Engineers Imagine an Alaska with Year-Round Road Accessibility, Sustainable Energy
Engineering wish lists offer solutions to Alaska’s transportation, energy, public health problems
By Judy Mottl
The community watering point in Wales in September 2017. The water is diverted from a creek nearby to this location. There is no treatment of the water before residents fill containers to haul the water to their homes for use.
Photo by Rebecca Venot, CRW Engineering
Imagine being an engineer. Now imagine being an engineer with an unlimited budget and the ability to fulfill even the wildest engineering dreams. What projects top the wish lists of Alaska’s engineering community? From sustainability and accessibility to advancing Alaska’s potential through public health improvements, Alaskan engineers offer insight into their dream projects. As one might expect, these projects tend to focus on improvements designed to make everyday living in Alaska even better through upgrades to the transportation and public health systems as well as increased sustainable energy options.
Ice-Free Roads in Alaska? Maybe.
Doug Kenley’s “magic wand” engineering project is roads “to provide better access to all of Alaska.” Kenley’s dream project increases access statewide, ultimately driving industry development. “More roads would spur a host of economic benefits for other industries,” says Kenley, vice president and principal of PND Engineers.
The main hurdles to expanding Alaska’s road system, he says, are permitting rules.
Kenley’s vision is shared by Terry Bailey, senior vice president and regional director with CH2M, and Matt Lund, an electrical engineer with CRW Engineering Group.
“One of the most important things to consider when thinking about engineering in Alaska is transportation,” says Lund. “The cost and time of transporting people and freight safely is always a huge factor in any Alaskan design since many villages are very remote and hard to access.” He notes safety is always the first priority for an engineer, and one aspect of working in Alaska that constantly challenges safety is icy road conditions on state highways.
“There are many vehicle accidents on Alaskan highways each year due to ice and snow, and road salt and sand just aren't cutting it in some areas,” Lund says.
Roadways and infrastructure are a focus for Bailey because Alaska is still a relatively young state in terms of infrastructure development.
“Connecting more of the state via upgraded and new roads and airports with advanced technology would allow easier access overall,” says Bailey, who goes on to say many remote areas still have basic unmet needs, such as potable water and sustainable wastewater systems, and those needs could more easily be met with new or better transportation access.
“We have the needed energy resources that can help make this happen, we just need to tap those resources to benefit the state residents that make Alaska the great place to live that it is. In fact, affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy can make many other important infrastructure improvement projects possible,” says Bailey, who says infrastructure is akin to the foundation of a home.
“If you design the foundation to support the house you plan to build along with any future expansions to the house you may need, you have a good starting point,” he says, continuing that, as with a house, a weak foundation will not meet the original design intent and will eventually have to be rebuilt to avoid decay.
Bailey agrees with Kenley’s viewpoint that permitting is big challenge and adds that funding and a lack of technology are obstacles as well.
“Not only the funding from an initial capital investment standpoint but also the ongoing sustaining costs of maintenance and periodic renewal,” says Bailey. “Again, using a house analogy, once the house is built and paid for, you still need to paint the exterior periodically, replace aging appliances, and repair leaks in the roof and such to ensure and extend its performance lifetime.”
If Lund had a limitless budget to design new infrastructure, he would like to investigate the potential of heating highways with glycol loops installed under the pavement.
“This would keep the roads clear of ice and make them much safer, but this has some very obvious downsides including energy and maintenance costs,” says Lund, acknowledging it would be “a great engineering challenge” to keep the glycol heated over long stretches of road.
That’s why he’s also interested in smart highway/solar road technology as a potential solution. Such technologies use photovoltaic pavement, which have solar panels. The solution could eliminate energy costs and reduce some maintenance costs. It would also support another of his wish list items—installing electric vehicle charging stations throughout Alaska.
But again, every new technology comes with its own specific challenges. “Alaska does not receive very many hours of sunlight in the winter months when the highway heating is needed,” Lund says, “so some kind of energy storage would need to be designed to capture the sunlight in the summer time and store that energy until winter. Heated highways may or may not be the most practical solution to icy roadways, but it is something that should be researched and looked into more thoroughly.”
Cheap Energy a Critical “Puzzle Piece” to State’s Success
Energy—from cost-effective resources to a full-all electrical grid—lands at the top of engineering design wish lists for Engineers Danny Rauchenstein and Tony SlatonBarker.
Rauchenstein, a principal/facilities group leader at PDC Engineers, would develop a cheap energy option for the entire state because he believes it’s the last remaining “puzzle piece” to build a successful future for Alaskans.
Potential designs, he says, could range from a state-spanning gas line to a large North Slope power plant with a high voltage direct current line running down through the center of Alaska. “Other more sustainable options would be great as well, such as wind farms similar to Fire Island or exploring the geothermal potential of Mount Spurr, but these projects are often very localized without a statewide benefit,” says Rauchenstein.
The need is significant because cheap energy benefits the state in a multitude of ways and reduces financial burdens for every Alaskan.
