Why Renewable Energy is Important
“We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century.” –President Barack Obama, address to Congress, February 24, 2009
As concerns about rising fossil fuel prices, energy security, and climate change increase, renewable energy can play a key role in producing local, clean, and inexhaustible energy to supply Alaska’s growing demand for electricity, heat, and transportation fuel. Because there are little or no fuel costs associated with generating electricity from renewable sources, more Alaskans are looking to resources like wind, geothermal, hydropower, tides, waves, solar, and biomass to hedge against the price volatility of natural gas and diesel.
Renewable resources, over the long term, can provide energy at a known cost that is not susceptible to the vagaries of fossil fuel supply and demand. With some of the best renewable energy resources in the country, Alaska has an opportunity to be a leader in their development and bring new revenue streams into the state’s economy.
How much renewable energy is used in the United States?
In 2010, about 8% of all energy consumed, and about 10% of total electricity produced came from renewable energy sources. The largest share of renewable-generated electricity comes from hydroelectric energy (71%), followed by biomass (16%), wind (9%), geothermal (4%), and solar (0.2%). Renewable energy capacity is growing quickly: in 2007, installed wind capacity increased 45% and installed solar capacity increased 21%.
U.S. Department of Energy
Energy Information Administration
Alaska’s Existing Energy Infrastructure
With 16% of the country’s landmass and less than 0.3% of its population, Alaska’s unique geography has driven development of its energy supply infrastructure— power plants, power lines, natural gas pipelines, bulk fuel “tank farms” and related facilities. Alaska has over 150 remote, stand-alone electrical grids serving villages as well as larger transmission grids in Southeast Alaska and the Railbelt. The Railbelt electrical grid follows the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks through Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula and provides 80% of the state’s electrical energy.
Powered by wood until 1927, Fairbanks switched to coal after the Railroad provided access to Nenana and Healy coalfields. Until recently, the Anchorage area has enjoyed relatively low-cost heating and power since expansion of the Eklutna hydro plant in 1955 and the development of major Cook Inlet oil and gas discoveries in the 1960s.
Completed in 1986, the state-owned Willow – Healy Intertie now provides a diversity of energy sources to the six Railbelt electrical utilities.
Approximately 70% of the Railbelt’s electricity comes from natural gas generators. Major power generation facilities along the Railbelt include Chugach Electric Association’s 430 MW natural gas-fired plant west of Anchorage at Beluga, Anchorage Municipal Light and Power’s 266 MW natural gas-fired plant in Anchorage, Golden Valley Electric Association’s 129 MW facility near Fairbanks fueled by naptha from the 2 Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and the 126 MW state-owned Bradley Lake hydroelectric plant near Homer. In total, just over 1,400 MW of installed power generation capacity exists along the Railbelt to serve an average load of approximately 600 MW and a peak load of over 800 MW.
During the early 1980s, the state completed four hydropower projects to serve Ketchikan, Kodiak, Petersburg, Valdez, and Wrangell. With a total generating capacity of 76 MW, the “Four Dam Pool” projects displace the equivalent of approximately 20 million gallons of diesel fuel per year for power production. Other major hydro facilities supply the communities of Juneau and Sitka.
With some notable exceptions, most of the rest of Alaska’s power and heating needs are fueled by diesel that is barged from Lower 48 suppliers or transported from petroleum refineries in Nikiski, North Pole, and Valdez. After freeze-up, many remote communities must rely on the fuel that is stored in tank farms, or pay a premium for fuel flown in by air tankers. Currently state and federal authorities are supporting a large program to fix leaky tanks, improve power generation and end use efficiency, and exploit local renewable energy sources such as wind, biomass, and hydro.