Saturday, January 30, 2016

An Alaskan roadmap to 100% Renewable Energy

Solar high rise, downtown Anchorage, Alaska
By Eric Schaetzle & Ceal Smith
Historically, when renewable energy becomes a cost competitive option people make the switch from fossil fuels. Today, many US cities, like Burlington, Aspen, and Juneau meet a significant percentage of their energy needs from hydropower, a technology that became cost effective long ago. Wind power improved later, allowing other cities, like Greensburg, KS, to tap into this rapidly growing market.[1] 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.[2],[3] The emergence of SolarCity and other big players in the renewable energy scene illustrate the tremendous growth opportunities for private industry. As improvements in renewable energy continue, improvements in building performance, weatherization, and energy conservation and efficiency compliment them.[4],[5],[6] The potential for Alaska to realize gains in these areas as well has been widely recognized.

Seven years ago, in January 2009, Gov. Palin asked Alaskans to focus on obtaining 50% of our electric generation from renewable sources by 2025,[7],[8] an announcement that accompanied the release of a new document from the Alaska Energy Authority titled "Alaska Energy: A first step toward energy independence."[9] Unfortunately, Alaska Energy didn't provide a road map for how to reach this goal. At the time, Alaska's "50 by 2025" goal was on the cutting edge; suggesting a higher target of 100% renewable energy would have been dismissed as not only impractical, but impossible to reach. Yet a few years earlier, in 2007, Kodiak Island, Alaska began a multi-phased, step by step approach that by 2014 culminated in their electric grid generating 99.7% of it's power from renewable energy sources.

Today, advancements in clean energy and integration technologies (known as “smart grid”) have spurred explosive growth in the number of cities, states, and countries planning and working toward 100% renewable energy goals.  Those of us watching from the sidelines have been forced to revise our beliefs about what is possible. It no longer takes a visionary to embrace such a goal, just a leader with enough common sense to see where the world is headed.

An expanding role

In 2015 the "Solutions Project," led by Mark Jacobson at Stanford, did in fact create a 100% renewable roadmap for Alaska. The plan identifies energy sources of 70% wind, 15% hydro, 7% geothermal, and 6% solar to enable a staged shift in all energy sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) to renewable sources.[10] Jacobson's plan includes a 30% decrease in power demand gained by converting from combustion to electricity and end-use energy efficiency improvements. It also accounts for electricity and heat storage.[11] Since Alaska has a solar resource comparable to Germany (Fig. 1), currently the fifth largest producer of solar energy in the world,[12] Jacobson's proposed energy mix could be adjusted to include a higher ratio of solar. Erin Whitney at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, for example, has noted that "solar is the most untapped resource in our state."[13] As prices for PV panels drop, solar energy generation has grown considerably across the state, from the Northwest Arctic Borough to Copper Valley.[14] In Fairbanks, for example, the Golden Valley Electric Association is exploring a community solar project.[15],[16]

Bay Area Smart Energy 2020, Bill Powers
There are other examples of what a more developed plan to move to 100% renewable energy might look like. San Diego energy expert Bill Powers developed one such plan for four heavily populated Bay Area Counties in California.  Bay Area Smart Energy 2020 (BASE)[17] uses proven low cost technologies to convert the electric grid to renewable sources through energy conservation and efficiency, demand response, and local, distributed renewable energy supplemented by a few strategically placed utility-scale renewable energy projects and community scale storage. 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 Powers' nuts and bolts approach is what we 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 to be an obstacle. As part of a "Neo Carbon Energy" project, Christian Breyer and associates from the Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland, at a similar latitude as Alaska, created an economically viable 100% renewable energy plan that relies on a highly flexible system design and dramatic increases in wind and solar generation capacity.[18],[19],[20] Recently this same team completed renewable energy system modeling for Russia, and found it to be one of the most energy-competitive regions.[21]  Similarities between Finland and Russia and the climate and geography of Alaska are apparent.

Renewable Energy Atlas of Alaska
In fact, the Alaska Energy Authority found that Alaska has "some of the best renewable resources in the world" and collaborated with the Renewable Energy Alaska Project to create a "Renewable Energy Atlas of Alaska."[22] They identified four distinct geothermal resource regions suitable for large-scale geothermal power projects.  Alaska has over 90% of the nation's river current and tidal energy resources.  Western and coastal regions of the state have wind resources that are rated "excellent" and "outstanding."[23]

Geothermal and hydroelectric energy are “base load” -- that is they produce the minimum amount the electric grid has to have to operate at any given time.[24] Combined with wind, solar, energy storage, greater efficiency, improved high-voltage direct current (HVDC) technology,[25] and demand response, Alaskans would have no problem getting through the harshest winters. Evidently, such was also the conclusion of the Finnish researchers for their country.

