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An Alaska state flag blows in the wind at the Robert B. Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska.
David Ryder | Bloomberg | Getty Images

These are tough times in Skagway, Alaska, population 1,183.

“We’re in hard core survival mode,” Mayor Andrew Cremata told CNBC.

In a normal summer, the Southeast Alaska town would be teeming with tourists from the cruise ships sailing the Inside Passage. Residents could drive 15 miles up the Yukon Highway into Canada to run their basic errands, or they could hop on a state-run ferry to the next town over, Haines.

But this year, the cruise ships have just started running again. Cremata is hoping Skagway will see 100,000 passengers this year; in 2019 they had 1.1 million. The border to Canada remains closed to non-essential traffic, and the ferries, part of the Alaska Marine Highway System, are plagued by budget cuts.

“Just getting your family down to go see a dentist or doctor, when that becomes burdensome or overly expensive, there’s a point where people have just had it and move away,” Cremata said.

Multiply Skagway’s situation by thousands of communities and more than 700,000 Alaskans, and you can begin to understand why The Last Frontier finds itself in last place in CNBC’s 2021 America’s Top States for Business rankings.

It is the sixth bottom-state finish for Alaska in 14 years. The state previously achieved the dubious distinction in the first four years of the study between 2007 and 2010, hitting bottom again in 2018.

As difficult as the past year has been in this state and across the country, it presented opportunities that Alaska failed to capitalize on.

Alaska met the pandemic with the best-funded public health system in the nation, according to the United Health Foundation, spending $289 per person per year. That is more than three times the national average. Earlier this year, the state was setting the pace for Covid-19 vaccinations, even in its most remote regions.

As the national economy struggled to regain its footing, Alaska offered a generally business-friendly regulatory climate — its legal system tilts toward business, and the number of state laws and regulations is manageable. The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation ranks Alaska’s tax climate the third-best in the country.

In Skagway, Mayor Cremata said state and federal officials have been extremely helpful through the crisis.

“They are always ready and willing not only to engage us as a community, but individual people and business owners in the community. People that were struggling with problems with unemployment and all these kinds of things,” he said.

And at a time of social upheaval, Alaska offered its relatively diverse population some strong protections against discrimination.

High costs hurt Alaska

So how did Alaska manage to finish No. 50 again in 2021 despite so many advantages going in? In a word: cost.

Cost of Doing Business carries the most weight in this year’s study. As the recovery builds, states are touting low business costs more than any other factor, according to CNBC’s analysis. Alaska is an extremely expensive place to do business.

Even Alaska’s competitive tax climate, which earns points for relatively low property taxes and no personal income tax, includes a top corporate tax rate of 9.4%, among the highest in the country.

A snow covered road with power lines in Kaktovic, Alaska.
David Howells | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

Utility costs are oppressive. Alaskans paid an average of $20.20 per kilowatt hour for electricity last year, according to U.S. Department of Energy data, with even higher rates in remote areas. That was second only to Hawaii, and nearly double the national average. Wages are high thanks to the high cost of living, and office and industrial space — which are in short supply — is pricey.

Cremata said he is worried about how the price of everything seems to be creeping higher.

“Everything’s barged in,” he said. “And so, if the cost of fuel goes up, it affects the rates on the barge and that affects the price of your milk and eggs.”

Indeed, even that high rate of public health funding may be deceiving, because health care in Alaska is so expensive. An office visit to a doctor in Anchorage averaged more than $206 last year, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research, C2ER. That is more than twice the cost in Phoenix, Arizona.

Meanwhile, Alaska’s Covid-19 vaccination rate, once the envy of the nation, has fallen below the national average, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medical Assistant Julia Naea administers the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at the Blood Bank of Alaska in Anchorage on March 19, 2021.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

In March, Alaska became the first state in the nation to make vaccines available to everyone aged 16 and older. Officials theorize that meant those who wanted to be vaccinated were quick to get their shots, leaving vaccine-hesitant residents — many in rural or remote areas — who have proven difficult to convince.

Vaccination rates are a metric in the Top States’ Life, Health and Inclusion category, where Alaska finishes No. 19 this year.

Internet access remains a challenge

In addition to its cost issues, Alaska ranks No. 49 in the Top States’ Infrastructure category, above only Maine. It is yet another lost opportunity. Alaska might have been able to use the nation’s move toward remote work to partly offset its inherent infrastructure disadvantages, which include its distance from the rest of the country and its vast size.

