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Alaska has both reason and resources to lead the way to clean power

  • Author: Polly Carr
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 20, 2015

Any interest in saving money, improving Alaska's economy and addressing one of the biggest threats to our state, all at the same time? If we step up as Alaskans, we can do it all.

The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan was designed to strengthen the trend toward fast-growing clean energy and curb the pollution that is driving unprecedented climate change. In the final rules released last week, the compliance of power generation facilities in Alaska was deferred until an unspecified later date. While some politicians have applauded this decision, the exclusion of Alaska is a lost opportunity.

Falling oil prices and the state fiscal crisis should be cause enough for Alaskans to start thinking seriously about how to create a sustainable energy future. Like the fiscal cliff, climate change is at a point of no return in Alaska -- we cannot "undo" the impacts severe weather, increasing ocean temperatures and warming permafrost are already having on our community infrastructure, public health, fisheries, food security and way of life. And, like the financial crisis we now find ourselves in, we cannot work our way out of climate change using the previous thinking and approaches of a past era; the time for innovation, and aspiration, is now.

The solutions are within reach. Alaska has huge clean energy potential to power its future. Our renewable energy resources represent an opportunity to stabilize energy costs and increase local energy production and revenue generation. Geothermal, wind, biomass and sustainable hydroelectric resources abound in our state, and we have only begun to tap the possibilities. For example, the Kodiak Electric Association switched from diesel generation of electricity to 100 percent wind and hydro generation over a 10-year period that has eliminated a $7 million per year diesel bill, while reducing the island's carbon footprint. This year, an expansion of the Blue Lake hydro facility in Sitka increased electrical production by 50 percent. Utilities across the state have taken advantage of the state's Renewable Energy Fund and incorporated renewables into their energy mix, displacing millions of gallons of diesel annually.

If Alaska takes the renewable energy bull by the horns, job creation in construction, maintenance and operation of wind, hydro, geothermal, run of the river, and tidal energy projects could present a major and timely opportunity. As the state fiscal crisis transitions us into lean years for our capital budgets, less publicly funded construction will occur statewide. New sources of long-term, steady paycheck jobs in renewable energy will benefit the Alaska workforce.

In addition to tapping our renewable energy potential, we can become more energy efficient and save money throughout the state. Through both lighting and heating upgrades alone, a conservative estimate of the state's potential annual energy savings is 20 percent or $128 million per year.

Right now, we have the opportunity to bring utilities together to increase efficiency and bring more renewable energy online in the Railbelt. An Independent System Operator organization to manage transmission has recently been recommended by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska and is the subject of two bills in the Alaska Legislature: House Bill 187 and Senate Bill 105. An ISO would ensure a more efficient dispatch of energy on the grid, save fuel, and save money for consumers while reducing emissions. It would also set one universal transmission tariff, removing a significant barrier to renewable energy development by providing certainty and predictability to all energy developers in the Railbelt.

Interestingly, if Alaska had already implemented some of these ideas, we could be on track to satisfy, and possibly surpass, Clean Power Plan emission reduction mandates.

Our governor has said "Alaska is ground zero for climate change." We need action to back up that recognition, action that is framed by an aspirational vision for our future. This vision, like our vision for the economic future of Alaska, needs to reflect our values. Do we want strong local economies where energy is generated sustainably? Do we want a skilled workforce that can bring more of these innovative energy projects online for years to come? Do we want to be an inspirational model for energy efficiency in the Arctic and nationwide?

As world leaders descend upon our state at the end of the month, all eyes will be on Alaska and what we are, or are not, doing to address the effects of a rapidly changing climate on our health, cultures, fisheries and communities. We can sit idle and continue to be the poster child for international climate change impacts, or we can seize this unprecedented moment and demonstrate leadership for a clean energy future.

Polly Carr is executive director of the Alaska Center for the Environment.

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(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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