Sustainable Energy: Easier Said than Done
An all-electric BMW, foreground, and other electric vehicles on display at the Dena’ina Center during the first Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference in May 2022.
Alaska has no shortage of ideas for harnessing the state’s endless energy sources and to use those sources more efficiently. Exhibits at the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference in Anchorage this week include developers of geothermal, nuclear, and hydrokinetic energy; consulting services for engineering, finance, and regulatory navigation; and new technologies for microgrid controllers, compressed natural gas, combined-cycle gas generators and heaters, and even virtual reality training solutions with the potential to minimize travel to remote areas.
An All-In Approach
Nearly 500 attendees and 90 speakers answered Governor Mike Dunleavy’s call for a three-day event to strategize on how to lower energy costs in Alaska, harness renewable energy, and make Alaska energy independent.
“This isn’t about an either/or; this is about an all-in approach on energy sources,” Dunleavy said in his welcoming remarks on Tuesday. “We’re talking about various types of energy. Everything from nuclear, tidal, wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, and hydrogen will be a part of robust conversations and panels here at the conference—as well as natural gas as a bridge to get there.”
Sustainable energy will attract investment as long as it is affordable and reliable, says Heather Grahame, general counsel and vice president of regulatory and federal government affairs for NorthWestern Energy. The longtime Alaskan, now working for Montana’s largest electric utility, notes that customers must be able to pay their bills, so her company has had to diversify in stages, making “small bets” and investing in pilot projects.
Grahame adds that fossil fuels have long been favored because they are dependable. “It is our core obligation to make sure, when people turn on the lights and need energy, that it’s there,” she says. “The challenge, of course, with migrating to a carbon-free environment is, at least at this point in time, there is hardly any technology that is 24/7 and carbon free and affordable and demonstrated.”
While renewable projects have started adding to the state’s mix, the technology is not yet mature. For example, the RivGen system in the Kvichak River at Igiugig just completed its third winter but is still not ready for worldwide deployment. Stuart Davies, CEO of Ocean Renewable Power Company of Maine, says the technology will be installed next at False Pass, at the easternmost extent of the Aleutian Chain, in 2023. The company is also partnering on projects to harness the flow of water in upper Cook Inlet at Port MacKenzie and off Nikiski.
The tidal energy potential of Cook Inlet is massive, according to Levi Kilcher, an Alaskan now working as a senior scientist for the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. Surveys indicate 18 GW available, or 300 times the Railbelt electricity load. Last summer, tests found 100 MW in a channel where the eastern inlet bends into Turnagain Arm, and Kilcher says the potential is greater in the deeper waters on the western side.
Tidal energy is at a critical stage, Kilcher says, when the objective is to demonstrate long-term reliability. “These technologies have been demonstrated for a few years, but the next step is to show that they can work for a decade, ten, twenty years operating reliably,” he says. “And that’s gonna take ten to twenty years to happen.”
A couple of decades would be relatively swift. “It took the wind energy industry over forty years to get to where they’re at now, where they’re one of the cheapest forms of electricity,” Kilcher says. “I’d like to think we can do it quicker with tidal, learning from what we did from wind and leveraging what’s already been done.”
Cook Inlet’s wind has been providing electricity for nearly a decade, thanks to eleven turbines installed on Fire Island by Cook Inlet Region Incorporated (CIRI). Suzanne Settle, CIRI’s vice president of energy, land, and resources says it’s taken all this time for local utilities to get comfortable with the notoriously variable output of wind. It turns out, she says, that Fire Island has steadily provided 50,000 MWh per year with no significant mechanical failures (“knock wood,” Settle adds). CIRI is ready to install Phase 2 as early as next year; the project has been in “warm development,” and Settle says the decade-long wait has seen new technology arrive that could triple Fire Island’s output simply by doubling the number of turbines.
A map of geothermal resources in Alaska’s Railbelt region is “pretty inadequate” in terms of collected data, says Amanda Kolker of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Next to the slow but inexorable advance of technology, another obstacle to renewable energy is an incomplete understanding of the resources. Initial scouting forays have suggested some promising prospects, but more data is required.
For instance, Kilcher says further development of tidal energy of Cook Inlet needs bathymetric surveys of the seafloor at a 1-meter resolution. That’s just not available yet. Tidal has the advantage of being predictable years in advance, unlike wind, even though the power fluctuates daily as the ocean rises and falls, but finding the best places to harness that power needs further exploration.