“It would reduce urban migration, greatly reducing the cultural and intellectual drain happening in rural Alaska,” Rauchenstein says. “Cheap energy would also attract industries to Alaska that could take advantage of our technical knowledge, our geographic location, and our potentially beneficial climate [Alaska’s cold temperatures are a boon for technology or industry that requires cooling].”
The big challenge, he believes, lies within the politics of undertaking such a project.
“Whether [through] third-party investors or tapping into the Alaska Permanent Fund, we have the financial capital available to accomplish such a project, we just need the political will to move it forward for the benefit of Alaskans.”
While politics is the big hurdle for Rauchenstein’s wish list quest, financing is the top obstacle for SlatonBarker’s design dream.
The principal engineer for energy and sustainability at Coffman Engineers, SlatonBarker tops his wish list with a full-all Alaska electrical grid. He says his ideal grid would run north from the existing end of the Railbelt grid near Fairbanks, west across North Slope, south along the West Coast to loop back to the west side of Cook Inlet, and then along the Southern Coast, looping back into the Railbelt.
“Then all the individual locations with renewable energy options could tie into this grid and sell power throughout the state,” says SlatonBarker, noting the grid could be comprised of hydro, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy.
“Currently Iceland is almost all on a single power grid system with some very large remote power facilities powering the majority of the country,” he says. SlatonBarker explains a base load option from North Slope-powered natural gas could provide stability and maintain the grid when renewables can’t provide enough power.
“This [grid] would allow economic development in remote regions,” SlatonBarker adds, and provide more reliable and cheaper power: a direct benefit to residents.
“Expensive power limits security of people, increases costs to access areas, and raises costs for remote businesses and private basic needs,” he says. “If we can lower power costs around the state, many more opportunities for economic development would open up and poverty could be reduced as well.” He says it’s a technically viable option given similar power plants and power girds already located on the North Slope.
“It is just extending them and connecting the power system up. All the individual village power systems have microgrids, so if the main line went down all the towns would still have basic power with full backup,” he says.
Reduce Carbon Footprint, Improve Public Health System
Alaska’s carbon footprint and improved sewer service top two other engineers’ design wish lists.
Image courtesy of CRW Engineering
Tracy McKeon’s double-award winning design for a heat recovery loop in Quinhagak.
Civil Engineer Rebecca Venot of CRW Engineering Group would focus on projects providing homes with potable water and sewer service to Alaska communities. As many as 20 percent of rural homes don’t have in-home piped water and rely on honey bucket toilet systems. “Many more rely on hauling water from a community watering point, which may utilize aged or outdated infrastructure that provides water that does not meet current drinking water regulations,” says Venot, adding that lack of available water reduces the ability of households to meet basic hygiene needs including hand washing, waste disposal, and laundry.
This project tops her wish list because she views public health as vital to the development of any community.
“If kids can’t go to school because they are sick from a waterborne illness, they miss out on education and opportunities. Adults who are ill are unable to work or participate in subsistence activities, negatively impacting the wellbeing of the whole household. Research shows in-home water and a sewer system reduces instances of disease by up to 40 percent,” she says, citing an Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium study published in February 2016.
But there are more than a few challenges to her ideal design projects she concedes, and most are tied to economic drivers.
Many communities lack residents with the skills and knowledge needed to operate advanced water treatment or robust sewage systems, and attaining such skills requires training and education. On top of that, such jobs don’t pay all that well, Venot says.
On the technical side, the availability and cost of energy also factor into the equation since heating the water for these systems is critical for reliable operation. Another major hurdle is the uncertain future of climate change, she says.
“Many communities are in areas with increasing flooding and erosion and are likely to be inundated with sea level rise. Furthermore, there are changes in water quality that impact the treatment system design and operation… Costly engineered solutions to mitigate the risk of change, relocating an entire community, or doing nothing and providing disaster relief when there is a catastrophe, has an extraordinary cost,” says Venot.
Tracy McKeon, senior mechanical engineer at CRW, says the top of her wish list would focus on designing a net zero community home or building that is cost effective to build and ship.
“It would include a self-sustaining means of producing electricity and heat,” she says, and the design would be “diverse adaptable” in that it could utilize community energy resources whether wind, solar, geothermal, or biomass.
Such a quest, McKeon says, is tied to the reasons she chose the engineering field.
“My driving passion when I became an engineer was to help others. Large impacts can be seen from reducing dependency on fossil fuels that have to be delivered at large expenses to the community whether by air travel or barge,” she says.
“The means and technology to create the homes and buildings exists, but the training and infrastructure need to be created to allow the technicians and owners to maintain the technology and equipment,” she explains. “These systems would help reduce a community’s carbon footprint and provide energy security to address the rapidly changing climate in Alaska. Reduced carbon emissions would reduce environmental impacts and improve health in all communities.”
Judy Mottl writes about important issues country-wide with an affinity for Alaska.