Ten electric vehicles travel from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean for Arctic Road Rally

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Published: Aug. 20, 2022 at 11:35 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - There was no revving of the engines at the Arctic Road Rally that began at Golden Valley Electric Association on Friday, August 12.

Instead of having a full gas tank, participating vehicles were fully charged and they were ready to go.

Their goal? To brave the 400-mile Dalton Highway and reach Oliktok Point, the northernmost drivable destination in the United States, along the Arctic Ocean.

Tim Leach, Transportation Lead for Launch Alaska, said, “The road itself is really quite well-maintained. However, it is still a gravel road. For much of the distance, it’s still gravel and dirt road.”

The project was run by non-profit Launch Alaska to show the capabilities of electric vehicles in Alaska. “We want to bring awareness around electric vehicles, hopefully increasing adoption of electric vehicles, is kind of our second outcome there, and then, really, some of the learnings here around how do we deal with charging in remote or isolated locations,” Leach explained.

Vehicle charging stations were installed along the highway, using diesel and gas-fired generators.

Just north of the Yukon River crossing lay the first charging stop at the Department of Transportation’s Seven-Mile Facility.

The first night of the trip was spent in Coldfoot, at about the halfway mark.

The next day the drivers ran into fog and rain as they passed into the Brooks Range, charging at Pump Station 4 along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline before gliding into the North Slope.

At least one vehicle reached Deadhorse just in time. “We came into Deadhorse, where a couple of our charging stations are located, with about 19 miles to spare on the Ford F150 Lightning.”

Upon arrival in Deadhorse, the vehicles were escorted onto the oilfields, and on Sunday, August 14 they reached their final destination on the Arctic Ocean.

Rob Roys, Chief Innovation Officer with Launch Alaska, said, “It was a really long, pretty exhausting journey, but it took a lot of planning and a lot of effort by the team. Now that we’re here, it just feels absolutely amazing that we’ve made it.”

Conditions on the Dalton Highway create challenges for travelers. According to Leach, “Of 10 electric vehicles, we went through two spare tires, so we’ve counted ourselves lucky there.”

For some of the drivers, the achievement carries special significance.

Jason Khan drove a Hummer EV Edition 1 for the rally. “I’d always wanted to come here, so it’s kind of a bucket list thing to be able to come up here and check out Alaska, and no better way to do it than to drive my Hummer,” he said.

The ten electric vehicles, or EVs, that traveled along the Dalton Highway rally faced roads that often consisted of gravel or dirt.

These vehicles came from a variety of brands and models, including Rivien and Hummer. Said Leach, “We have roughly half of those that are Teslas, so we’ve got Model X, Model Y, Model 3 and Model S, and then we’ve got the other half or so really on the trucks that have just recently come out. So that includes the Ford F-150 Lightning.”

Limited services are available along the Dalton, a scarcely used industrial road to Prudhoe Bay along the Arctic Ocean. Such a journey required a year of planning.

The charging stations set up for the journey were spaced out in such a way as to avoid range anxiety, or the fear that an EV will run out of battery before reaching its destination.

The stations were intended to be removed following the event.

The trip north saw a minor setback when some of the charging stations failed at Pump Station 4 just north of the Brooks Range. “We found that two of those were less than functional, shall we say and then we were putting a lot of the vehicles through one versus three of those fast charging stations,” Leach explained.

The mishap bottlenecked the group at the pump station, delaying their trip by four hours.

However, proponents pointed to the vehicles’ performance along the highway. According to Khan, “It’s amazing. It’s such a different drive than a gas-powered vehicle. It’s so smooth. The power is amazing. The power is instant.”

Leach agreed, saying, “They handle really well. They’re enjoyable to ride in. They’re much quieter.”

But how do EV batteries handle colder temperatures like the ones seen in Northern Alaska during the winter? Leach explained, “We see there’s about half of the range available on those negative 40 degrees days.”

The solution, proponents argue, is to space charging stations closer together, and efforts are in the works to install a series of these stations in Alaska.

The Alaska Energy Authority has already secured a series of charging stations between Fairbanks and Homer. “That was a few number of charging stations but very helpful to start us on this journey towards vehicle electrification,” Leach said.

That investment was given a boost by the federal government. “That’s bringing about 54 million dollars in public charging stations over the next 5 years,” he said.

The corridor between Anchorage and Fairbanks will be prioritized first, with other portions of the state expected to follow.

However, in areas where electric vehicles have already caught on, “80 to 94 percent of the charging actually happens at home, and that’s because it’s more convenient,” according to Leach.

The interest for electric vehicles goes beyond personal use. At Kuparuk Oil Field, ConocoPhillips is considering an investment in the technology. Matt Bonney, Kuparuk Field-Wide Operations Superintendent, said, “The automotive industry is moving toward electric vehicles, and we see a future there, an opportunity, really, to reduce our vehicle emissions on the slope, and in order to save money. We spend a lot of money bringing gasoline up to the slope to power our vehicles.”

The oil field uses a fleet of light- and heavy-duty vehicles which may be supplemented with EVs.

Some electric vehicles are on order for the slope already. “There’s no more challenging place in the world than here on the slope to operate a vehicle, so if they can work up here, they can work anywhere, and this electric vehicle rally helps demonstrate the abilities of electric vehicles and kind of the state of technology today, so it’s very promising,” said Bonney.

Leach said of the future of the Arctic Road Rally, “There is a lot of interest around doing something like this in a January or a February type of month, in the deep cold, in the winter here, and for that reason of saying ‘Alright, what about negative 60? How do the electric vehicles do? How do the charging stations do.?’”

However, next year is expected to see another summer demonstration.

With permanent charging stations already in place in Fairbanks, the process of electrifying the Alaskan Interior has begun.