Alaska and Renewable Energy: A Missed Opportunity?
Measuring the state’s potential for leading the renewable energy industry
Hydroelectric projects currently dominate the renewable energy sector in Alaska.
Alaska has some of the best renewable energy resources in the world, according to Renewable Energy Alaska Project Founder and Executive Director Chris Rose. Yet the current lack of a domestic energy policy, transmission costs, and the isolation of more than 200 communities create a challenging environment in which to develop those resources and bring them to market.
“Alaska has no domestic energy policy focused on how Alaskans are going to reliably and affordably produce and consume energy. In an energy-constrained world increasingly concerned with climate change, this is a handicap,” Rose says.
“Places around the globe that are seeing that local, clean, stably-priced, and inexhaustible renewable energy is the future are going to be the most prosperous places to be, and the ones that will attract the most outside investment. With as many renewable energy resources that Alaska has, the state should be actively working to seize the opportunity we have to keep money in local economies, create jobs, and be less dependent on volatile world fossil fuel prices.”
There are six significant renewable energy resources in the Last Frontier: wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, solar, and marine hydrokinetic.
In the Interior, the largest producer of renewable energy is Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) through its wind turbines, which generate 24.6 megawatts that supplement energy from coal. The twelve Senvion turbines at the Eva Creek Wind Project were designed specifically for operating in a cold climate.
“One of the benefits we have is our cold is very dry versus Eastern Canada, where it’s very wet,” explains Frank Perkins, GVEA’s vice president of power supply. “So like an airplane, these wind turbines [in East Canada] can be subject to icing conditions. Fortunately, up here, we don’t have that to be concerned with. So, we don’t have to worry about specific blade heating or blatant coating technologies.”
What the sub-Arctic conditions of the Interior do require, however, are built-in heaters that will warm up the units when the wind conditions are right, Perkins says.
Wind power is particularly powerful in cold regions since cold air is denser and therefore able to produce more power than warm air, Rose says, noting that solar photovoltaic technologies also perform better in the cold.
Biomass heating systems provided much-needed heat during Alaska’s cold winters.
“Low temperatures actually enhance solar PV production, as does snow cover, which reflects additional radiation back to solar panels… At least anecdotally, aging and degradation of solar panels seem to slow down in colder conditions as well, relative to installations in warmer climates.”
“Low temperatures actually enhance solar PV production, as does snow cover, which reflects additional radiation back to solar panels,” explains Erin Whitney, the Solar Technologies Program manager at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. “At least anecdotally, aging and degradation of solar panels seem to slow down in colder conditions as well, relative to installations in warmer climates.”
Solar power is attractive to lodges and for other seasonal applications, as well as for residential urban applications as a way for homeowners to offset home energy costs, Whitney says.
“The recent Solarize campaigns in Anchorage have significantly increased overall solar PV capacity along the Railbelt,” Whitney says. “At the end of 2018, there were a little over 200 net-metered solar PV systems on the Chugach and Municipal Light & Power grids in total. So far in 2019, there have been nearly 200 additional solar PV permits that have gone through the municipal permitting process in Anchorage.”
In July the Municipality of Anchorage revealed 216 solar panels on top of the Egan Convention Center, unveiling what is now the state’s largest rooftop solar project, projected to produce 9 percent of the center’s annual electricity needs.
“This is a sign that we can develop new industry in Anchorage and across Alaska,” Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said at the time. “We can do it in ways that are fiscally responsible and in ways that help satisfy our responsibility in terms of addressing climate change.”
Though solar operates well in cold climates, Whitney points out that solar resources drop off considerably during the long, dark days in the winter.
“But it is a viable energy source in early spring, summer, and into fall, which matches some seasonal applications quite well—lodges, fish processing plants, even an increased use of air conditioning units in warmer summers,” she says.
Aiding this recent push to tap solar energy is the drop in panel prices by more than 80 percent from a decade ago, Rose says.
