Communications Pipeline to Alternative Energy
GCI’s announcement that Prudhoe Bay would be the second area of Alaska to get 5G broadband wireless service must have left some of the state’s more populated areas scratching their heads.
Smart Oil Fields
After GCI activated its first 5G network in the Anchorage area last year, surely Fairbanks would be next, followed by Juneau. After all, those cities have more than 36,000 and 12,000 households, respectively—far more than the number of oil and gas workers statewide, which totals less than 7,000. Shouldn’t the state’s largest telecom company go where the customers are?
Fairbanks, Juneau, and elsewhere have to wait their turn, but GCI does have a reason to focus on the state’s richest industrial zone.
At a webinar sponsored by GCI, titled “Responsible Development: What It Means for Alaska,” Liam Zsolt, director of technology for ASRC Energy Services, welcomed new technology as a way to shrink the footprint for oil and gas development. “Right now, for any type of smart oil field and digital measurement system that we want to put in up there, there’s this tremendous cost to entry because you’ve got to set up your own mesh network,” he says, “and that drives so much cost into the system that it becomes uneconomic to take all the little measurements that you want to get.”
Aaron Helmericks, senior director of energy and mining for GCI Business, says 5G opens the door to new oil field technologies that are currently too expensive to hook up. “A traditional point-to-point network, you’re spending $5,000, $10,000 for just a single connectivity,” he says, “or hundreds of thousands of dollars to build fiber, and it doesn’t make economic sense for a lot of what has traditionally been stranded data.”
Helmericks says the efficiencies made possible by a ubiquitous data network have the potential to sustain oil and gas activities on the North Slope—and possibly in new energy provinces.
For a mature industry like Alaska’s oil patch, the potential for new telecommunications is immediate and obvious. Zsolt points to his own experience working at a drill site on Oooguruk Island, off the North Slope. In his job maintaining pipe integrity, “The piece of technology that we had was producing such reams of data that it would’ve been impossible to get the data to Anchorage fast enough to do anything and act on the insights that we were getting. So the way to do it was to put a field engineer, which was me, on the island 24 hours a day watching this data feed go through.”
That’s not practical for the entire Slope, Zsolt says. “Let’s face it, there’s 2,500 wellheads in Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk right now, and we’re certainly not in a position to measure them all.”
At the time, data capacity wasn’t there, but the new 5G to be installed in 2022 should lead to safer and more efficient operations. For example, Zsolt notes that ConocoPhillips’ Willow development is slated to be the company’s smallest pad for the amount of oil produced. “It’s going to be manned by people who are going to be moved out of harm’s way from the Slope and into Anchorage and other places, which is going to save flights, it’s going to save camp space, because it’s gonna be actually smart wellheads,” he says. “We’re gonna be using experts in their tower here in Anchorage to support the drilling operation, and that’s gonna be enabled significantly by connectivity.”
Telecommunications is also critical infrastructure for Alaska’s maritime economy. Paul Fuhs, the former mayor of Dutch Harbor and a member of the Arctic Energy Council, thanked GCI during the webinar for the use of its remote towers as sites for the Marine Exchange of Alaska, which receives position data from large vessels every six seconds. “We set up about 140 antennas around the state to receive that signal, so we know where every ship is. If it slows down, we know it’s got a problem, we’re contacting ‘em,” Fuhs explains. “We really need that communications backbone to bring that back to our central headquarters in Juneau. That’s a combination of fiber optics, sometimes a microwave relay, sometimes satellites.”
A new backbone is on the way to Fuhs’ home turf, with GCI installing the $58 million AU-Aleutians Fiber Project, connecting Unalaska to the high-speed data network. Just as 5G promises to make North Slope energy development more economical, Fuhs sees the new data pipeline as one way to transform the Aleutian Islands into a renewable energy breadbasket.
Birthplace of Winds
The wind blows in Unalaska, the most populous city in the Aleutian Islands, nicknamed “The Birthplace of Winds.”
“In the Aleutians, we have a huge amount of stranded energy,” Fuhs says. “We’ve got geothermal, we’ve got tidal, we’ve got wind.” The problem has been how to harvest the energy from these natural forces and transport it to where it’s needed.
Fuhs suggests hydrogen could be one possibility. The simplest element can be stored as compressed gas and used in fuel cells to generate electricity. “Hydrogen is going to end up being the energy carrier of the future for a lot of this,” he says. He notes that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act designates four hydrogen hubs in the United States, and he believes Alaska is in a perfect spot to be one of them.
Zsolt agrees. “You inject the billions of dollars in the infrastructure bill that’s available to study this and to build out pilot projects and to build hydrogen hubs,” he says, “I can’t overstate what a great opportunity Alaska has here to bring in tons of federal dollars and build out a bunch of energy projects that are going to center the expertise here.”
