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Electric cars on the rise, city gets grant to support more

Public charging stations will start popping up around town in early 2014

Posted: September 23, 2013 - 6:56pm  |  Updated: September 23, 2013 - 11:02pm
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Robert Barker drives his new Nissan Leaf all-electric car on Egan Drive on Monday. Barker estimates it costs him about one cent per mile in energy costs to drive.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Robert Barker drives his new Nissan Leaf all-electric car on Egan Drive on Monday. Barker estimates it costs him about one cent per mile in energy costs to drive.

Robert Barker is one of a small subset of Juneauites: electric car owners. He avoids gas stations by plugging in his car at home — along with about 11 other electric vehicle owners in town. This number is growing, Alaska Electric Light & Power Co.’s Alec Mesdag said, and the city recently received a grant that will help install about a half-dozen public charging ports to make the vehicles more viable.

The Juneau Community Foundation, partnered with the City and Borough of Juneau, recently won a $25,000 Bloomberg Award for Local Sustainability Matching Fund, according to a foundation news release. The money will go toward placing electric vehicle charging stations around town, and local organizations and businesses will contribute matching funds to the cause. These plug-in locations should start becoming available in early 2014.

The grant comes at a time when electric cars are picking up steam in Juneau, said Mesdag, co-chairman of the Juneau Economic Development Council’s Renewable Energy Cluster. AEL&P currently offers a reduced rate on kilowatt hours for people who charge their electric cars at night. Right now, eight of the program’s 10 available slots are filled, and the last six electric car owners enrolled only in the past six weeks — a significant jump, he said.

“I’ve been amazed at the increase,” Mesdag said.

Barker owns a Nissan Leaf, one of the two types of fully electric vehicles driven in Juneau, the other being the Chevrolet Volt. These cars skip the gas pump entirely, a major selling point for Barker, who was spending $450 per month filling up his two cars before he got the Leaf in July. Electric cars don’t need oil changes and have zero tailpipe emissions.

“I don’t miss going to the gas station,” Barker said.

Barker and his family live out the road and were using a lot of gas “ferrying kids in and out, going to soccer club,” he said. “Now this is our main car — we’ll drive this first before the other one.”

According to Barker’s calculations, it costs about 1 cent per day to run the Leaf. His last AEL&P bill showed it cost $14 to charge the car for one month. Although the car cost about $30,000, including shipping costs, the gas savings are worth it, he said.

Owning an electric vehicle in a place with a limited road system is ideal, Mesdag said, but it’s not without its complications. In Juneau, Leaf and Volt owners are split almost 50-50, Mesdag said. But the Volt is the only electric vehicle available for sale in the city. Leaf owners had to have theirs ferried in; there is no Nissan dealer in Juneau.

This poses a maintenance problem, Mesdag said. The Leaf needs a yearly engine check to retain its warranty. With no dealer, and, thus, no certified electric vehicle mechanic to work on the cars, Leaf owners might be out of luck when it comes to the mandatory checkup, as well as any extra problems that might pop up. This has been a deterrent for potential electric vehicle owners, Mesdag said.

“That may wind up being a little bit of an issue,” he said. “That’s something we partially hope to address with the grant.”

The Renewable Energy Cluster has tossed around a few ideas for circumventing this problem, Mesdag said, including pooling resources to fly in a Nissan electric vehicle technician periodically or partnering with Mendenhall Auto Center, a local Chevrolet dealer that sells and services Volts. With the right equipment, the dealership could also perform engine checks on the Leaf, he said.

Mendenhall Auto Center President Steve Allwine said his Chevrolet dealership has had to do minimal maintenance on Volts since it began selling them a year ago. The dealership has five specially trained technicians certified to work on electric vehicles. Although his company is focused on servicing its own products, he wouldn’t be opposed to taking a look at a Leaf in need, he said.

“We invest quite a bit of money in technician training” on many types of vehicles, Allwine said.

He said he’s seen an increasing interest in the Volt since its release, and Mendenhall Auto Center keeps one or two in stock at all times. AEL&P was the first to buy an electric car from the dealership, he said. Chevy is “building them sparingly” but Allwine said he expects to see more and more on Juneau’s roads.

Although “in our environment, people still need trucks,” Allwine said he’s gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback from friends and customers who own the Volt, no matter the season.

“Because the car’s not excessively light, it didn’t have any problems in the winter,” he said.

Barker said he’s keeping his trusty 1990 Honda Civic on hand in case the Leaf doesn’t fare well in cold weather, but he has high hopes. He said he drives his Leaf about 45 to 50 miles per day, and charging at home after work has provided all the juice he needs to make it around town. However, he said installing charging stations at busy locations like Fred Meyer and Walmart would allow drivers to get a quick boost while shopping.

Mesdag said installing plug-ins will be easiest if it’s done in tandem with new construction projects. The city doesn’t yet know where the charging stations will be installed, he said, but potential locations are the Marine Parking Garage downtown, Eagle Beach, Sandy Beach and Eaglecrest Ski Area — places people hang around for a while.

He said Juneau’s electric car community is passionate about their vehicles, mostly because of the convenience they provide. Owning an electric car has caused Barker to get involved with the Renewable Energy Cluster and the charging station installations, he said.

“Every time you leave the house you essentially have a full tank,” Mesdag said. “The folks who own these vehicles love them, absolutely love them.”

Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com.

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