Expansive view of downtown Juneau and waterfront, Alaska. Morning, waterfalls and fog nestled in the mountains. Mount Roberts tram operating at right.

Driving the Rain: Electrifying Transportation in Juneau, Alaska

In late March 2015, RMI hosted the second annual eLab Accelerator. Described as a bootcamp for electricity innovation, the four-day intensive work session brought together 12 teams from across the country—from New Mexico to Alaska and California to New Jersey—working on new business models, energy innovation districts, and new customer solutions. Together with RMI facilitators, Reos Partners, and a panel of expert faculty, they sped progress on their respective efforts. This is one of their stories.

Juneau—Alaska’s tiny capital with a population of 32,000—sits at the base of the Juneau Icefield, and the Mendenhall glacier. “The Glacier,” as it is known there, is an icon that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world. Unfortunately, it is melting at an alarming rate.

Though on the mainland, Juneau can be thought of as an island, since there are no roads connecting it to the rest of Alaska. Therefore, all fuel has to be shipped in on barges, making gas in Juneau cost about 50 percent higher at the pump than the national average and 26 percent higher than in Anchorage. And Juneau’s road system is actually very small, meaning electric vehicle range anxiety is not an issue. “About the longest drive you can take in Juneau is 55 miles from end to end,” says Alec Mesdag, of Juneau’s utility, Alaska Electric Light & Power (AEL&P). AEL&P also runs 99.5 percent on renewable energy from low-impact hydropower. These factors make Juneau an ideal place for electric vehicles.

Embracing Clean Electric Transportation

In 2013, the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC), through its Renewable Energy Cluster Working Group, identified electric vehicles as a priority and set a goal to make Juneau the national leader in public charging stations per capita. Through grants and local matching funds, the JEDC installed charging stations throughout the city. There are now 15 to 20 public charging ports in about 10 locations. “A driver can make a round trip from any starting point in Juneau in an EV without having to worry about range anxiety,” says Mesdag.

This program led to a realization of a bigger problem and what Zach Wilkinson, then program officer for the JEDC, saw as a bigger opportunity. “We have one million cruise ship tourists every year, which is a big captive audience from around the world,” says Wilkinson. “And half a million of them get put into old diesel busses and get trucked up to visit the Mendenhall glacier. Any given day, while a line of diesel busses sit idling, all of these people go stand and watch this glacier that’s melting. We’re not telling a good story and connecting those two things.” In fact, the 13-mile long glacier that all the tourists come to see has receded approximately 1.75 miles in the past 60 years, and continues to melt at a rate of 150 to 200 feet per year.

The opportunity to have a bigger impact led Wilkinson and the rest of the Juneau team to join RMI’s second annual eLab Accelerator. Wilkinson invited Alec Mesdag, along with John Neary of the U.S. Forest Service, Tim Felstead and Michele Elfers of the City and Borough of Juneau, and George Roe of the University of Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) to join him at Accelerator to see how they could move beyond just switching gas cars to EVs for local residents and affect people outside of Juneau.

Addressing Transportation in the Tourism Industry

Neary, Director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, run by the U.S. Forest Service, is confronted with this larger problem every day in the summer. “Having lived in Juneau for 33 years, of course I want to see improved air quality, and more efficient and economical transportation options,” Neary told RMI. “But in my official position here at the visitor center, I want to solve our congestion problem and very localized air pollution problem.” The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is the busiest Forest Service center in the country, receiving 500,000 tourists each year. The majority of those tourists, as Wilkinson said, come off of cruise ships and are driven 13 miles down the road to the visitor center on a bus provided by their tour operator.

One way Neary intends to combat this problem is through the tour operator bid process. Every five years tour operators must renew their permits, and any new tour operators must apply through a bid process. That process now includes points for sustainability initiatives including the company’s level of commitment to zero-emission transport, steps the company takes to reuse and recycle materials, and the company’s approach to discussing climate change with clients. “We’re taking the carrot approach to try to get the market to be more responsive to fleet electrification,” says Neary. And it’s already working. One tour operator already bought an electric bus, and BYD will be bringing an electric bus to the upcoming Alaska Travel Industry’s annual convention and trade show to be held in Juneau.