Currently, hydrogen is mostly made from fossil fuels. Natural gas is mostly methane, the simplest hydrocarbon, and each molecule’s four hydrogen atoms can be plucked from the central carbon atom to form hydrogen gas. The leftover carbon, however, must be handled carefully to avoid dumping the waste into the atmosphere, adding to greenhouse warming.
That’s where carbon capture and sequestration comes in: the excess carbon, in the form of CO2, is buried in the ground. Zsolt says Alaska has “uniquely huge opportunities” in this area. “We have injection wells already available; we have a pipeline network with excess capacity; we have tons of stranded natural gas,” he says. “Lots of places, gas is expensive; more expensive to convert it into hydrogen. On the North Slope, gas has a negative value because we’re reinjecting it back into the Earth.”
Indeed, efforts to market North Slope natural gas are now shifting toward stripping out its hydrogen atoms, rather than exporting the gas itself. The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation is exploring the possibility for its liquified natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Cook Inlet.
“We’ve got a world-class carbon sequestration opportunity at tidewater,” Zsolt says, “right next to an ammonia plant, which happens to be the best way to move hydrogen, in Nikiski.”
The Kenai Nitrogen Operations Facility, formerly operated by Unocal and Agrium, has been idle since 2007. Before that, it was the country’s second largest producer of ammonia and urea, both products used as agricultural fertilizer. Ammonia, NH4, also has potential as an energy medium, like an ammo clip waiting to fire off its four hydrogen atoms, but without the climate warming downside of methane, CH4.
The Ammonia Era
Aerial view of the Kenai Nitrogen Operations Facility, the idled fertilizer factory owned by Nutrien (formerly Agrium) in Nikiski.
Ammonia does have its own downsides, which explains why this simple chemical has never been widely used as a fuel. Although it combusts, igniting ammonia is not easy. Ammonia is also quite corrosive to steel tanks and pipes. And it’s smelly and toxic.
Even so, ammonia may have a brighter future. The US Department of Energy’s Northwest National Laboratory began a joint project with researchers at UAF this year to see if Alaska could become a global supplier of ammonia. Whether that means ammonia liquified at Prudhoe Bay and sent down the Trans Alaska Pipeline System or manufactured from natural gas piped separately to Nikiski has yet to be decided.
Another possibility is Solid State Ammonia Synthesis, which can spin anhydrous ammonia, NH3, out of nitrogen from the atmosphere and hydrogen liberated from water via electrolysis. Simple in principle but tricky in practice; the State of Alaska granted $750,000 to Alaska Applied Sciences for a kilowatt-scale ammonia fuel pilot plant in 2013, yet the technology is still far from mature.
Still, the ammonia era is coming. The International Energy Agency projects that up to 10 percent of global shipping will use ammonia fuel by 2040, in order to satisfy the International Maritime Organization’s mandate to switch to cleaner fuels. By 2070, the projection is 70 percent ammonia fuel.
Beyond the fishing fleets operating out of Dutch Harbor/Unalaska, Fuhs figures trans-Pacific cargo vessels will stop in the Aleutians to refuel with ammonia, which is nearly as dense as diesel, making it far more practical than hydrogen gas. “If it was pure hydrogen on the ship, 70 percent of the ship would be your fuel tank and the other 30 would be cargo. That doesn’t work!”
Fuhs adds that refueling halfway along the Northern Sea Route would enable vessels to carry more cargo. That’s one more selling point for turning the Aleutians into the South Slope of renewable energy.
Bridge to Renewables
GCI’s AU-Aleutians Fiber Project, shown as an upcoming addition to the statewide data network, tying together potential industrial sites.
Automated wind turbines, tidal generators, and geothermal stations strung across the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula, monitored from afar via next-generation telecommunications, each cranking out barrels of ammonia for shipping fuel or Japanese power plants—easy to imagine, but much harder to build. Until that day, Alaska remains a petroleum economy.
“There’s no case where I think we can be off of oil by 2050, let alone off of natural gas,” says Zsolt, despite the current energy transition far outpacing the historic switch from wood to coal, or coal to oil.
Petro dollars are the bridge to renewable energy, though, according to Fuhs. “Just the money we’ve made from oil and gas development, that’s what’s paid for the Alaska Energy Authority to go out and build, for free, all these wind farms, hydroelectric projects,” he says. “It was the revenues from that that allowed us to get to 30 percent renewable energy here in Alaska.”
Green technology also relies on copper and other minerals, and Fuhs believes abundant energy is the key to making Alaska a leading source of those materials. And the key to operating all those mines, processing facilities, energy generators, and even legacy oil and gas infrastructure scattered across the state’s 663,300 square miles, it turns out, is the same technology powering the fanciest new cell phones.