OPINION: Economics dictate the pace of renewable energy adoption

Mandating the rate of adopting renewables will not provide cheap energy. It hasn’t work anywhere else. California doesn’t have cheap energy and they do not have resilience. A plan must be developed. The plan that is developed must be based on study and research into the existing system, the technologies being considered, the impact on the system from “electrifying everything,” where the microgrids will be located within the system and what will be the base source of power that is not variable and that will replace natural gas, coal or other fuel source.

My commentaries, back to 2016, have all encouraged a long-term energy storage mechanism to be in place to ensure the renewables can succeed. Pumped hydro was my first choice, as all renewable distributed energy sources could be dispatched to pump water to its elevated reservoir without constraint. Thus, if hydropower, pumped or not pumped, is not being developed to provide base power for the future, then some other source must be considered and selected. The staff at the utilities must investigate geothermal power, continue to look at hydropower, evaluate Cook Inlet tidal power (even though it is variable, it is consistent), nuclear power and any other that might come forth. Deep hot rock geothermal is one source that would provide sufficient energy and power for an unlimited time. Drilling to the depth necessary is still a problem to solve. Once a base energy source is selected, its implementation must be put in motion to select the site for installation, work out the timeline to completion, and determine the cost and funding mechanisms. Once this is set, then the planned continuation of natural gas or coal supply must be ensured until it is no longer needed.

While Cook Inlet natural gas is currently in limited supply, there are yet undeveloped natural gas supplies that can be developed to ensure cheap energy until the day the new source is commissioned. Permitting and funding of fossil-fuel projects are currently being fought by many who do not fully understand energy, the economics of energy or the full benefit to humanity that abundant and cheap energy provides. It is in the best interest of Alaskans to support the efforts to unlock the necessary stores of natural gas.

Mandates cannot and do not work. The only reason for the push for a mandate to accelerate the renewable energy is that too many people are considering de-carbonization and not considering the electrical system. We need to design the electrical system by focusing on electrical generation and distribution. If we consider non-carbon sources, the de-carbonization will take care of itself. Wind and solar will be a part of the plan but we need the extremely reliable and cheap base energy source.

One other task for the Railbelt utilities is to study their system to determine where microgrids should be established to ensure resilience for the system and the safety and comfort of those who live in the more remote communities of the Railbelt system: Girdwood, Indian, Sutton, Talkeetna, Cantwell, Willow and the spaces beyond and in between. For there to be a microgrid, there needs to be some long-term or permanent source of power. This location could then have wind or solar, with a supporting battery energy storage system accompanying the base power generation. This will take more planning, but that can be done now. We don’t want to constrain the engineers and planners and boards of directors with the pressure of mandates when there is so much work that must be done to actually arrive at cheap and plentiful power and energy.

As stated in some of the commentaries and letters to the editor recently, the utilities are currently active at these studies and on plans to incorporate wind and solar. They are identifying where remote distributed resources can be connected into the system. We need to use all our sciences, not just climatology, as we work out the technologies that will sustain us into the future. One thing I know is that it won’t be done with an app on a smartphone. People need to work together and make some hard decisions. There may be benefit to actually having one more hydro dam, but it would have to produce cheap power.

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

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