Advancements in clean technology today have spurred a tremendous growth in the numbers of cities, states, and countries planning and working toward 100% renewable energy and forcing the rest of us watching from the sidelines to revise our conception of what is possible. It no longer takes a visionary leader to make such a goal, but one with enough common sense to see the direction in which our contemporaries are headed.
This year the "Solutions Project," led by Mark Jacobson at Stanford, did in fact create a 100% renewable plan for Alaska that identifies energy sources of 70% wind, 15% hydro, 7% geothermal, and about 6% solar, with small amounts from others, to enable a staged shift in all energy sectors, including transportation, heating/cooling, and industry to renewable energy. In it's current form this plan isn't fully actionable. And it would be fair to say that since Alaska has a solar resource comparable to Germany, the Solutions Project may have underestimated the potential role solar PV could play here.
There are, however, other examples of what a more developed plan to move to 100% renewable energy might look like. One such plan was written by Bill Powers' for the California Bay Area, Bay Area Smart Energy 2020 (BASE). Using proven low cost technologies, Powers' plan to transition the electric grid to renewable sources prioritized energy efficiency, distributed solar, and battery storage, supplemented by utility-scale renewable energy projects that are economic relative to local PV. Clearly, there are substantial differences between the climates of Alaska and California. We can't "copy and paste" the BASE 2020 plan for our state, but otherwise the approach he used to tackle the problem is similar to the kind we would need in Alaska.
The litmus test for an Alaskan renewable energy plan will be its ability to deliver power under the most demanding conditions, such as an Alaskan winter, but other Arctic regions haven't found this the obstacle it is often assumed to be. As part of a "Neo Carbon Energy" project, researchers from the Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland, a country that lies at a similar latitude as Alaska, created an economically viable and 100% renewable energy plan that relies on a highly flexible system design and dramatic increases in wind and solar generation capacity. Resources, one might note, that we have here in Alaska as well.
Geothermal and hydroelectric power are base load energy sources. Combining these with wind, solar, energy storage, greater efficiency, improved small scale High Voltage Direct Current HVDC technology, and demand response could see Alaskans through the harshest winters. Certainly, the Finnish researchers reached this conclusion as well.
The obstacles to a 100% renewable energy plan are policies that disincentivize renewable power generation and limit demand response, not the cold and dark of winter. Thankfully, the Regulatory Commission of Alaska is looking to restructure the Railbelt grid with the creation of an Independent System Operator that would dispatch energy more efficiently and set a universal transmission tariff.
But even without a mandatory goal or policy incentives, renewables are expanding in Alaska. In 2014, we produced 28% of our electricity with water, wind, and other renewable energy sources, and between 2007 and 2014 we saw a 20-fold increase in wind power generation.
Through the vision of its residents and collaboration with industry leader ABB, when Kodiak island reached 99.7% renewable power generation it saved millions in annual fuel costs and lowered electric bills. In Kotzebue, wind power is already providing 20 percent of average electricity demand, saving the community $900,000 last year alone. There are many more examples besides these.
|Wind turbines, Kodiak Island, Alaska|
This research is driven, in part, by the overarching vision of reaching our "50 by 2025" goal and a desire to lower the cost of energy for all Alaskans. One thing should appear obvious, whether we have a roadmap or not, this is the direction Alaska is moving. But without a plan the process of this transformation will take longer and be less efficient. Would Kodiak Island have achieved its goal of receiving virtually 100% of it's power from renewable energy sources if it didn't chart a course for how to get there?
As Alaska faces additional challenges from climate change and a collapse of its fossil fuel dependent economy, now is the time to increase our state goal to 100% renewable energy, make it a binding commitment for the future of Alaska and Alaskans, and create a plan for how to reach it.
Our economy has nothing to lose from a big push in the growth of renewable energy. Our world class fishing and forest products industries are directly impacted by climate change effects caused by increases in GHG emissions entering the ocean and atmosphere.
Alaska's mining industry will continue to be necessary to supply the raw materials to build a clean energy economy, whenever recovering these from our waste stream is not possible. And it would even be premature to suggest that a renewable plan for Alaska, by itself, would represent a threat to our oil and gas export industry, as the market for that resource is predominately influenced by factors beyond our control. Even Norway, with an energy economy that is 98% renewable, remains one of the world's largest oil exporters.
|Hellisheidi Geothermal Station, South Iceland|
Throughout the past, whenever renewable energy became a cost competitive option people made the switch from fossil fuels. Many US cities, like Juneau, Burlington, and Aspen, have a significant percentage of their energy demands provided from hydropower, a technology that became affordable long ago. Wind power improved later, allowing other cities, like Greensburg, KS, to tap into this rapidly growing market. Today the most recent and rapid growth is in solar. The prediction is that it will meet an increasingly large percentage of energy demand in the future as entire cities and regions move toward renewable energy. The emergence of companies like SolarCity as big players in the renewable energy scene illustrates the tremendous growth opportunities for private industry here as well. And as these improvements in renewable energy rise, improvements in building performance, weatherization, and energy conservation and efficiency compliment them.
It's additionally important to take into account both current and any anticipated future changes to tax and energy policy when considering what our future energy infrastructure should look like. Policies that internalize the environmental and public health costs of carbon pollution, such as carbon pricing schemes and, in the US, the Clean Power Plan, will favor renewable energy and spur investment in and development of clean technology, promoting greater adoption and lowering costs.
|Anchorage 5th & E Solar Building, 17.2 kW array|
In the end, to fit real numbers to a plan, to identify possible candidate locations for renewable energy development and growth, new or existing, we need to sit down with our state energy specialists, our utilities, and national experts and organizations like those created by Mark Jacobson, Bill Powers, and Amory Lovins Rocky Mountain Institute. All Alaskans should be a part of a state level dialogue about energy in Alaska so we can review options, suggest changes, and benefit from one another's experience. It's good for the environment, good for the economy, and gives Alaskans energy free from the boom and bust cycle of the oil economy.
For the first time in history the energy sector is being driven more by improvements in technology than improvements in resource extraction, and this tectonic shift has only begun to ripple across the globe, though we are feeling its effects today. If Alaska remains bound to the older model of extraction, we will miss being part of this new paradigm of economic development. We don't have a roadmap to a 100% renewable future yet, but that's not for lack of reason, and it's becoming increasingly apparent it's not for lack of ability either.
Guest post by Eric Schaetzle, Fairbanks, Alaska