The Forest Service is also developing a master plan for the remodel and new construction on the visitor center site. It is currently retrofitting the visitor center to be LEED certified, and is considering building more facilities on its site for the growing number of visitors. “Imagine that you get off your electric bus, step into a Living Building that produces its own power, then take an electric shuttle to view the glacier,” Neary says, describing his dream. “As you come down the main path, you see interpretive displays and signage about why the glacier is a mile away now and what’s happening with our climate.”

Electrifying Fleets

Another way that the city is trying to get more EVs in the mix is through paratransit shuttles (transportation services for people with disabilities). Care-A-Van provides about 31,000 trips annually with 11 accessible paratransit vehicles. A partnership including the Juneau Community Foundation, City and Borough of Juneau, and REACH Inc., a local nonprofit providing developmental disability services, recently submitted a grant application to replace one of REACH’s paratransit shuttles with a fully electric model. The project aims to demonstrate the viability of this class of vehicle to those operating similar vehicles in Juneau, including other paratransit providers, tour operators, and hoteliers.

Not surprisingly there are many marine vessels in Juneau, from commercial whale-watching tours to small fishing boats. As interest in electric vehicles began to grow, the JEDC Renewable Energy Cluster began to support efforts to convert many of those boats to electric as well. In fact Tongass Rain Electric Cruise (TREC) is developing the first ever zero-emission commercial whale-watching vessel. The 47-passenger catamaran will utilize electric motors powered by lithium iron phosphate batteries charged with Juneau’s hydroelectricity, with back up from on-board solar and wind generation. Tongass Rain, as the vessel will be named, expects to begin taking passengers on silent whale-watching tours by May of 2016.

Clean and Abundant Electricity

Although a large switch to electric vehicles would mean significant load growth for the utility, AEL&P is not worried. In fact, it has energy to spare. AEL&P gets greater than 99.5 percent of its electricity from hydropower from rain-filled alpine lakes. “It’s pretty phenomenal how clean our energy is,” according to Mesdag.

AEL&P’s 16,000 firm customers purchase 80 to 90 percent of the approximately 400 GWh generated each year at its hydro plants. The excess power gets sold to interruptible customers, including Princess cruise ships and a large polymetallic mine. In fact, Juneau was the first city in the world to connect cruise ships to shore power, so they don’t have to idle and run on diesel while in port. As the firm loads grow into those surplus sales, the utility will develop additional hydro generation assets.

Thinking Bigger through eLab Accelerator

Wilkinson admits he was a bit wary going into eLab Accelerator, after spending years discussing the option of light rail in Juneau. “I thought, ‘are we going to go to eLab and come back and talk about light rail again?’ Actually, one of the best things eLab did was get us to think differently, and to realize there are more-efficient ways of moving people around.”

“Accelerator really helped us think bolder and broader,” says Neary. “For example, I never would have thought of autonomous shuttles, but we’re looking into that as an option in the future.” Mesdag agrees that eLab helped the team move beyond the mindset of just replacing their vehicles with more-efficient vehicles. “We need to rethink how we move people around for tourism altogether. We still have to determine what that alternative might be, but instead of one-for-one replacements, we might solve the problem in another way.”

eLab Accelerator also helped the team immensely by bringing all the different stakeholders together. “eLab gave us a forum that was safe, free of other distractions, to have a real conversation with a diverse mix of partners,” says Wilkinson. Mesdag agrees, and says the impact of Accelerator goes beyond the EV project. “eLab Accelerator really aided our ability to collaborate not only on this project, but also on other projects important to our energy future,” he explains. “Juneau’s a small town, and people wear multiple hats, so there was a lot of benefit to the team building that happened in Accelerator outside of the EV project.”

As Juneau moves further along in its path of vehicle electrification, the hope is in the near future a tourist will be able to experience all that Juneau has to offer without any carbon emissions, all while learning about clean energy and climate change. This could have a big impact on the one million visitors to Juneau each year. And the impact could go far beyond Juneau. “There are many cities in the U.S. and throughout the world that could implement an electric vehicle program for tourists and residents alike,” says Jonathan Walker, a manager in RMI’s mobility practice and facilitator for the eLab team. “Juneau could be a great model for how other heavily impacted tourist destinations can make the link between carbon-emitting transport and a warming planet, and provide a viable solution.”