Opinions

Alaska can lead the US on renewable energy

A strategically developed energy infrastructure can change the face of our nation for the better. Catastrophic grid failures in the Lower 48. Attacks on our nation’s pipeline infrastructure that have sent gas prices surging. The lack of low-cost power generation for far too many rural communities which still rely on costly diesel fuel to heat their homes and power their schools. Deficiencies in transmission lines and distribution systems. Permitting and siting barriers to deploying cost-effective and operationally sound renewable energy sources. These are all signs that the U.S.’s own energy infrastructure is falling behind.

I challenge our lawmakers here at home and in Washington, D.C., to recognize the traditional energy infrastructure limitations in our system, and look to communities like Cordova and so many others in Alaska as examples of what can be achieved if we build the clean, secure, resilient and cost-effective energy base of the future.

Cordova is a successful case of harnessing natural resources to provide renewable energy, to power our community and the seafood fishermen, processors and businesses that harvest our world-class salmon despite energy grid challenges. In peak seafood season, for example, Cordova’s energy demand spikes to nearly triple its winter peak. Yet through hydroelectric energy development and innovative next-generation microgrid technologies, we’re now able to fulfill Cordova’s power needs at a fraction of the cost while being stewards of the lands and waters we rely on for our livelihoods. In additional to developing renewable energy, Cordova Electric has invested in our greatest natural resource: Alaskans.

Through the development of Cordova’s Power Creek hydroelectric project — a $24 million investment shared equally between the Department of Energy’s Indian Energy Fund and the State of Alaska — we’ve been able to achieve more than $40 million in savings from diesel fuel usage alone over the last 20 years. The creation of low-cost renewable energy in Cordova has attracted more than $40 million in private-sector fisheries investment, including two fish oil plants and expanded onshore processing to replace offshore processing. When you add up the increases in raw fish tax revenue alone — up from roughly half a million dollars per year to now more than $1.1 million per year — the State of Alaska has more than recovered its investment on the Power Creek Project, never mind the ancillary economic activity that’s been created. As abundant renewable energy became available onshore to replace diesel fuel usage onshore, it replaced the extensive use of diesel on the consumer side by off-shore processors, essentially doubling the offset of diesel fuel use. Cordova refers to this as “environmental doubling-down.” This is the essence of Beneficial Electrification, the migration to more cost-effective renewable electric energy platforms to replace traditional fossil fuel platforms for transportation (electric cars, boats, and planes) and heating (air and water source heat pumps).

Moreover, Cordova is now home to one of the largest grid modernization projects in the country — a darling of the Department of Energy — and has made significant strides in battery energy storage implementation. These technologies have not only been good for the environment, but are more than paying for themselves — resulting in saving more than 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year. Today, Cordova is proud to say our energy rates to our small businesses and residents are lower than they were in 2004 — even with recent growth and economic development.

These are only some of the technological and environmental success stories that come from the smart, innovation-driven energy systems in Cordova. But even greater is the holistic impact these investments have made on the community as a whole. As a result of the shared work of our community, Cordova is now recognized as one of the leading communities for safety and raising a young family — with blue ribbon schools and growing incomes.

Many of these successes were captured in testimony I gave before the U.S Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing to “Examine Innovation in Action — Microgrids and Hybrid Energy Systems” on the cusp of much anticipated infrastructure legislation under President Donald Trump. There I specifically outlined how purpose-driven infrastructure investments and holistic thinking in areas of education, recreation and business can result in added value streams for a community and its residents. Now after many years of forward thinking, we’re seeing that shared costs can result in exponentially greater shared benefits. Our workforce development efforts are another element of our holistic goal of producing multiple value streams around infrastructure development.

If a remote community like ours, accessible only by plane or boat, can make clean, renewable energy technology both outperform as energy projects and improve the quality of life, there’s untold potential given the necessary support and investments from our state and federal partners. These are all success stories that can be replicated with the proper attention and investment. These projects are receiving international recognition for their success and impact on the community of Cordova, and it is time to recognize these successes here at home.

Our congressional leaders, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, have long told Alaska’s clean energy story in the halls of Congress. As seen by their support of the Energy Act of 2020, the EPW’s recent surface transportation bill, and recent negotiations on federal infrastructure legislation, it’s clear our dongressional delegation recognizes that renewable energy is a key part of America’s critical infrastructure. Their continued advocacy has been critical to Cordova’s success and is key to ensuring effective renewable energy infrastructure continues to bring benefits of renewable energy technologies to more Alaskans.

Clay Koplin serves as CEO of the Cordova Energy Cooperative and mayor of the city of Cordova.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.