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Bradner: Small alternative-energy projects hold hope for villages

Tim Bradner

Last week was energy week in Anchorage. There were two important conferences back to back. The first was the Alaska Energy Authority's annual Rural Energy Conference.

If one hadn't had enough of wind and wave power, hydro, biomass, diesel efficiency and waste heat recovery, the "Business of Renewable Energy" meeting followed. It was sponsored by Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or REAP, a coalition of groups, including utilities, working on renewable energy.

For gadget and technology buffs, cruising the two trade shows was sheer bliss. And I was struck by a sense of inspiration and even hope -- in these meetings there might actually be solutions for small rural communities hit hard by diesel and heating oil costing up to $8 and $10 a gallon.

I sensed we're at a takeoff point too for the practical application of a lot of smaller renewable and alternative-energy technologies.

On a larger scale, and here in Anchorage, Cook Inlet Region's wind turbines -- now spinning on Fire Island -- make renewable energy real. A quarter of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson's electricity is generated from methane gas emitted from Anchorage's landfill.

In rural Alaska, there is a wide variety of small alternative-energy projects operating or being built. We can thank the state's Renewable Energy Fund for that.

The REF jump-starts projects with locally matched grants. There's nothing else in the nation quite like it. What's different is that this program focuses on small communities. Most alternative-energy programs elsewhere have to serve larger communities to achieve economies of scale. The contribution of state funds at an early, critical stage helps ease the problems of scale.

Rural power developers are overcoming other challenges too. One is the integration of wind power, which is variable, into small community power systems that are usually diesel. Diesel and wind can work together because engines can be fired up quickly when winds die, but it isn't efficient. Done improperly, wind can destabilize a small local electric system.

That can be avoided by storing electricity generated with wind and feeding it into the system more gradually. Batteries can do this, but they're expensive. Another way is to use wind power to heat water, which can be used to make power and heat buildings. People in rural communities are pretty innovative in solving these problems. They have to be.

My favorite is biomass, because I like wood stoves. Wood energy is a well known concept, but rural Alaskans are being inventive in using it.

For example, on the Yukon River in Interior Alaska, huge numbers of trees fall into the river from eroding banks and float downstream toward the Bering Sea. At Tanana, about midway along the big river, people have created a cottage industry of capturing drift logs and cutting them up to heat community buildings and homes. This saves fuel oil and creates local jobs.

In Juneau, Sealaska Corp. heats its corporate office building with wood pellets, as a demonstration that wood can work for large buildings.

What I really like about the Rural Energy Fund, however, is that it is bottom-up, not top-down. Local communities, not state bureaucrats, devise and promote projects in a competition for about $25 million a year in grants.

Proposals must demonstrate savings over fuel oil. The AEA recommends its picks to the Legislature and the governor, who must approve the list. To their credit, legislators have resisted choosing politically favored projects.

Tim Bradner writes on business and economics topics for Alaska publications. From 1970 to 1984, he worked for BP, a major North Slope oil company. Some of that time was spent as a lobbyist for the company in Juneau.


Tim Bradner
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