This year’s Top States study introduced broadband connectivity as an infrastructure metric. But broadband in Alaska is the worst in the nation, according to BroadbandNow Research.

In Skagway, Cremata said internet service is cumbersome and expensive.

“You have to actually have a landline in your house for it to work,” he said. “So, the internet has a pretty substantial price to it, but then you also have a $30 charge because you need a landline for the broadband to work.”

According to BroadbandNow, fewer than 61% of Alaskans have access to broadband at all, and none have access to a low-priced plan, which the organization defines as costing less than $60 per month. The average speed is a paltry 58.6 Mbps, or one-third the speed in the top-ranked state, New Jersey.

Cremata said that early in the pandemic, when he and other local leaders worried the cruise ships could disappear for five years, they convened a task force to consider ways to reinvent the economy. One of the ideas was to make Skagway an internet hub, but it went nowhere.

“You’d have to have really fast internet, obviously, because you probably want to have all of your communications done in the cloud, which is pretty much impossible right now in Skagway,” he said.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, while speaking at a dedication ceremony for a hydroelectric turbine generator in Igiugig, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.
Luis Sinco | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

In May, Gov. Mike Dunleavy created a task force to recommend ways to improve connectivity in the state.

“On the heels of a global pandemic, now more than ever do we see the critical role that the internet plays in nearly every part of life and the importance of good connectivity for every Alaskan,” Dunleavy said in a statement.

But it is Alaska’s third broadband task force in the last decade, with little to show for the efforts. It is also unclear whether the state can muster the funding needed to bring its service up to date.

In his statement announcing the task force, Dunleavy, a Republican, emphasized the use of federal pandemic relief money to pay for the expansion. And while his administrative order creating the task force also contemplates using state funds, Dunleavy and the state legislature are already locked in a titanic struggle over the budget.

This month, Dunleavy vetoed more than $200 million in state spending approved by the legislature, with cuts aimed at everything from tourism marketing to mental health services.

Dunleavy also vetoed $8.5 million in funding for Alaska’s ferry system known as the Alaska Marine Highway System, a link to the outside world for communities like Skagway. 

And he relentlessly slashed the University of Alaska’s budget, with cuts totaling $70 million over three years. That hurts the state’s ranking in Education, where it finishes No. 47.

Crude oil rebound hasn’t helped Alaska

Hanging over all of Alaska’s business and financial woes is the price of oil, the state’s economic lifeblood. Oil revenues typically account for more than one-third of the state’s budget.

A part of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System is seen on September 17, 2019 in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Last year, as weak demand during the pandemic pushed oil prices to historic lows, oil production in Alaska fell to its lowest level in more than 40 years, according to the Energy Department.

This year, prices have rebounded, but production in Alaska has not. Alaska oil producers face much lower cost competition in the lower 48, as well as an intensifying tug-of-war over federal oil leases. Production through April was down nearly 5% from a year ago.

State budget forecasters expect oil production tax revenue will be around $311 million in the 2021 fiscal year that ended on July 1. That would be a 9% increase from 2020, but a 36% decline from the year before.

Those kinds of numbers could make it even harder for Alaska to climb out of the cellar next year.

Cremata said he hopes the crisis will convince Alaska to think beyond its traditional economic drivers including tourism, fishing and oil.

“You can’t think backwards. You have to think forwards,” he said. “Perhaps, this is like a chaos-opportunity moment — where there’s chaos, there’s opportunity, so that people in Alaska, who maybe have been relying on things that aren’t as reliable anymore, maybe try to expand towards some different ideas.”

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Weird Alibaba: An inflatable Chinese electric jet ski for $2,000 – What’s the catch?




Weird Alibaba: An inflatable Chinese electric jet ski for ,000 - What's the catch?

As usual for entries in this Awesomely Weird Alibaba Electric Vehicle of the Week column, the fun EVs we dredge up tend to bridge the gap between fun-looking and palm sweat-inducing. Would you take a cheap inflatable electric jet ski out into the bay or off the coast? What if I told you that you had to build it yourself?

That appears to be the case here with this week’s find. It’s an inflatable vessel that is jet ski shaped, though I’m not sure it fulfills all of the requirements to become a jet ski – namely the water jet turbine.

