Let’s make Alaska home of the next big idea

During the next few days, the University of Alaska will host a unique event that brings dozens of the world's best and brightest scientists to Fairbanks. Known as National Lab Day, this forum will provide an incredible opportunity for Alaskans to form new partnerships with the individuals who run our nation's premier research institutions.

If national parks were America's best idea, National Labs were our smartest. From their founding more than 70 years ago, the laboratories now affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have been engines of remarkable scientific achievement. Breakthroughs in renewable energy, the worldwide web, satellite technologies, and safe drinking water are just a few of the many innovations to emerge from the likes of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge, and Sandia over the years.

Today, the highly educated scientists at DOE's 17 National Laboratories located across the country are searching for solutions to our most complex energy and environmental challenges. Once a year, the leaders of these labs hit the road together to discuss their work and find new collaborators. This year, Alaska is the lucky beneficiary. And in many ways, it's a perfect match.

Alaska can be a significant asset to the labs, particularly in light of the state's nearly unlimited resource potential. The methane hydrates beneath the North Slope could be the next shale gas. Advanced micro-reactors could provide cheap, reliable power to remote villages and military bases. Countless rivers, lakes, and miles of coastline make Alaska a perfect test site for hydropower and marine hydrokinetic projects. The state is also home to a vast mineral base that can be responsibly developed to provide raw materials needed for those technologies and more.

The National Labs will find willing and creative partners all across Alaska. Over 200 remote communities and villages rely on diesel generators for local power and heating, but high fuel costs eat up household budgets and depress local economies. Alaskans also face receding sea ice, melting permafrost, and other environmental changes that threaten both ways of life and critical infrastructure. These challenges are driving real-world innovation, whether through energy storage, wind, hydropower, biomass, or non-traditional renewables on the microgrid scale. Working with the labs will kick these efforts into overdrive, and help Alaskans commercialize innovative technologies that can be used here and around the world.

To learn more about those challenges and opportunities, earlier this month we traveled together in Alaska. The resourcefulness and ingenuity of Alaskans was clear to see, from the oil pumps at Prudhoe Bay to the energy flywheel in Kodiak. What's more, we saw that by working together, we can create a brighter future for all Alaskans, and all Americans.

While there are no National Laboratories in Alaska, the state itself is a living laboratory. That's evidenced by the more than 70 communities that are integrating renewables into their power generation. Alaska's hybrid systems now comprise about 12 percent of the world's renewable-powered microgrids. The Department of Energy last year recognized the state as a global leader, awarding a large grant to a consortium that includes Cordova to continue this pioneering work.


The seeds of lasting partnership are already in place. The University of Alaska Fairbanks received a grant last year through the ARPA-E program to study how sugar kelp farms could produce biomass and biofuels. UAF has also forged ahead on unmanned aerial vehicles through its Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, which holds great promise for monitoring pipelines and wildlife in the harsh Arctic environment.

National Lab Day is an opportunity to further those partnerships, while building new ones that will bring additional benefits to Alaska long into the future. The conference begins tonight with two public events on the UAF campus—a walking tour of 11 scientific research facilities, followed by a series of TED-style talks on energy and related challenges.

The event continues tomorrow and Thursday at UAF's Engineering Learning and Innovation Facility with plenary sessions focused on the basics of National Labs and what it takes for collaboration to succeed. And it wraps up on Thursday, with panel discussions on everything from natural hazards to our changing Arctic.

If you go, you're guaranteed to meet some brilliant people. You'll learn that Alaska is a living laboratory. That it is the best place in the world to prove a concept. And, thanks to events like this one, it may very well be home to the next big idea.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski serves as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Rick Perry is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.

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