“This has made solar PV an economic investment, even in places that may not see much production for 90 to 120 days per year. With less up-front investment costs, there is less pressure to get a return on investment twelve months per year,” Rose says. “Solar panels are becoming more like many appliances that many people purchase, even though they are not used 100 percent of the time. For example, we still purchase cars even though they are parked about 95 percent of the time.”
Rose makes the argument that because of this price point, communities that already have controls for a renewable energy source, such as wind, can more easily increase the value of their system by integrating solar.
“Renewable energy resources have had a positive effect on consumers in many parts of the state either through reduced or stabilized utility rates,” Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) Executive Director Curtis Thayer says. “Additional renewable energy sources can be developed where they make economic sense.”
“Alaska has a great opportunity with tidal energy if the state chooses to seize it. Anchorage is one of the larger electric loads on the planet, located directly adjacent to one of the best known tidal resources.”
One enormous opportunity Rose identifies within the renewable energy sector is tidal energy—not only as a solution for weening many coastal communities off of fossil fuels but also as an exportable technology.
“Alaska has a great opportunity with tidal energy if the state chooses to seize it. Anchorage is one of the larger electric loads on the planet, located directly adjacent to one of the best known tidal resources,” Rose says.
One advantage tidal energy has over wind and solar energy is its predictability, which allows tidal to be harnessed as a “base load” source that utilities could count on without the need to store the energy, unlike solar or wind.
“Considering Anchorage’s extreme dependence on high-priced natural gas, the region could not only address a local energy problem, it could also become a world leader in a technology that is clearly one that other places around the planet will want to take advantage of. Alaska could create a tidal energy industry and export our expertise around the world,” Rose says.
Hydroelectric energy already supplies a considerable percentage of the state’s electricity, about 25 percent in 2017, particularly in Southeast. However, hydrokinetic energy remains largely untapped.
“Tidal and wave energy technologies are still emerging, but there is huge potential for both along Alaska’s vast coastline. The first permanent in-river hydrokinetic device in the United States was recently installed on the Kivchak River near the mouth of Lake Iliamna at Igiugig. The device is using technology very similar to what could be used in a tidal environment,” Rose says.
The first turbine installed at Igiugig is projected to displace up to 45 percent of the diesel the community needs for electricity. Igiugig is anticipating that beneficial electrification will allow it to wean itself off fossil fuels and keep energy dollars in the community, Rose says.
“Hydrokinetic energy has high potential that has not been realized yet,” confirms Jeremy Kasper, deputy director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and co-director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center. “Lack of widespread adaptation is… largely due to the immaturity of the industry but also failure to take into account environmental issues such as debris.”
Unlike solar and wind energy, the potential for hydrokinetic energy in the Arctic and near-Arctic is significantly dampened by the cold climate.
“In-river hydrokinetic resource is greatly reduced in winter when water levels and flow velocities decrease,” Thayer says.
Renewables in Alaska
While Kotzebue, which is above the Arctic Circle, relies on wind and solar energy to reach intermittent renewable energy penetration of nearly 100 percent, according to Kasper, Kodiak mixes in hydroelectric power to achieve its intermittent penetration of nearly 100 percent.
“Kodiak is generating 99.9 percent of its electricity today with a combination of hydroelectric, wind, flywheels, and batteries. It is a project that people around the world are examining,” Rose says. “Kodiak Electric Association is currently increasing the capacity of its hydro facility, which in turn will allow it to add more wind and more storage. Kodiak Electric Association is anticipating that people in Kodiak will increase the electric demand on the island by purchasing electric vehicles and installing air-source heat pumps.”
The move to replace traditional energy sources with renewably generated electricity is known as beneficial electrification, which is steadily becoming a global trend.
“In communities across the state, individuals are using highly efficient air-source heat pumps to heat their homes, replacing expensive heating oil,” Rose says. “In Southeast, people are using hydropower to run those pumps. Above the Arctic Circle, households in Ambler and Shungnak are installing solar and also relying on electricity that is subsidized by the state’s Power Cost Equalization program.”
