OPINION: Alaskans need a modern electric grid

Alaska is at a critical juncture. The Railbelt’s four electric cooperative utilities have expanded since they were created in the 1940s but transmission connections between regions have not kept pace. Alaska, through the Alaska Energy Authority and Railbelt electric utilities, was recently awarded a $206.5 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, for the first of two phases of a project to strengthen the electric grid between the Kenai Peninsula and the Interior. While the grant will substantially support the project, the State of Alaska must provide matching funds. The goal is for all Railbelt electric customers, more than 75% of Alaskans, to access the lowest cost power from wherever it is generated along the grid.

The Railbelt regions are currently connected through a single transmission line, which is limited in how much power it can carry between regions. The initial step to decongesting power movement, Phase I upgrades, will construct an additional line from the Kenai Peninsula to Southcentral. Phase II upgrades will construct an additional line from Southcentral to Healy. In addition to increased reliability and resiliency of the transmission grid, the upgrades will allow more clean energy to be integrated onto the grid. While the natural gas issue has understandably been front and center, how electricity moves to its destination is equally important. These critical upgrades will create a redundant and more resilient system that will help utilities diversify energy resources.

Keeping the lights on in Alaska homes, schools and businesses is a 24/7/365 responsibility. History shows that economies with access to affordable and dependable energy thrive. We know the value of reliable energy, and our goal every day is to deliver it safely, efficiently and for the lowest possible price. Being not-for-profit means costs are borne by our members and cost savings benefit members directly in the form of lower electric rates. We are committed to our respective energy diversification goals, to generating power as cheaply as possible, and to doing our part to make our state a place our kids and grandkids want to call home.

If we do not take advantage of this grant, the full costs of modernizing our grid will ultimately fall entirely on our customers. The first step is a commitment to fund the initial work ahead of the main constructure stage, which would signal to DOE our long-term commitment to the full project.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has submitted a budget amendment that would fully fund the near-term work and the Senate took the first step by including funding in their version of the fiscal year 2025 capital budget for Phase I — upgrades from the Kenai Peninsula to Southcentral. Members of the House have been working diligently on a bipartisan basis to make matching federal funds a priority. Working with the Alaska Energy Authority, the application for Phase II which adds new infrastructure from Southcentral to Healy has been submitted to the DOE. Work for the two phases of this project will take up to 10 years, employ hundreds of Alaskans, and pave the way to integrate and dispatch new sources of power that cannot be developed without setting the stage now.

Thanks to the governor and the tireless efforts of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, and Congresswoman Mary Peltola, the Railbelt grid has been elevated to national prominence. With support from the DOE, we can demonstrate how a modern electric grid can drive innovation and keep consumer costs down to encourage economic development. We thank the Alaska Legislature for their efforts and urge them to continue working together to ensure funding is included in the final budget, so the federal dollars for the project are not left on the table. The vision is within our reach.

Arthur Miller is the CEO of Chugach Electric Association; Tony Izzo is the CEO of Matanuska Electric Association; John Burns is the CEO of Golden Valley Electric Association; and Brad Janorschke is the general manager of Homer Electric Association.

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