In fact, there’s actually no motor at all. It seems to be just the 3.5 meter (11 ft) boat itself, but at least it comes with a convenient transom in back to mount your own motor.

And in our case, we can slap on an electric outboard to turn this thing into not just a bad idea on water, but a green bad idea on water.

If you really wanted to stay true to the advertising, you could actually get an electrically powered jet ski-style water turbine to add to this boat. Amazon can hook you up with an impressive offering that looks like it would require cutting an inlet hole in the bottom of the boat and an exit somewhere through the rear transom.

Short of building a true jet ski though, I think an overpowered trolling motor will probably suffice. The vendor for the motor linked above seems to propose that is equivalent to 10 hp, which sounds reasonable for a small watercraft like this.

Technically the motor is only rated at 2.2 kW, which is around 3 hp. But we generally find that small electric outboards offer performance of around 3x the rated power of combustion engine outboards due to their much higher torque. It may not rip as fast as the larger gas engine below, but then again maybe it will. Who knows until we find out ourselves?!

You’ll need a whopping 60V of battery for that awesome little electric outboard, which I’m hoping will fit either under the seat or under the “hood” of the jet ski.

I’d actually be pretty interested to get a look under that hood to see what’s going on with that steering wheel. Since the jet ski/inflatable boat seems to be set up for a transom-mounted trolling motor, I don’t know how they expect to tie in steering linkage to something like that.

But my past experience of buying electric boats on Alibaba has taught me to never discount the ingenuity of East Asian engineers building low-cost vehicles that will presumably hold the life of one or more people in their hands.

chinese electric jet ski

One thing is for sure: At around $2k, this will definitely be the cheapest new jet ski you could buy, electric or otherwise. Personal watercraft aren’t cheap, and the electric ones carry a significant premium.

But if you’re handy, don’t mind wiring up a motor and battery yourself, and also don’t mind a steering wheel for show while you twist around to control a tiller motor, then you just might wind up with one of the most unique vessels on your local lake or river.

And consider the ease of transport! You probably don’t even need a trailer like you would for a traditional jet ski. The entire thing weighs just 176 kg (388 lb), though the spec sheet also says it is made from fiberglass, so perhaps the data isn’t quite accurate. Either way, this inflatable vessel can’t weigh too much. And the fact that you can deflate it to fit in the back of a van or SUV is a big benefit too. Or you can just leave it inflated and probably fit it in a truck with the tail gate down. Not my mini-truck, but maybe your truck.

At $2,025 for this thing, it’s pretty darn cheap – though that’s before the cost of batteries and a motor. Don’t forget though that there’d be several thousand dollars in shipping costs, customs import charges, taxes, broker fees, etc. Also, don’t forget that you should absolutely not buy this thing. While I’ve picked up some cool and weird little EVs from Alibaba over the years, it’s never a good idea. The process is long and complicated, not to mention fraught with extra charges at every step of the way. And you never know if the company who just received your wire transfer is even going to deliver your product in the end, which is just another fun little stressor that comes with shopping on Alibaba. So please, don’t join the ranks of my foolish readers and risk your hard earned money on something weird like this.

But if you ignore my warnings and decide to go for it, be sure to let me know what happened! And maybe update your will before the maiden voyage.

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Here are the best April Fool’s jokes from the e-bike industry this year




Here are the best April Fool's jokes from the e-bike industry this year

April Fool’s Day, celebrated annually on the first of April, is usually a light-hearted and mischievous occasion marked by good-natured pranks, hoaxes, and jokes. Large organizations often take part in hoodwinking others, creating an atmosphere of amusement and (hopefully) harmless trickery. Sure, it’s annoying when you fall for it. But it’s also humorous to see what companies can come up with next. E-bike companies and the larger micromobility industry often have fun getting in touch with their inner prankster (remember the pedal-powered popemobile?!), and this year was no exception. These are some of the fun and light-hearted new announcements from around the electric biking and micromobility world.

We’ll keep updating as we find more, and feel free to send me any you find today (contact info in my author blurb below the article).

Magnum’s human-powered bike

Here in the e-bike industry we are often so deeply focused on the latest batteries or the most innovative new motors that we can sometimes forget our roots. Magnum Bikes, a popular electric bike company, wants to make sure we all remember where we came from with the “launch” of its new human-powered electric bike.

Called the Navigator Infinite, Magnum says the bike can get over 100 miles (160 km) of range. I guess “infinite” truly is at least 100!