The obstacles to a 100% renewable energy plan are not the cold and dark of winter, but rather, policies that disincentivize renewable power generation[26],[27] and limit demand response. 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.[28],[29],[30],[31]

Today the energy sector is driven more by improvements in technology and shrinking costs than improvements in resource extraction. Consequently, economic growth is no longer dependent on fossil fuel production. The shift has only begun to ripple across the globe, though we are feeling its direct effects here in Alaska. If we remain bound to the older model of extraction, we will miss being part of the emerging economic development paradigm.  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.

Incentives for growth

The clear message of the Paris agreement is that the age of fossil fuels is drawing to a close. 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.[32] It's important to take into account these current and future changes to tax and energy policy when considering what our future energy infrastructure should look like.

The research and technical experience in putting a renewable energy plan into practice could expand our growing role in the $20 billion global industry in next generation clean technology as other regions of the globe move in the same direction. Recognizing this potential for their own country, Iceland built a knowledge export economy around geothermal resources.[33] To date, 144 countries currently have renewable energy policy targets.[34]  With no sign of this trend slowing,[35] Iceland made a wise investment. 

Even without a mandatory goal or policy incentives, renewables are expanding in Alaska.[36] In 2014, we produced 28% of our electricity with water, wind, and other renewable energy sources.[37] Between 2007 and 2014 we saw a 20-fold increase in wind power generation.[38] Through the vision of its residents and collaboration with industry leaders, Kodiak residents saved millions in annual fuel costs and lowered ratepayer electric bills when they reached 99.7% renewable power generation. Residents are now beginning to switch from oil to electric heat pumps to heat their homes.[39],[40] In Kotzebue, wind power is already providing 20% of average electricity demand, saving the community $900,000 in 2014 alone.[41] There are many more examples besides these.

According to the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, more than 70 of Alaska’s 200 microgrids have integrated renewable power into the mix,[42] and there's plenty of room left to grow. In their recent Alaska Dispatch News commentary, Meera Kohler and Gwen Holdmann pointed out that Alaska has "the highest per capita investment in renewable energy technology of any state."[43] 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 is obvious, whether we have a roadmap or not, this is the direction Alaska is moving. But without a plan the process of transformation will take longer and be less efficient.


As Alaska reels from climate change and collapse of the oil markets, now is the time to embrace a 100% renewable energy goal. By make a binding commitment we guarantee a renewable future for Alaska and Alaskans that demands a comprehensive and detailed roadmap. Our economy has nothing to lose from a big push in the growth of renewable energy. Our world-class fishing and forest products industries and rural communities are struggling to understand and keep up with rapidly escalating impacts from climate change,[44],[45],[46],[47] effects caused directly by greenhouse gas emissions entering our oceans and atmosphere. Alaska's mining industry will continue to be needed to supply the raw materials to build a clean energy economy, whenever recovering these from our waste stream is not possible.[48] A renewable plan for Alaska, by itself, would represent no threat to our oil and gas export industry, as the market for that resource is predominately influenced by factors beyond our control. Even Norway, which generates 98% of its electricity from renewables, remains one of the world's largest oil exporters.

To fit real numbers to a plan, to identify efficiency potentials, prime renewable energy development and growth potential, and best practice policies and financial incentives, we need to gather state energy specialists, our utilities, and national organizations and experts like Bill Powers and Mark Jacobson together. All Alaskans should be a part of a state level dialogue about our energy future so we can discuss options, get community input, share ideas and benefit from our shared experience. It's good for the environment, good for the economy, and provides Alaskans energy free from the boom and bust cycle of the oil economy.

Eric is a climate activist in Fairbanks, AK
Ceal founded the Alaska Climate & Energy Project. She lives in Eagle River, AK


[1] Geiling, Natasha. (21 Jan 2016) What Will It Take For America To Go 100 Percent Renewable? Climate Progress.

[2] Leidreiter, Anna. (4 Nov 2015) A global shift to 100% renewables is not just cleaner – it's about equality. The Guardian.

