Saturday, February 21, 2015

North to the future means renewable energy, not fossil fuels

Solar thermal collectors, Agate Inn, Wasilla, AK (photo by Ceal Smith)

Guest post by Eric Treider, originally posted: Feb. 18, 2015, Alaska Dispatch News. 

Oil is old news; Alaska's future is in renewable energy. 
While Alaska’s lawmakers are busy dodging the blame for the mess they made, they’re ignoring an even greater threat: Even if oil prices return to normal, and even if we break with tradition and arrange to be paid fairly for our oil, someday we won’t be able to depend on oil for jobs and government revenues like we used to.

North Slope oil fields are nearly played out, and the natural gas pipeline will never fully replace them. As Alaska’s oil gauge nears empty, we need to develop new industries to support our economy. Time for us to pull our heads out of our pipeline and look around for fresh ideas, like renewable energy.
When some folks hear the words “renewable energy,” they think of granola, patchouli oil and posey-sniffers. They think that harnessing the forces of nature is a cool idea but not quite ready for prime time. They think we should let market forces do their thing in terms of ushering in the transition to renewable energy generation -- if there even is one.

They couldn’t be more wrong. In many areas of the world, photovoltaic panels and wind turbines are providing an ever-expanding share of electricity. Scotland plans to power nearly 1 million households with electricity generated through tidal power. In Germany, which receives less solar energy than Southcentral Alaska, almost 7 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated by the sun. And other nations aren’t far behind. Many nations intend to fully convert to renewable energy over time.

Technical innovations and economies of scale are forcing prices down for solar panels and other renewable energy gear. Producing green energy is beginning to make economic sense. The trend is clear -- the world will someday be powered by the sun, the wind and the water. Let’s quit living in the past, and let’s try to capitalize on this transition toward sustainable energy production.

At this critical time, let’s devote our state’s intellectual capital and our dwindling financial resources toward building a new Alaskan economy -- one based on designing and building the equipment needed to harness the power of nature: Tide-turbines, hydro-powered turbines, wind turbines, geothermal steam turbines, solar panels, biomass energy systems and wood-gasification systems.

We’ve got brilliant, hard-working people right here in Alaska who can design and build this gear. Due to low oil prices, the folks needed to birth these industries are at risk of being laid off, and many will leave the state -- educators, engineers, technicians, machinists and skilled workers. Has it even occurred to our lawmakers to involve these talented people in a revolutionary effort to re-invent our economy?

Before they’re gone, let’s put these people to work on a project that will outlive us all. Perhaps we could take some of the Permanent Fund’s poorly performing bond-holdings and use those funds to establish a Public Bank of Alaska which could provide the venture capital needed to launch these enterprises. Let’s set these businesses up as workers’ cooperatives -- an extremely successful, engaging business model where the employees own their companies, share in decision-making, appoint their managers and share in the profits, which would stay in Alaska.

And we’ll fuel these industries through nature’s powerhouse. We are sitting on a mother lode of renewable energy. Cook Inlet embodies the second most abundant source of tidal power in the world. On some rivers, hydropower is appropriate. Certain areas of the state have notable wind resources and during the long, clear, cool days of spring, solar panels generate up to 20 percent more electricity than they are supposed to. Our lush vegetation is a feast for biomass energy generators and wood-gasification systems.

Inexpensive renewable energy will help all Alaskans, especially those in rural areas, and it could turn the tide for marginal, but strategic, industries that require reasonably-priced electricity, such as agriculture.

Visionary Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel once said, “Cheap electricity isn’t about turning on a light. It’s about turning on an opportunity.”

Truly, Alaska is at a turning point. Do we just let life happen to us and allow our economy to wither? Or do we take bold, calculated steps toward forging a new future for ourselves and our children?

Eric Treider is a laid-off oilfield worker, a broke-down gold miner and a former candidate for Alaska Senate. He lives with his wife Nelma in Soldotna.

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