This trend is significant here, where heating is the primary energy cost Alaskans face.
“Heat is actually a bigger issue for most communities, both in cost and in need,” Rose says. “In an Alaska winter, you can survive with less light but not less heat, and heating oil prices in remote, rural communities are very high.”
Biomass energy, a renewable solution, is performing well in some regions in Alaska as well, according to Amanda Byrd, Alaska Center for Energy and Power biomass coordinator and chief storyteller. Biomass heating units use cordwood, pellets, or woodchips to heat community centers, schools, senior centers, and more.
“In many communities where there are trees, you can also find a biomass heating system. For example, there have been fifty-one biomass heating units installed in communities across Alaska with the help of the Alaska Energy Authority’s Renewable Energy Fund,” Byrd says. “They have offset many thousands of gallons of heating fuel every year. Biomass has been successfully installed in Southeast Alaska, especially the Southeast Island School District where systems heat schools and adjacent greenhouses.”
There are also examples of biomass heating being used in Interior communities along the Tanana and Yukon rivers and even where there are pockets of wood resources in Western Alaska.
“We have yet to crack the nut on the efficient, cost-effective, and dependable small-scale combined heat and power biomass unit for remote communities,” Byrd says.
The issue of providing affordable energy to these remote Alaska communities has paved the way for the state becoming known worldwide as a hub for inDecation in remote microgrids, which integrate renewables into small, diesel-electric grids.
“Many communities have learned from each other how to integrate relatively large percentages of renewables using advanced control systems, and increasingly, energy storage, such as lithium-ion batteries,” Rose says.
The windfarm on Pillar Mountain in Kodiak rises tall above Kodiak City.
“Alaska has no domestic energy policy focused on how Alaskans are going to reliably and affordably produce and consume energy. In an energy-constrained world increasingly concerned with climate change, this is a handicap.”
One of the largest challenges remote communities still face is economy of scale.
“For example, a wind project in a remote community that uses one or two 100 kilowatt turbines is going to be much more expensive than a project in the Midwest that uses hundreds of 2 megawatts turbines,” Rose says. “In addition to the scale issue, logistical costs to develop renewable energy in remote rural communities are typically much higher than costs along the Railbelt. Most materials must be barged in [as is fuel], and the cost of mobilizing a crane for a wind turbine installation in a remote community can be very substantial.”
Additionally, upkeep costs can be detrimental to the feasibility of projects due to remote, harsh conditions.
Thayer points out that remote communities are also less likely to have the trained workforce needed to maintain the systems. Bringing in trained workers from other parts of the state or from the Outside is very expensive and can lead to significant delays.
“It is not uncommon for damaged installations to go for months before skilled technicians can get out to them,” Whitney says.
Like some of these rural communities, many of the state’s renewable energy resources are stranded.
“If a renewable energy resource is not located near a community or other ‘load,’ today it must at least be located near an existing transmission line in order to be economically utilized,” Rose says. “This means that Alaska has a huge amount of renewable energy resources that are effectively stranded. This is similar to North Slope natural gas that is stranded because there is not a gas pipeline or other facility to get the gas to market.”
Rose says the largest hurdle for the state, however, lies at the feet of the legislature. Without domestic energy policy that pushes for the development of renewable resources and the creation of the technology needed to harness that energy, the state will flounder as it continues to remain reliant on fossil fuels.
“Policy plays a large role in all our energy decisions. Twenty-nine states and numerous nations are mandating a certain percentage of renewable electricity by a certain date. That drives the local market and brings jobs and economic activity such as manufacturing. Alaska has no such standard,” Rose says.
“If Alaska were 100 percent renewable for everything—electricity, heating, and transportation fuels—it would not impact the oil industry that has been the lifeblood of the state’s economy but has always been focused on the export market.
“If Alaskans could enjoy stable energy prices through predictably priced renewables, local communities could do more value-added processing at the local level and the state could attract new industries that either rely heavily on energy or wish to use carbon-free energy.”