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Alaska's energy systems still need a plan, no matter how they're powered

  • Author: Robert Seitz
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published February 26, 2016

My Jan. 2 commentary, about the need for long-term energy storage and a long-term energy plan if we are to succeed with "clean energy," resulted in some response and some direct conversations with various individuals. Through the responses I confirmed my basic premise: Each of the stakeholders generally only sees part of the energy system problems, which are those of immediate interest. There are, however, many parts to the energy problem, which must all be considered when working out the solutions.

As I pointed out before, we need to develop a long-term energy policy to make sure all the right things are done before we turn off the flow of hydrocarbon fuels. We also need to identify the types of energy storage necessary for each Alaska community and what that means for electrical utilities, then find ways to create incentives for people to work to develop the systems. New battery technologies are in the works. Super capacitors are a new technology that has great promise. What technologies will we have for long-term storage of two- to six-month duration?

No matter how urgent the issue, a government mandate without a proper plan, worked out by the stakeholders and people technically qualified, will fail.

Alaska is recognized for its success with microgrids in remote communities (ADN, Feb. 16), and there will be an increased focus on the development of microgrids for these remote communities. In all this effort there still needs to be effort given to identifying what energy storage method is necessary for each community and including it in the long-term energy plan for that community.

There is an effort to request the Legislature to encourage the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to direct Alaska's Railbelt electrical utilities to form a Unified System Operator (USO) to manage the grid on a regional basis. Even if the USO is the right way to manage the Railbelt electrical utilities, maybe there needs to be a study to determine if the utilities really can be operated in the manner intended.

A study could turn up information that shows the utilities require substantial alteration and upgrade before such operation can be accomplished. The question is, which organization should pay for this management change?

In my opinion, communications probably need to be upgraded as well, to have fiber-optic communications over the entire length of the system of interest. The hydroelectric plants that feed the Railbelt electrical system should be sufficiently upgraded to ensure they can respond fast enough to stabilize the system as the energy produced by the wind farms at Fire Island, Eva Creek and Delta Junction varies. Let's have a plan rather than a government mandate.

I am all for development of all the renewable energy sources that can be properly applied, but the systems to which they are interconnected must be properly configured to allow interconnection and be sustainable while remaining affordable to the rate payers. I am against government mandate and taxation to force the citizenry to cut off the flow of hydrocarbon fuels and be 100 percent reliant on renewable energy. This just results in bloated government projects that are not well managed or properly directed. There are ways to encourage such a move and let the marketplace determine when the time is right to make the switch.

The Long Term Energy Plan needs to state the goals and incentives for moving toward those goals. With a proper plan, the independent power producers can proceed with their plans to develop more energy production with assurance there will be a place to connect it to, and remote villages can make plans for local improvements because they know there will be electrical energy in the future.

An engineering workshop might be a good opportunity to air the issues and find ways to spur development of the various long-term energy storage means and mechanisms needed around Alaska, as well as the evaluation of the Railbelt electrical system, and other power system issues that stand in the way of transition to 100 percent renewable electrical energy.

Either way, there needs to be a plan or we are at risk of having no hydrocarbon fuel to produce electricity and only having electric power when the sun shines or the wind blows. We need a plan that allows the free market to find our path from hydrocarbon to whatever the future will provide.

Robert L. Seitz, PE, is past chair of Alaska Section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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