[3] City of Vancouver. (Nov 2015) Renewable City Strategy.

[4] Marsik, Tom. (7 Jan 2016) Energy literacy yields extraordinary financial returns while helping the planet. Alaska Dispatch News.

[5] Mitigation Advisory Group. (Aug 2009) Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Forecast and Policy Recommendations Addressing Greenhouse Gas Reduction in Alaska. Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet.

[6] Alaska, 26th Legislature (2009-2010). SB 220: "An Act relating to energy efficiency, energy conservation, and alternative energy..."

[7] Alaska, 26th Legislature (2009-2010). HB 306: "An Act declaring a state energy policy."

[8] Forgey, Pat. (18 Jan 2009) Palin releases energy 'plan.' Juneau Empire.

[9] Alaska Energy Authority. (2009) Alaska Energy: A step toward energy independence.

[10] Mark Z. Jacobson et al. (2015) 100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States. Energy and Environmental Science.

[11] Mark Z. Jacobson et al. (2015) Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[12] Sawin, Janet et al. (2015) Renewables 2015 Global Status Report - Key Findings. REN21.

[13] Whitney, Erin (27 Sept 2015)  Returning Home to Alaska: Seeing Energy in a New Light. 2015 Arctic Energy Summit.

[14] DeMarban, Alex. (22 Dec 2015) Copper Valley region expects to rely fully on renewable energy in summer. Alaska Dispatch News.

[15] Mondelli, Pete. (21 Sept 2015) Community Solar Project. GVEA Board Meeting Materials p.73-86

[16] Milkowski, Stefan. (19 Nov 2015) Smart solar for GVEA. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

[17] Powers, Bill. (April 2011) Bay Area Smart Energy 2020. Powers Engineering.

[18] YLE News. (9 Jun 2015) Researchers: All Finnish energy could be renewable in 35 years.

[19] Child, Michael, Teresa Haukkala, and Christian Breyer. (17 Sept 2015) The Role of Solar PV in the Long-term Sustainability of the Finnish Energy System. Lappeenranta University of Technology.


[21] Bogdanov, Dmitrii and Christian Breyer. (12 Nov 2015) Eurasian Super Grid for 100% Renewable Energy power supply: Generation and storage technologies in the cost optimal mix. Proceedings of the ISES Solar World Congress.

[22] Alaska Energy Authority and Renewable Energy Alaska Project. (2013) Renewable Energy Atlas of Alaska.

[23] Troll, Kate. (22 Jan 2009) My Turn: Defining Alaska as a clean energy state. Juneau Empire.

[24] Clark, Chris. (2015) Explainer: Base Load and Peaking Power. REwire.  KCET.

[25] Holdmann, Gwen. (Jun 2013) Small-Scale High Voltage Direct Current Transmission. Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

[26] IPCC. (2011) IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.

[27] Scheer, Hermann and Amy Goodman. (15 Oct 2010) Hermann Scheer (1944-2010): German Lawmaker, Leading Advocate for Solar Energy and "Hero for the Green Century" in One of His Final Interviews. Democracy Now.

[28] Alaska, 28th Legislature (2013-2014). HB 340: "RCA: Railbelt Electric Utility Report."

[29] Carr, Polly. (20 Aug 2015) Alaska has both reason and resources to lead the way to clean power. Alaska Dispatch News.

[30] Grove, Casey. (24 Nov 2015) Independent power producers declare victory after regulations update. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

[31] Waldholz, Rachel. (28 Jan 2016) Railbelt utility overhaul could mean more renewables, cheaper power. Alaska Public Radio Network.

[32] Shalev, Asaf. (8 Sept 2015) Rural Alaskans could see boost from carbon cutting program, study says. Alaska Dispatch News.

[33] Ellis, Tim. (24 Jul 2015) Fulbright Arctic Initiative: Circumpolar Scholars Studying Region’s Problems. KUAC, Fairbanks.

[34] Sawin, Janet et al. (2015) Renewables 2015 Global Status Report - Key Findings. REN21.

[35] International Energy Agency. (10 Nov 2015) World Energy Outlook 2015.

[36] Vice Adm. McGinn, Dennis. (3 Oct 2009) Alaska is set to lead in renewable energy. Alaska Dispatch News.

[37] Energy Information Administration. (Feb 2015) Electric Power Monthly, February 2015. U.S. Department of Energy.

