric motor nestled underneath.

For the students, it was a rare chance to take part in an electric vehicle conversion. University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student and EV specialist Michael Golub instructed the class along with instruction from local EV enthusiasts.

For SEACC, the class was a chance to “explore the potential of small-scale renewable technologies to reduce the region's dependence on fossil fuels,” Drobnica said. Rising energy costs have hit Southeast residents hard, she said.

”Finding alternatives is essential to the health and resiliency of our communities,” Drobnica said. “We think that electric vehicles make a lot of sense in Southeast.”

Drobnica’s Jeep is nearly complete. Some trouble with the speed controller set the project back a bit.

“It was sent away for some troubleshooting and once we get it back we will be able to finish the vehicle,” Drobnica said.

Larry Depute, a retired physician’s assistant and airplane mechanic, spoke with the students his experience converting a 1972 Volkswagen Bug to electric.

Depute didn’t have access to a dozen students to finish his project in a week. He took an easy pace and finished his powder blue VW Bug conversion over about a year.

“It’s a lot of work,” Depute said.

Depute said he had the Bug for while when “it popped into my head that it would be a good electrical vehicle.” He said he asked his wife if she wanted an electric VW.

“She got excited about that, and it went on from there,” Depute said.

At its top speed of 55 mph, Depute’s VW has a 20-mile range, which is adequate for his wife’s needs, Depute said. She is able to visit downtown Juneau, Costco and Home Depot.

“It didn’t have to have a long range,” Depute said.

The Bug has better range at lower speeds.

At full charge “I’ve driven it 34 miles and only took it down to half,” Depute said.

Depute said his family uses the electric car for 80 percent of their driving.

“People in (the Lower) 48 worry about range,” Depute said. ”They are used to going long distances. This is perfect for us.”

Depute is the first customer to take advantage of AEL&P’s electricity discount. The program reimburses customers some of the cost to install a separate metered outlet.

“It worked out pretty slick,” Depute said.

Depute added a timer it to turn on his car charger during the utility’s off-peak hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Look for Depute and his wife in the July 4 parade. He’ll drive his red white and blue Baja bug and she’ll be in her electric ’72.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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