Renewable Energy in Alaska 

A state of vast, untouched nature and few people, Alaska’s identity and development have been defined by its unique geography. Roads connect only a small number of communities, and most villages are accessible only by boat or plane. This lack of infrastructure makes electrical transmission as difficult as transportation. Many rural villages depend primarily on diesel-run generators to provide their homes and businesses with electricity, and fuel oil to generate heat. Diesel must be shipped on barges or delivered by airplane, and is normally bought in bulk to be stored in large tanks in the villages. When the price of oil spikes, as it did in the summer of 2008, rural Alaska’s reliance on diesel and fuel oil can be devastating.

Alaska is the second largest oil producer in the United States, yet our residents pay some of the highest gas and electricity prices in the nation. According to the Energy Information Administration, Alaska was ranked third in 2011 for high electricity costs. Some areas such as Ruby, Alaska, pay up to $1.00 per kWh. In comparison, the average cost of electricity in the United States in 2011 was $0.09 per kWh.

It is in our state’s best interest of Alaskans to develop clean, local and more stably priced methods of electricity production. Government officials have increased funding and support for renewable energy projects in recent years, including the creation of the Alaska Renewable Energy Grant Fund. Started in 2008, this program has provided over $202.5 million to 227 qualifying renewable energy projects and renewable resource development studies. The fund is supported through capital budget appropriations and is administered by the Alaska Energy Authority. Grants have gone to support a wide variety of projects including a ground source heat pump system at the Juneau Airport, a wood fired boiler at Thorne Bay School In 2012 the Legislature extended the Alaska Renewable Energy Fund for another 10 years, until 2023.

Why is Renewable Energy Important?

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 Alaska. 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.

Renewable Energy in the United States

In 2011, about 9% of all energy consumed, and about 13% of total electricity produced came from renewable energy sources. The largest share of renewable-generated electricity comes from hydroelectric energy (63%), followed by wind (24%), biomass (10%), geothermal (3%), and solar (0.2%). Renewable energy capacity is growing quickly: in 2012 42% of all new generating capacity in the US came from wind.

Alaska’s Existing Energy Infrastructure

Photo by Kelly Findlay

Photo by Kelly Findlay

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, and 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. 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 75% 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 Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and the 126 MW state-owned Bradley Lake hydroelectric plant near Homer.

Chugach Electric and ML&P’s new 183 MW natural gas-fired power plant in Anchorage was commissioned in 2013. Homer Electric Association broke ground on a 35 MW steam turbine in Nikiski in 2012, and has plans to build a 50 MW natural gas power plant in Soldotna soon. In Palmer, Matanuska Electric Association plans to construct a 171 MW dual fuel generation station near Eklutna that can burn natural gas or diesel. All of these generators will decrease reliance on less efficient 40-year-old generators at Beluga.

Wind turbines are also sprouting up on the Railbelt, including 17.6 MW at Fire Island near Anchorage, 24.6 near Healy and 1.0 MW at Delta.

At the end of 2013 a little more than 2,000 MW of installed power generation capacity will exist along the Railbelt, serving an average annual load of about 600 MW and a peak load of more than 800 MW.

During the early 1980s, the state completed four hydropower projects to serve Ketchikan, Kodiak, Petersburg, Valdez, and Wrangell. At 76 MW, the “Four Dam Pool” projects displace the equivalent of about 20 million gallons of diesel fuel per year for power production. Other major hydro facilities in the communities of Juneau and Sitka are now being expanded.

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.

Sources:

2013 Renewable Energy Atlas of Alaska

US Energy Information Administration

Who we are

Renewable Energy Alaska Project is a coalition of energy stakeholders working to facilitate the development of renewable energy in Alaska through collaboration, education, training, and advocacy.