Gas shortage could leave Anchorage in the dark

On a warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan broke the bad news to residents of Alaska's largest city: They better be prepared to shiver in dimly lit houses this winter if they want to avoid freezing to death in dark ones.

Hopefully, he added, it won't come to this. Hopefully, in these days of global warming, Anchorage will see another mild winter to ease it through its growing winter energy crisis.

If not, look out. Not just here, but around the state.

If Anchorage gets cold this winter, Fairbanks residents will be the first to pay. Comparatively cheap power sent north on the Railbelt Intertie will be eliminated to conserve energy for Alaska's largest city.

Still, a cost increase for power is minor compared to what could happen in Anchorage if temperatures stay subzero for days or weeks. Residents of the state's largest city could then find themselves faced with rolling power outages and demands from city officials to turn thermostats down to 60 degrees and use the lights as little as possible.

It will all be to try to prevent the city from running completely out of gas. Dim and chilly, city and utility officials have decided, is preferable to cold and dark.

"I don't want half the population of Alaska to not have heat and lights,'' Sullivan said.


He is hopeful that no drastic measures will be required.

Noting the mild weather blessing his city on a sunny fall afternoon, he told reporters there is no crisis at the moment. A mild, global-warming-blessed winter could spare Anchorage from its growing energy problem, he noted, and even leave some cheap electricity to ship north to Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks.

If winter brings severe cold, however, things could get ugly. Prolonged cold snaps the past two winters have pushed Anchorage close to a systematic failure of the gas transportation system, although the risks in the past have always been downplayed. No more. Sullivan confessed Anchorage is approaching a crisis because of declining Cook Inlet gas fields and a lack of natural gas storage.

Gas supplies are critical because nearly all homes in Anchorage are heated with gas, and about 90 percent of the electricity used by city residents comes from gas-powered turbines.

Cold weather -- particularly in the dark months of November, December, January and February -- significantly ups the demand for gas. ENSTAR natural gas flows into heating systems at 12 times the summer volume. Twice in the last two years, gas supplies have slipped perilously low as days of high gas demand like this drew down the pressure on gaslines feeding Alaska.

As the pressure drops, those gas lines move less gas, creating a downward spiral toward a gas outage. The plan the mayor hammered out with ENSTAR, Chugach Electric and other gas users calls for possibly radical steps to keep gas moving through the line. These would include:

-- Cutting off power to Seward along with Fairbanks. Seward has diesel generator back up and can spin its own turbines, albeit at higher cots.

-- Diverting gas from a liquified natural gas plant on the Kenai back into the pipelines that feed Anchorage from there. The plant itself is vital to maintaining the natural gas system because it is main user of natural gas in the summer. Without that summer demand, some gas producers might decide to close gas well, further limiting already limited gas supplies for Anchorage in the winter.

-- Shutting the flow of gas to the old Anchorage utility, Municipal Light & Power. Like Seward, it has backup generators fueled by diesel that can supply energy to its customer. The cost would be more, but rate structures allow for those costs to be shared among all gas and electric users in the Anchorage area in a crisis.

-- Turning city lighting down or off.

-- Bringing in portable diesel generators to produce power.

-- Asking Anchorage residents to comply with increasingly onerous conservation measures.

The latter won't happen, however, unless it appears supply problems can't be overcome by shifting gas use among the major gas consumers -- ENSTAR, Chugach, ML&P, Matanuska Electric Association and Homer Electric Association. Weather largely dictates who needs how much gas and when for producing heat and power. If demand is low in one area, surplus gas can be shifted where gas is high.

But that doesn't work if demand is high everywhere.

If that happens, Sullivan said, local officials are hopeful they can cut Anchorage consumption by up to 30 percent with voluntary conservation.

Under a yellow "caution" scenario, Anchorage residents would be asked to turn the heat in their homes down to 65 degrees, reduce garage heaters to 40 degrees, lower their water heater settings to warm, minimize the use of natural gas ranges, postpone doing laundry and dishes until gas supplies increase, and turn off lights and electronics.

If gas supplies went so low as to trigger a red "alert" scenario, people would be asked to turn thermostats all the way down to 60 degrees in living areas, put their water heaters in pilot mode, turn off natural gas fireplaces and gas grills, move into as few rooms of their house as possible and keep the unoccupied rooms cold, and do all cooking in their microwaves.


A test of this idea is set for the period from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 21 when Anchorage residents will be asked to dim their lights and turn down their thermostats.

Hopefully, Sullivan said, that won't be required for real come winter. Hopefully, Anchorage will see a mild winter and no conservation measures will be needed. But even if the city gets through this year with few or minimal problems, it faces a bleak future on the energy front. Gas supplies are continuing to steadily decline, and there are no sources of cheap energy readily available.

Contact Craig Medred at

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.