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Ketchup and Conversations: Sustainable Energy with Added Equitability

by | May 29, 2024 | Energy, Featured, Government, News

Office of the Governor

Now in its third iteration, the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference has evolved since Governor Mike Dunleavy first hosted the event. Last year’s sophomore outing expanded to the lower level of the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center with a full trade show, but this year exhibitors clustered in the upstairs hall while electric vehicles were displayed outdoors on the curb.

Another small change is the addition of “conversation pods,” two-seat mini-parlors enclosed by a decorative corral, scattered throughout the venue. With those furnishings, the conference served as a nexus for discussion among and between scientists, policymakers, and business representatives.

A general theme for the 2024 conference was global connections, as reflected by national and international attendees. Dunleavy welcomed the premier of Alberta, Danielle Smith; the governor of Wyoming, Mark Gordon; and the US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Martina Strong.

“We started the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference to educate the world on what Alaska has to offer. We’ve been successful in getting the word out that yes, Alaska is an oil and gas giant, but that’s just the beginning,” Dunleavy says.

E Is for Equitable

One innovation that Alaska offers is an additional “E” to the initialism “BE.” In sustainable energy circles, BE is short for “beneficial electrification.” Michelle Wilber, a research engineer at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), explains that electrification refers, of course, to converting a non-electrical system into one powered by electricity from any given source; electric vehicles (EVs) and home heating are the main examples. Beneficial means electrification is not for its own sake; it must save money or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

ACEP found that BE needs an extra E for “equitable.” Wilber says, “In some cases—because of our extreme cold environment, because of our different driving conditions, because of our different electric rates and fuel costs—sometimes those benefits aren’t realized for everyone.”

As the center’s BEE initiative lead, Wilber is researching exactly where electrification is beneficial. Her Alaska-specific studies supplement Lower 48 findings. “That data was only going down to about -30°C at the coldest, and we obviously get colder than that (-40°C is -40°F),” Wilber says, “so we really need to extend that, and we did that by crowdsourcing.”

ACEP contacted EV owners in the Fairbanks area to track their usage. “They generally seem to be successful at keeping electric vehicle batteries operational,” Wilber says. “People are able to drive these vehicles and use them quite well at cold temperatures.”

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By crunching the numbers, last year Wilber created the Alaska Electric Vehicle Calculator. An online tool accessible via tinyurl akevcalc, users can decide if the economics of an EV car or truck pencil out for any given community. For further research, ACEP has money to deploy electric four-wheelers and snowmachines in Galena and Kotzebue and collect feedback on actual performance.

“We’re doing more research on how EVs would work for Alaskans in their real lives. Do they have the range needed? Do they have any issues in cold weather that we don’t know about yet? And we’re looking at impacts on rural power grids and how to minimize those impacts,” Wilber says. She is also looking for more data to help the Anchorage School District decide whether to electrify its bus fleet, just as ACEP is assisting the city’s Solid Waste Services (SWS) to evaluate EV garbage trucks.

At a conference panel, SWS acting director Kelli Toth described the newest additions to the fleet. “It was just like Christmas when, finally, those two [Peterbilt Model] 520EVs showed up,” Toth said. “We’re finally going to have a like-for-like chassis vehicle that we’re going to be able to compare, to put on the exact same routes.” The trucks launched in March, but integrating other systems like radios kept them off the streets until the end of this month.

As part of a five-year plan running through 2026, SWS has been operating an EV box truck, albeit not on collection routes. ACEP collected data on power consumption versus temperature. “This is an innovative project; no one’s ever done it before in Alaska, as far as large, heavy-duty refuse trucks,” Toth said.

Nuclear Anticipation

Office of the Governor

The conference convened shortly after the Alaska Legislature adjourned its regular session in Juneau. One bill that passed, HB273, establishes a Green Bank as a subsidiary of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. The fund would support loans for energy efficiency improvements in homes and businesses.

“This is just the beginning. There is so much we can get done on the policy front to unleash Alaska’s enormous resource potential,” Dunleavy said. “I’ve got to give credit to the legislature and the state departments. On some of these critical issues they came together, and the result is what we have today.”

The new legislation echoes the inaugural Sustainable Energy Conference, where Dunleavy signed a bill streamlining state regulations for the next wave of nuclear energy technology. At the time, nuclear power was on the verge of coming to Alaska; two years later, it still is.

Gwen Holdmann, ACEP’s founding director and now the associate vice chancellor for research at UAF, calls it a “ketchup bottle problem.” Holdmann says, “You keep shaking the ketchup bottle and saying, ‘It’s almost there. It’s coming out.’ I feel there’s a point at which a lot of activity happens really quickly, and we’re close to the cusp of that.”

Signs of the cusp include the imminent completion of the Alaska Advanced Nuclear Energy Roadmap, a guideline document that began two years ago. Richelle Johnson, lead analyst with the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, says the roadmap is almost done.

Eielson Air Force Base is still on track to install the state’s first commercial nuclear power plant in 2027. The US Air Force tentatively awarded California-based Oklo the contract to build the 5 MW facility.

The US Department of Defense is leading the design of a similar transportable reactor. Project Pele chose BWX Technologies of Virginia to build it. Jeff Waksman, program manager at the department’s Strategic Capabilities Office, told conference attendees that a final design will be locked in later this year, and the project is on track to receive its full supply of TRISO fuel. The multi-layered pellets of enriched uranium are the key to passively safe reactor designs.

Waksman observed that fear of nuclear energy has been replaced by bipartisan interest. “Almost more dangerous now is people thinking nuclear is too easy,” Waksman said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re really serious about doing it so we don’t create unrealistically high expectations, and then people get disappointed.”

At the first Sustainable Energy Conference, nuclear was the only alternative energy source among the exhibitors. Westinghouse was there, touting its eVinci micro-modular reactor, another rival in the 5 MW range. Two years later, the nuclear energy pioneer is furnishing a factory in Pittsburgh to manufacture heat pipes, the reactor’s key component. Later this year, Westinghouse aims to choose a site for a final assembly facility while continuing mechanical testing. The first customer lined up for eVinci is the Saskatchewan Research Council by 2030.

A smaller reactor aims to reach the market by 2028. Radiant, spinning off a power plant conceived for a SpaceX Mars colony, is holding to the schedule laid out in 2020 when McKinley Capital Management backed the project. Radiant bills its 1 MW module as the first mass-produced nuclear reactor, set for demonstration and testing at Idaho National Lab in 2026.

A few more annual conferences will go by before nuclear power escapes the ketchup bottle and feeds into the Alaska grid. Even so, Dunleavy says, “The conversations over the past week will help move Alaska and the world forward toward solving challenges for our energy needs.”

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Delivering Anchorage's Promise
June 2024
Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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