His NREL colleague, Amanda Kolker, sees the same problem for geothermal energy. Kolker, a UAF graduate who now manages NREL’s geothermal lab, says the understanding of Alaska’s geothermal resources is lacking. “We have some work to do, Alaska,” she says. “To understand geothermal resources, you have to do subsurface exploration to use geophysics to image the subsurface, and then you have to drill.”
The only proven geothermal site in Alaska, Kolker says, is Makushin Volcano in the Aleutians, which Ounalashka Corporation is working to develop in cooperation with Chena Power. Mt. Spurr, west of Anchorage, had some geothermal drilling in the ‘80s that didn’t pan out. Mt. Augustine, across Cook Inlet from Homer, has some evidence of geothermal potential but has never been drilled.
The Inlet Is Ideal
Surveys of tidal energy show great potential where Cook Inlet narrows between West Foreland and East Foreland, waters that offshore oil rigs have worked for decades.
Yet another obstacle to renewable energy development in Alaska is the harsh conditions. However, this could be leveraged as a positive. If the technology works under the most difficult conditions, Kilcher suggests, it can be exported anywhere. He says Cook Inlet is ideal for developing tidal generators for that reason.
The inlet presents challenges such as ice, silt, and interactions with beluga whales, fish, and birds. Those need not be deal breakers; for instance, Davies says thorough monitoring of the abundant sockeye salmon passing by the RivGen at Igiugig has recorded no injuries to fish.
Cook Inlet also has a base of operating knowledge after decades of offshore oil and gas development. Kilcher notes that the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at UAF recommended that NREL tap the expertise of Hilcorp, and the oil and gas company is ready to help.
“We’re actually very familiar with that harsh environment,” says Luke Saugier, Hilcorp’s senior vice president for Alaska. “We operate in the Cook Inlet every day of the year—ice, no ice, ripping tides, high wind—we’re out there. We’ve got boats running. We’ve got people operating. So we can actually take on some of these tidal power test projects with no meaningful increase in our footprint and activity levels.”
Hilcorp is the largest producer of Cook Inlet natural gas, yet Saugier isn’t worried about competing with renewable sources. “You should buy less of my gas,” he says. “In fact, we should have other sources of energy in the Cook Inlet basin.”
Natural gas still has a place in the energy mix, at least for the next couple of decades. The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) has been working hard to bring even more gas to Southcentral Alaska with the AK-LNG project, obtaining permits for a pipeline from the North Slope to Nikiski. That fossil fuel, though, can be a bridge to renewables.
“What our customers are looking for is flexibility and optionality,” says Brad Chastain, AGDC’s AK-LNG project manager. He says buyers have, in recent years, begun inquiring about carbon-free alternatives beyond 2040. AK-LNG has the opportunity to transition from exporting liquified natural gas to exporting ammonia instead, thanks to the idled fertilizer factory at Nikiski. To satisfy net-zero carbon emission requirements, ammonia production would have to sequester the carbon atoms extracted from methane; Chastain says the old reservoirs around Cook Inlet, emptied out since the ‘50s, could store that waste.
The convergence of gas supply, ammonia infrastructure, carbon sequestration, and shipping routes in one place makes Cook Inlet a candidate for one of the nation’s “hydrogen hubs.” The US Department of Energy (DOE) has federal infrastructure funding to identify four to six sites to jump-start carbonless energy production. “This is gonna be a competitive grant process,” Chastain says. “We expect to hear a little bit more later this summer about it. Obviously, DOE is struggling with the ‘curse’ of a lot of money from Congress right now, trying to get that out to discrete programs.”
If Cook Inlet becomes a hydrogen hub, exporting ammonia made from natural gas, the groundwork is in place for ammonia made without fossil fuels. Electricity can split hydrogen from water and combine it with nitrogen from the air, provided enough electricity is available.
That electricity can be provided from the inlet’s tidal energy. Saugier figures that harnessing just a fraction of the tidal potential would double the amount of electricity in the Railbelt region, leaving a surplus to export in the form of ammonia (which, in addition to being prized as agricultural fertilizer, has a future as fuel, especially in maritime shipping).
“This just makes too much sense,” Kilcher says. “We’ve got to figure out how to do this. I’ve talked to colleagues at NREL, and they’re like, ‘Yeah. Yeah, that could work. That could happen.’ That’s what I want to do.”