Alaska is an “oil” state with its near-term future tied to production of fossil fuels. But change is in the wind as nations deal with climate change.

There is now an accelerated push into renewable energy and less carbon-intensive fuels.

How is Alaska faring in this transition? Actually, Alaskans have been at this for a long time.

Over a century ago mining companies tapped hydro power to energize mines, and some of the projects, such as one operated by Alaska Light & Power in Juneu, are still in operation.

In recent decades periodic oil price spikes threated the viability of many Alaska communities and industries. Alaskans used their income from a nonrenewabe resorce – oil – to build hydro and other renewable energy projects in coastal and rural communities.

State assistance with money from petroleum has helped communities develop renewable energy projects, mainly hydro and wind, to reduce their dependence on oil.

About 28 percent of the state’s electricity now comes from renewable energy like hydro, wind and a small amount of solar, said Curtis Thayer, executive director of the Alaska Energy Authority, or AEA.

The State of Alaska alone has invested over $1 billion in renewable energy project in the last decade, Thayer said. When the required co=investments by partners in the projects, typically local municipalities, are added in, the total is likely $2 billion or more.

Gradually the state is slowly working toward an informal goal of getting 50 percent of its power from renewable energy, Thayer said. Some communities with access to hydro and wind are now 80 percent or more renewable.

Fossil fuels are stil important, though. The “railbelt” communities of Southcentral and Interior Alaska, and rural areas, still get most of their electricity snd energy for heating from fossil fuels. That’s mostly from natural gas but also, in Interior Alaska, from coal and to some extent fuel oil.

However, if the long-proposed large Susitna hydro project was built a good portion of the railbelt demand could be met with renewable energy and the entire state would be at 55 percent, according to Thayer.

A lot of work has been done on the Susitna and about $100 million is still needed to complete studies on the project required for licensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Thayer said. Work on the licensing was halted several years ago due to state budget problems, however.

Meanwhile, another expansion at the state-owned Bradley Lake hydro project near Homer is being considered by the AEA,which owns the facility. The state invested $300 million to build Bradley Lake 30 years ago to provide power to Southcentral and Interior “railbelt” utilities.

Over the years the railbelt utilities, which purchase the power, have repaid the state’ investment and payments now go to fund to improve regional power infrastructure including transmission lines that deliver the power from Bradley Lake to the utilities.

If the expansion is feasible it would follow one completed two years ago. Enough information will be available as to whether it is feasible, Thayer said.

Two options for the project are being considered at costs that could range from $190 million to $450 million, he said. One of the options would involve raising the dam at the project and installing a third generator.

Meanwhile, on a smaller scale there will soon more money soon available for a new round of small project grants under the state’s Renewable Energy Fund, or REF, established by the state Legislature in 2008. Over the years there have been $275 million in grants to projects.

There have been 99 projects are built and now operating with the grants, collectively saving an estimated 30 million gallons of diesel each year. Twenty-seven new projects are in development, and AEA is currently soliciting for a new round of REF project solicitations.

Meanwhile, there is private investment now flowing into Alaska renewable energy projects. A new 20 Megawatt solar project, to be the state’s largest. is in development on the Kenai Peninsula. The location was not disclosed.

Thayer said the AEA’s power project loan fund is available to help in financing this project at attractive terms. The energy authority helped in financing a smaller solar project near Willow built by the same developers.

Alaska renewable energy projects build or planned over the years include:

• Banner Peak wind project (Nome) – 2.8 MW

• Blue Lake hydro expansion (Sitka) – 16.9 MW

• Bradley Lake hydro project (Homer) – 120 MW

• Delta area wind project (Delta Junction) – 1.9 MW

• Eva Creek wind project (Healy) – 24.6 MW

• Fire Island wind project (Anchorage) – 17.6 MW

• Golden Valley Electric Association solar (Fairbanks)

• 563 kW Hiilangaay hydro project (Prince of Wales Island) – 5 MW

• Kaltag Solar project (Kaltag) – 9.6 kW

• Pillar Mountain wind project (Kodiak) – 9 MW

• Renewable Energy Fund (Statewide, small community projects)

• Terror Lake hydro project (Kodiak) – 33 MW

• Whitman Lake hydro projet (Ketchikan) – 4.6 MW

• Willow Solar project (Willow) – 1.2 MW

Hydroelectric

• Susitna-Watana hydro project (Talkeetna) – 600 MW

• Dixon diversion project (Homer) – 180 MW

• Grant Lake hydro project (Homer) – 5 MW

• Bradley Lake hydro expansion (Homer)

• Sweetheart Lake hydro project (Juneau) – 19.8 MW

• Thayer Creek hydro project (Angoon) – 850 kW

• Indian River hydro project (Tenakee Springs) – 180 kW

• Knutson Creek hydro project (Pedro Bay) – 150 kW

• Elfin Cove/Crooked Creek hydro oroject (Elfin Cove) – 105 kW

• King Cove hydro, two projects

Biomass

• Biomass district energy system (Haines)

• Biomass system (Kake)

• Wood chip heating, biomass (Craig)

• Cordwood heating (Klawock)

• Woodchip heating (Northway)

• Pellet heating (Ketchikan)

Solar

• Mat-Su solar expansion (Houston)

• Solar project (Kenai Peninsula) – 20 MW

Wind and storage opportunities

• Wind-diesel project (Dutch Harbor and Unalaska) – 2 MW

• Wind and solar with electric thermal storage (Kwethluk) – 100 kW/500 kW

• Wind project expansion (Kotzebue) – 900 kW

• Wind expansion (Stebbins and St. Michael) – 900 kW

• Wind turbines (Igiugig) – 25 kW

• Wind turbine upgrades (Kongiganak, Kwigillingok, and Tuntutuliak)

• Wind to heat (Nome)

• Battery energy storage (Chefornak, Kipnuk, and Pilot Point)

Source: Alaska Energy Authority

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