Opinions

Alaska can rise to the clean-energy challenge

Early in my career as a power-lineman, I never imagined I’d ever be talking about climate change, and I certainly never thought those words would have anything to do with a career that involved climbing gear, heavy equipment, tools and hard hats.

When I spoke on a panel recently about Alaska’s need for clean energy jobs, it was not as an activist or policy wonk but as a business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, with the goal of making sure policymakers know our workforce is trained and ready — and the time to get projects in Alaska is now.

Believe me, I have heard a lot of talk, even from some of my own union brothers and sisters, that the new presidential administration will kill off energy projects and jobs in Alaska. From what I can see, this administration seeks to fund new kinds of energy jobs in Alaska that will reduce old-fashioned carbon emissions and still put more people to work.

We have kept up with adapting to the changing needs of energy production and distribution, and we have a workforce that is prepared. And none too soon.

IBEW Local 1547 is a statewide union here in Alaska. We are the workers who see the effects of radical changes in climate when called out in unprecedented storms to restore power, to fix communication lines, to deal with seismic and activity due to permafrost melt and to piece together aging facilities. From devastating floods and erosion across the state to recent landslides in Haines, we see the human toll and high cost of damage from climate change.

Our organization has advocated for energy jobs, yes. But we must look forward past our old way of thinking and not only promote energy sources that have been used for over 100 years but advocate for modern sustainable infrastructure that will ensure a clean energy future too. The world is moving quickly in this direction, and if we don’t adapt, we will be left behind.T

his does not mean we move away from abundant resources we have in Alaska, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), which could help some of Alaska’s largest communities like Fairbanks end their struggling air quality standards and move away from coal, diesel and wood. The major air quality and safety concerns for these residents also threatens military bases in the area. Our national defense could be immediately addressed with the phased approach LNG pipeline from the north-slope that Alaska’s governors have worked on for decades, while also putting thousands of residents to work under a project labor agreement (PLA).

The federal administration is now talking about a plan that includes a $2 trillion investment over the next four years. Let’s get as much of that money directed to Alaska as we can so we address long time infrastructure and maintenance needs and prepare for post-pandemic business and tourism growth.

There are projects our state needs to address immediately, such as finally fixing the Port of Alaska, which supplies 70% of goods to our state; building out our telecommunication infrastructure statewide, so all residents have access to high-speed internet and telemedicine; expanding our electrical transmission and distribution power grid systems using renewables wherever possible for access to affordable power and redundancy; and ensuring proper water and sewer systems, so all communities and Alaskans will have connections to clean drinking water in homes and modern grey and wastewater systems. We also must build and upgrade airport runways and lighting, boat harbors, shipping and cargo docks, highways and bridges, street and traffic lights, railroad signals and communications, dam repair and flood control and more.

We have all heard the ambitious goal to achieve a mostly carbon pollution-free power sector in the U.S. by 2035 and create millions of jobs. Alaska already has a goal of generating 50% renewable power by 2025. While these numbers look impossible, I am starting to feel positive.

Why do I say this? Because already, over 30% power generated in Alaska is produced by renewables and we have more renewable projects ready to be built that are shovel ready, like the addition of new hydropower in Southeast that could add close to 20 megawatts of hydropower to the electrical grid.

We have now seen many major companies begin to overhaul their business models to include major investments in renewable energy generation, electric vehicle charging points, bioenergy, hydrogen and carbon capture and an overall goal of net-zero emissions and low carbon investment. If that is the future, it is the one we want for Alaska too. This is definitely not business as usual.

Through the IBEW and other trades, we have a trained workforce, more up-and-coming apprentices and growing interest in the professional trades among high school students. We are right in line with a clean energy plan that includes diverse, well-trained workers who will earn equal pay and benefits.

The time to overhaul or legacy systems is now and the need to slow climate change is urgent. We’ve got trained Alaskans to do the work. Let’s do what is right for the planet and our economy and pay workers fairly at the same time. We can rise to the challenge, we have what it takes, plus, it’s just good business.

Dave Reaves is the business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547, which represents more than 4,000 electrical, communications, construction, government and health care workers across the state of Alaska.

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