[38] Energy Information Administration. (1 Sept 2015) Alaska increases wind power capacity in utility-scale and distributed-scale projects. U.S. Department of Energy.

[39] Guevara- Stone, Laurie. (19 May 2015) An Alaskan Island Goes 100% Renewable. Rocky Mountain Institute.

[40] Bunker, Kaitlyn, Kate Hawley, and Jesse Morris. (Nov 2015) Renewable Microgrids: Profiles from Isalnds and Remote Communities across the Globe. Rocky Mountain Institute.

[41] Hobson, Margaret Kriz. (20 Oct 2015) A renewable energy success story above the Arctic Circle. EnergyWire, E&E Publishing.

[42] Alaska Center for Energy and Power. (Oct 2014) Global Applications Program [Brochure].

[43] Kohler, Meera and Gwen Holdmann. (24 Aug 2015) Rural Alaska's arctic development depends on sure, affordable energy. Alaska Dispatch News.

[44] Loring, Philip et al. (19 Dec 2015) “Community Work” in a Climate of Adaptation: Responding to Change in Rural Alaska. Human Ecology.

[45] Furgal, Chris et al. (13-15 Feb 2008) Climate Change & Impacts on Human Health in the Arctic. An International Workshop on Emerging Threats and Response of Arctic Communities to Climate Change.

[46] Alaska, State. (14 Sept 2007) Administrative Order 238 Establishing the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet.

[47] Adaptation Advisory Group  (27 Jan 2009) Alaska’s Climate Change Strategy: Addressing Impacts in Alaska, Executive Summary. Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet.

[48] Research Needs Work Group. (Jun 2009) Recommendations on Research Needs Necessary to Implement an Alaska Climate Change Strategy. Alaska Climate Change Sub‐Cabinet.

[49] This map was created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy (Used by permission).


  1. We MUST get on with this program!!!

  2. Glad you agree Amy. Let us know if you would like to help!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. (sorry to clutter the comments by revising my post!)
    Many important points here, and grateful for this work! Though I have some questions about the broader objectives of this approach. To suggest 100% Clean Energy as a central political goal for an Alaskan climate movement brings big questions to my mind– what values should guide our work? What is our vision for a sustainable Alaskan economy?

    One point that stuck out to me:
    "Alaska's mining industry will continue to be needed to supply the raw materials to build a clean energy economy, whenever recovering these from our waste stream is not possible. A renewable plan for Alaska, by itself, would represent no threat to our oil and gas export industry, as the market for that resource is predominately influenced by factors beyond our control. Even Norway, which generates 98% of its electricity from renewables, remains one of the world's largest oil exporters."

    From the perspective of climate justice and environmental justice, this is really crucial. I would argue that our most pertinent opportunity in assisting the global climate fight is to ensure that the massive reserves of oil, gas, and coal in Alaska and the Arctic are not extracted. 100% renewable energy in Alaska will not keep these carbon reserves underground and would only offset the relatively small carbon emissions we are directly responsible for. An environmental justice perspective would compel us to similarly reject exploitative mineral mining projects that threaten indigenous lands. To rally exclusively around renewable energy as a movement goal seems to omit these aspects.

    In my mind, a holistic view of the political economy of climate justice seems to say that Alaska's primary climate problem is dependence on this corporate-driven fossil fuel extraction economy. Though expansion of community-controlled clean energy can be a key part of building a different economy, 100% renewable will not do that work alone– which you have already acknowledged. With this in mind, I hesitate in thinking that we should center 100% clean energy production as our primary movement goal, at least not isolated from a larger program. Shouldn't more emphasis be around the idea of a "just transition" to a different economy, especially paired with a left approach to economy building– cooperatives, localized sustainable agriculture, energy democracy, investment in social services, etc.?

    Curious to hear your thoughts on these points– and I definitely don’t mean to diminish the importance of setting a goal like this! Appreciative of your work!

    1. You are right, renewable energy is only one component of a sustainable plan that is itself subsidiary to the goal of reducing GHG emissions and other drivers of climate change in a socially equitable manner. Toward that end, this article is intended to address an opinion you may have heard before: "Alaskan's cannot realistically live without fossil fuels, so why try?"

  6. Gabriel Rayne Tegoseak, repp'in my native ancestors and future generations.
    Anchorage AK 99504 &
    Utqiaġvik AK 99723.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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