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Alaska's New Energy Future Roadmap
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.
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 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.
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, an announcement that accompanied the release of a new document from the Alaska Energy Authority titled "Alaska Energy: A first step toward energy independence."
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.
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.
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.
Since Alaska has a solar resource comparable to Germany (Fig. 1), currently the fifth largest producer of solar energy in the world,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."
As prices for PV panels drop, solar energy generation has grown considerably across the state, from the Northwest Arctic Borough to Copper Valley.
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.
Similarities between Finland and Russia and the climate and geography of Alaska are apparent.
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." 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.
 Combined with wind, solar, energy storage, greater efficiency, improved high-voltage direct current (HVDC) technology, 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, 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.[
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 This map was created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy (Used by permission).
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