As Tourist Attraction Melts, Alaska's Capital Pushes for Electric Vehicles

Juneau, Alaska, city officials and commerce partners want electric buses shuttling tourists to its local glacier and electric boats taking them whale watching.

by / October 23, 2015
Mendenhall Glacier, a big tourist attraction for Alaska's capital city. Shutterstock/orangecrush

About a million people visit Alaska’s capital of Juneau every year, many of them to see a famous glacier that is melting due to the Earth’s rising surface temperature. And as they come, the tourists use a host of vehicles that run on fossil fuels, which add greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, thus increasing the surface temperatures and contributing to the melting of the glacier.

That’s partially why the city is pushing for more futuristic vehicles on its streets and off its shore, including carbon-free electric vehicles and possibly self-driving shuttles. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), representatives from Juneau, Alaska, have attended its eLab Accelerator “boot camp” for advancing clean power initiatives in the hopes of figuring out ways to encourage the use of electric vehicles.

The push is manifesting itself in the both city’s permitting process and its infrastructure. Juneau officials have set up more than 15 public charging stations around the compact town, making it possible to drive around town without having to worry about an electric vehicle’s battery running down. The city has also tweaked the bid process that tour bus operators use to get permits to shuttle people to and from Mendenhall Glacier, one of the town’s biggest attractions. Tour bus operators can now get bonus points during the process for committing to electric vehicles, reusing and recycling materials, and talking with clients about climate change.

“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,” John Neary, director of the glacier visitor center, told RMI. “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.”

The 13-mile-long glacier is receding at a rate of 150 to 200 feet per year, according to the institute. Alaska faces more ominous possibilities due to climate change, including rising sea levels threatening coastal villages.

Tourists also come to Juneau to go on whale watching cruises, and so the Juneau Economic Development Council has been pushing for operators to convert their vessels to electric power. Tongass Rain Electric Cruise is developing the first ever zero-emission whale watching boat, according to RMI. 

The city is working with organizations that provide shuttling services to people with disabilities to provide electric shuttles.

Gas prices in Alaska are usually higher than the national average, and the remote and disconnected Juneau has an especially hard time getting its hands on the stuff: Oil suppliers have to ship their product to the city on barges. On top of that, the utility company that supplies power to the town — Alaska Electric Light & Power (AEL&P) — says increased electricity demand from high-tech vehicles won’t be an issue. It has energy to spare, and it already comes from a low-emissions source; 99.5 percent of AEL&P’s generation comes from hydroelectric turbines.

With an eye toward the future, the city is also considering the option of self-driving shuttles. Aside from the trend of autonomous vehicles being electric — as is the case with Tesla’s Model S and General Motors’ experimental driverless Volts — researchers have also found that on-demand self-driving vehicles could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need to rethink how we move people around for tourism altogether,” AEL&P spokesperson Alec Mesdag, who attended eLab Accelerator with city officials, told RMI. “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.”

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