Sustainable Energy: Disrupting the Future
Tony Seba (left) is questioned by Governor Mike Dunleavy after delivering the keynote speech on the concluding day of the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference.
Concluding the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference in Anchorage on Thursday, Governor Mike Dunleavy pointedly called it the “first annual.” Organizers will soon begin planning for the next conference, he added.
Steak Without a Cow
Next year’s event could be bigger and better than the first, but the 10th annual conference might look nothing like it—due entirely to changes wrought by the technologies and policies that attendees discussed. Case in point, another remark in Dunleavy’s closing address: “I’m still working through the whole ‘steak without a cow’ thing.”
Food sustainability, largely ignored at the energy conference, arose as a topic of Thursday’s keynote address by Tony Seba, co-founder of RethinkX, a futurist think tank. Seba explained that protein manufactured from non-animal sources is on a development curve to replace factory farming as we know it. Furthermore, one of Seba’s unsettling predictions is that wild-caught seafood will be obsolete by 2035.
Dunleavy asked Seba if, in the next decade, he’ll be leading his grandchildren through a “Museum of What Was,” reminiscing about farms and gasoline-powered cars. Seba replied that museums do that now, exhibiting buggy whips and typewriters.
What about a pushback movement? The governor wondered aloud if people who love steaks, for example, or depend on fishing not just for livelihood but as an identity might resist disruptions in economics and lifestyle.
In a way, Dunleavy answered his own question at the start of the conference when he signed legislation to simplify the regulatory process for micro-scale nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy, of course, has experienced a pushback movement. The United States had no nuclear power plants begin construction from 1978 until 2013, when a Georgia plant broke ground on two more reactor units, yet to be completed. The pushback, though, is lately countered by a push forward, like the legislation signed by the governor, seeking to implement new technology that has evolved during nuclear’s hiatus.
Instead of monumental buildings, the new type of nuclear reactors can be assembled in factories and transported on trucks to wherever they might be needed. Thus, Senate Bill 177 is aimed at bringing micro-reactors to Alaska, a state which has only had one nuclear power plant, the SM-1A reactor that powered Fort Greely from 1962 to 1972. Decommissioning of the mothballed site finally begins this year, even as the military plans for a new generation of reactor for Eielson Air Force Base.
Still, neighbors want to know when a nuclear reactor is next door. The US Air Force fell short of that process, in the view of Gwen Holdmann, director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at UAF. “I don’t feel like the Department of Defense and Air Force has done a good job of including the community,” she said while moderating a conference panel on nuclear energy. “We’re really working to figure out a better approach around communications, around stakeholder engagement, and around developing a nuclear roadmap for the state of Alaska that’s inclusive.”
Panelist Marc Nichol of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry advocacy group, added, “We will never put a reactor in a community that doesn’t want it.”
At the same time, Nichol touted micro-reactors as a solution to Alaska’s energy needs. At scales of 1 MW to 10 MW of electricity, he compares them to batteries that can plug into a local grid or remote work site.
“The opportunity is too big to not include every single zero-carbon option available,” Nichol says. “There is no one technology that’s going to be able to serve all that need.”
North to the Future
Thirty-seven Tesla Megapacks in Soldotna became part of the Homer Electric Association grid in January 2022.
Among the conference co-sponsors, three of them build nuclear reactors: Westinghouse, BWXT, and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation. No other alternative energy source had such a visible presence.
Energy storage was notably under-represented in the exhibit hall, despite regular mentions in most panel discussions. A key part of regulating the fickle output of wind, solar, or other sustainable sources, storage technology is developing in parallel. Homer Electric Association is already testing Tesla Megapacks for its reserve requirements.
More battery energy storage systems are on the way, as part of a $200 million upgrade to the Railbelt grid. Electric utilities and the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) announced at the conference that it would be the largest system overhaul since they built the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Project near Homer in 1991. Utilities have budgeted to pay off bonds for Bradley Lake through 2050, but the bonds were retired last year. The excess funds, therefore, can be used to replace transmission lines on the Kenai Peninsula and install batteries to stabilize the grid.
Chugach Electric Association acting CEO Arthur Miller added that the upgrades “pave the way for additional renewables on the system, which will help facilitate alternative technologies as we go forward.”
When the Bradley Lake bonds were issued, 2050 was far over the horizon. No one could be sure that the funds would be part of an energy transformation. Likewise, the 10th annual Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference or the prophesied demise of commercial fishing lie beyond a veil of uncertainty.
Governor Dunleavy invoked Alaska’s state motto in his concluding remarks. “North to the Future” is inspiring, he said: “That allows us to think differently. That allows us to be creative. That allows us to take risks.”
Indeed, even has he expressed reservations about synthetic steak, Dunleavy said, “I’m sure I’ll get over that as well.”