OPINION: Energy systems must be engineered, not mandated out of fear

We have had commentaries applauding the Inflation Reduction Act. Other commentaries decried the old industries which require clearing land and digging into the Earth to extract, such as Margi Dashevsky’s Aug. 25 column, “Alaskans are building prosperous next economy while leaders are stuck in the past.” Dashevsky indicated that Alaska’s economic future lies in renewable energy, agriculture and a variety of non-extraction businesses. In addition, the unending news articles about the changing climate and greenhouse gases have people so terrified to do anything that really can help the economy.

While Alaska has been very successful in developing power systems around the state with renewable energy systems such as wind, solar and hydro, along with energy storage battery systems, the necessary technologies are not sufficiently well advanced to develop electrical power systems that are 100% renewable and would allow ceasing the flow of petroleum products from the Earth. It will be later than 2035 when we can develop these technologies and find other technologies that can help. We cannot build enough solar panels and wind turbines in that time to make up for other types of energy sources that would be required.

It is time to evaluate the conflict between the need for fossil fuel and the fear of greenhouse gases. It has been demonstrated that the increased use of natural gas has had a tremendous impact on reducing the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. Government mandates which hinder the production of oil and gas only raise the cost of energy without actually advancing the amount of renewable energy products. With higher energy costs, the cost of these renewable energy products will be more costly to produce, both for mining the resources needed and for the manufacturing of the products.

To fuel an economy, we need extractive industries to create new wealth. We need inexpensive energy and power to manufacture and transport and construct. Supply chain problems show that we should be producing agricultural goods locally, so we are not so dependent on the outside world just to survive — much like it was in Alaska before subsidized freight disabled our local dairy farms.

In commentaries published in 2016, I stated that we need long-term energy storage to be available to support a higher penetration of renewables. By this I meant that we must be able to store energy for at least six months to be truly effective and beneficial to the affected grids. I also advocated that a development plan for any electrical grid, micro or otherwise, must be reliable, resilient and have inexpensive energy, while being sustainable.

There still is no plan, but the zealots think that we can produce and install enough solar panels and wind turbines to solve all our electrical grid problems. Technology says it can’t happen in the near future, and it cannot be done without developing a plan for how it needs to be done. My observations from the governor’s energy conference and the Isolated Power System conference, both held this summer, shows me that we are making progress with our renewables, but to make better progress, we will need to keep our oil and gas flowing and we will need to extract some minerals to support the effort. And then we need to encourage our innovators and entrepreneurs to develop yet unthought-of technologies and methods to fill in the gaps. Free enterprise needs to be allowed to chart the course and good leadership to provide the incentive and coordination — and yes, we need leadership from the 20th century to get where we need to be.

Robert Seitz, PE, is an electrical engineer and lifelong Alaskan.

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