Muc-Off releases intimate lube

Muc-Off is a brand of bike cleaning products that is known for, among other things, its various bike lubricants.

I’ve tested the company’s bike cleaners as well as their dry and wet chain lube for different riding conditions.

But now the company is apparently branching out into another industry that is slightly more, err…. intimate.

With the release of personal lubricant for adult activities, Muc-Off wants to be there for you no matter what you’re riding.

Though perhaps the company put it best, explaining that they “worked long and hard to develop a deep penetrating lubricant that fills that sweet spot between smoothness and abrasion. With our bicycle lubes the target is to hit zero friction, but following round, after round, after round of internal tests, we found friction to be vital in achieving a satisfactory outcome.

Well there you go.

Charge your electric car with pedal power

If you thought traditional fast chargers were just too darn slow, then FastNed says they have the solution. And it just so happens to be connected to your feet.

The company is touting its new 750 kW fast charger known as Bike Boost that is powered by pedaling. They claim it can fill your electric car’s battery in just 5 minutes.

That’s more than just a Wheaties breakfast… that must require eating an entire truck of Wheaties!

Radio Flyer’s new air travel

We’ve been more attracted to Radio Flyer’s electric bikes lately, but perhaps it’s time to rethink travel by wheel. Instead, Radio Flyer has announced a new air service known as Radio FlyAir.

It’s not just a Radio Flyer jet though. The entire airline seems to have gotten the red wagon treatment, complete with wagon luggage carriers and kids riding through the terminal.

The best e-bike April Fools prank of all time?

Try as they might, I’m not sure any company will top what I believe to be the best April Fools product launch of all time: The RadFit from Rad Power Bikes.

Just as electric bikes have revolutionized the bike industry, so too can they upend the stationary exercise bike industry. At least that’s what Rad suggested with its electric stationary bike.

I don’t want to butcher this one, so just watch the short video below for the full effect. I promise that it’s worth it.

Lead image credit: ETA

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Scientists have found major storage capacity in water-based batteries




Scientists have found major storage capacity in water-based batteries

Texas A&M University scientists have been working with metal-free, water-based battery electrodes, and they’re finding that the difference in energy storage capacity is as much as 1,000%.

How the water-based batteries work

In the scientists’ paper, published in Nature Materials this week, the water-based, or aqueous, batteries consist of a cathode – the negatively charged electrode; an anode – the positively charged electrode; and an electrolyte, like traditional batteries. But in this water-based battery, the cathodes and anodes are polymers that can store energy, and the electrolyte is water mixed with organic salts.

The electrolyte transfers the ions – the charge-carrying particles – back and forth between the cathode and the anode, and the electrolyte is also key to energy storage through its interactions with the electrode.

Chemical engineering professor and co-author Dr. Jodie Lutkenhaus asserts:

If an electrode swells too much during cycling, then it can’t conduct electrons very well, and you lose all the performance.

I believe there is a 1,000% difference in energy storage capacity, depending on the electrolyte choice because of swelling effects.

According to their paper, the electrodes – the “redox-active non-conjugated radical polymers” – are promising candidates for water-based batteries because of the polymers’ high discharge voltage and fast redox kinetics.

However, the researchers note in their paper’s abstract:

[L]ittle is known regarding the energy storage mechanism of these polymers in an aqueous environment. The reaction itself is complex and difficult to resolve because of the simultaneous transfer of electrons, ions, and water molecules. 

The future of aqueous batteries

The researchers suggest that water-based batteries might be able to mitigate potential shortages of metals such as cobalt and lithium, as well as eliminate the potential for battery fires.

Lutkenhaus continued:

There would be no battery fires anymore because it’s water-based.

In the future, if materials shortages are projected, the price of lithium-ion batteries will go way up. If we have this alternative battery, we can turn to this chemistry, where the supply is much more stable because we can manufacture them here in the United States and materials to make them are here.

The researchers also conducted computational simulation and analysis, and they’ll carry out further simulations to better understand the theory.

Chemistry assistant professor and co-author Dr. Daniel Tabor said:

With this new energy storage technology, this is a push forward to lithium-free batteries. We have a better molecular level picture of what makes some battery electrodes work better than others, and this gives us strong evidence of where to go forward in materials design.

Read more: A Mars rover scientist is about to scale carbon-oxygen batteries

Photo: Texas A&M Engineering

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