Sep. 3—Electric vehicle drivers say Alaska's charging network still lags behind many other states, even after a state agency deployed nine new stations to boost charging capacity along the highways.
The Alaska Energy Authority, using $1 million from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement, has worked with private entities to have the charging stations installed for the drive between Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula communities of Seward and Homer.
The agency had hoped to have all the charging stations up and running last summer to support the state's growing population of electric vehicle drivers.
But drivers complain that some stations were not turned on until recent weeks, and at least one, in Cooper Landing, is not yet operational. They say the machines are already outdated because technology has rapidly advanced.
Curtis Thayer, head of the Alaska Energy Authority, said in an interview last week that the first charging site under the state-led system became operational at a steakhouse in Homer nearly two years ago.
But pandemic-era problems stalled the completion of other charging sites, he said. Alaska was at a competitive disadvantage for getting gear because other states made much larger orders to expand their networks, he said.
Supply chain snarls delayed shipments, he said. Once installed, labor and computer chip shortages delayed some stations from being turned on.
"If they can't get the electrician to make the final connection, or they can't get the latest software from the vendor to make it operational, that's not the fault of the energy authority and it's not the fault of the site hosts either," he said. "It just happens to be the delays of the time."
Thayer said the state will also soon add nine faster charging stations between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Money for those is coming from $52 million that's expected to arrive in Alaska over five years from the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program, part of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.
Those will add four ports instead of the current two ports. Together with the current charging stations, drivers will be able to power up every 50 miles between Anchorage and Fairbanks, for the most part.
The agency will soon announce where those will be installed, he said. Local entities will serve as site hosts and own the stations, just like before, once federal approval is granted, Thayer said.
"We hope to have those starting to be installed probably next spring," he said.
'This could be bad'
Electric vehicle drivers, citing the existing problems, say they're worried the new program will have a flawed rollout.
Anchorage resident Randy Brown, who owns a Hyundai Ioniq 5, said he got an electric vehicle last summer, expecting that the charging stations would be fully functional.
But he hasn't traveled this summer like he hoped. He's fine with traveling to Homer, but he hasn't made the trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks because he's not confident all the stations or ports will work.
One station, in Cooper Landing, still hasn't been turned on. The site host, Grizzly Ridge lodging, is currently waiting for parts needed to rewire the charger, energy authority spokeswoman Brandy Dixon said in an email. The delay stems from issues that include the utility infrastructure and the site's redevelopment, she said.
Three other stations, located at Three Bears grocery stores in Chugiak, Trapper Creek and Healy, did not open until recent weeks.
Dan Weisz, director of fuel operations at the stores, said the charging stations were fully energized in July.
Wesiz said supply chain issues made it especially difficult to get transformers and switch gear on time, delaying the projects, among other issues.
"That's the way the world was for a couple of years, so it's been out of our control," he said.
After hearing from Weisz in early August, the Alaska Energy Authority updated its online list to show the Three Bears sites are working, the agency says.
Electric car drivers, however, have reported on plugshare.com that cars are unable to charge at the Three Bears' Healy store.
Kirk Martakis, who lives in Cantwell and leases his property to host a ReCharge Alaska charging station, said on Friday that the Healy station would not charge his Kia EV6.
"None of them in Healy are charging your car," he said in an interview. "The power is there (at the station) but it doesn't do anything."
Brown said the state's website incorrectly says the Healy station works. That could lead to a dangerous problem in winter, he said.
"Imagine you're a bit naïve, you buy an electric car and you're told all these charging sites are open," Brown said. "You journey up there, you find nothing works, and it's cold out there. I mean, this could be bad. The energy authority shouldn't be doing this."
Dixon, the energy authority spokeswoman, said the agency reached out in recent days to Weisz, who said he confirmed that the chargers in Healy are working.
Dixon said the sites on the network are privately owned. "Therefore, users must contact the site hosts directly when encountering a problem," she said.
Weisz, with Three Bears, said on Friday that operator error could be a possibility. He said drivers who are having any problems should talk to store managers.
"If drivers are having problems, the message is not getting back to me," he said. "They should probably talk to the store manager and make them aware of it, so we can make corrections."
Dimitri Shein, executive director of the Alaska Electric Vehicle Association, said the state's charging infrastructure has improved despite the delays.
He said some states have no such effort underway.
But he said private companies such as Anchorage-based ReCharge Alaska deserve similar credit for adding stations.
Shein said road trips in an electric vehicle still require careful planning. Drivers call each other for the latest information about charging stations before heading out. Others plug in at friends' houses along the way, if needed.
Many of the state's current charging systems deliver 50 kilowatts of power, so it can take more than an hour to fully charge a car like his Tesla Model X. He plans sightseeing trips for those waits, he said.
"In Alaska, we're still at the early stages of this, so you still have to be prepared for longer charge times and running into adventure along the way," he said.
Shein said although the 50-kilowatt stations are newly installed, they're "borderline obsolete" because charging technology has improved. He said some states are removing those to install faster charging stations.
"Can our state energy office rise to the challenge and build out this new network when they haven't really completed the old network?" he said.
A national competition for chargers
Despite the challenges with traveling, electric vehicle numbers in Alaska have jumped to an estimated 2,100 today, a 60% percent rise in less than two years, according to the energy authority.
They're expected to represent about 1% of all registered vehicles in the state in 2026, the agency says.
The state doesn't have much charging density, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Alaska has just over 100 ports, below all other states, the agency reported. That figure includes Juneau in Southeast, far from the state-created network. The city has lots of charging stations and electric vehicle ownership for its size, thanks to a limited road system and favorable electric rates based on hydropower.
Thayer said the $52 million from the from the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program will go a long way in Alaska, with its small population.
A first round with part of that money will be used to build the nine new charging stations from Anchorage to Fairbanks, he said. The new sites will be more powerful, allowing electric vehicles to fully power up in about 25 minutes, drivers say.
Thayer said that in the next phase, the state is looking to add more charging sites elsewhere in Alaska. That includes from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula, in coastal communities like those in Kodiak and in Southeast Alaska, and elsewhere such as along the Richardson and Glenn highways, according to the state's plan.
Thayer said the state plans to use every bit of the $52 million over the coming years to build out the state's electric vehicle network.
"Our plan is to hit the different points we need to and do that," he said.