Op-Ed: Plow energy revenue windfall into renewables and power transmission systems

Everyone in Alaska knows that the current record prices for fossil fuels are a two-edged sword. They are fattening the state’s treasury while shrinking Alaskans’ pocketbooks and driving “energy refugees” from villages as fuel costs pass the point of endurance.

Everyone in Alaska also knows that as the Legislature heads into another special session, the State must help Alaskans deal with the current energy crisis. But when you are up to your neck in alligators sometimes it’s easy to forget that the best long-term strategy is to drain the swamp.

I would like to add my voice to the growing chorus of those who believe it is imperative that the State commit up to half of its likely revenue windfall over the next several years, not just to provide immediate energy price relief to individuals, but to build renewable energy and power transmission systems that will guarantee affordable energy to all Alaskans. Such a fix has the added bonus of being the largest single step the state can take to lay a solid foundation for our economic future.

The ultimate solution to reduce prices is to increase domestic oil and gas production, and we all must redouble our efforts to promote such increased supplies in Alaska. But I applaud the efforts to provide immediate energy aid to help Alaskans struggling to fill their gasoline tanks and pay their utility bills. In rural Alaska the state’s Power Cost Equalization program needs to be uncapped, expanded to aid businesses and better funded – which can occur without discouraging energy conservation. An expanded loan program to help cash-strapped villages buy fuel for the coming winter is also vital.

In Congress I have pushed efforts to vastly expand the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and to better fund energy-saving weatherization efforts. I have won a renewable energy grant program and authorized more energy funding for the Denali Commission. But unless Alaska wants to risk conditioning its citizens to expect ever rising state energy handouts, the only prudent course is to convert the current oil-fed windfall into new renewable power sources that will pay dividends for decades.

The Denali Commission last year gathered more than a billion dollars of generally good energy ideas. Regional energy plans have been hammered out in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Kenai and the Mat-Su. The Bristol Bay Region and Aleutians have considered plans. And a Southeast intertie-energy plan has been on the books for many years. Until now, there’s been no shortage of plans -- only cash to match hard-won federal aid.

Granted there are hard decisions to come: Do you proceed with a “bullet line” to bring North Slope gas to the Railbelt? Do you diversify the region’s power mix by building renewable projects such as Lake Chackachamna and some-sort of Susitna hydro, Mt. Spurr and Chena geothermal and Fire Island and Neva Creek wind? Do you also build municipal waste and coal gasification projects capable of capturing and storing carbon emissions when the technology is perfected? Do you finish a Southeast intertie while building renewable hydro, ocean and geothermal projects from Angoon to Pilgrim Hot Springs?

Do you proceed with a geothermal fed energy line for Bristol Bay? Do you press for geothermal, natural gas and wind turbines for the Aleutians and Seward Peninsula? Do you fund biomass, solar, ocean and wind for Interior communities and provide for wind, hydro, and even hydrogen generation elsewhere? Do you continue to upgrade village diesel generators to improve efficiency and provide backup when the wind doesn’t blow or blows too hard and downs transmission lines? Do you consider small nuclear, fuel cell or landfill gas plants?

The answer to most of these questions is yes. Alaskans can’t be so foolish, however, as to that think we will have the financial means to build every project overnight. We still will need to leverage funds and make tough choices on what will be most environmentally sound and cost competitive. But if we are smart, we can avoid driving up construction costs and flushing petrodollars down the drain by buying off the shelf technology.

Alaska can have a far brighter future if we concentrate on what immediate aid Alaskans need and then direct as much of our windfall to projects that will permanently convert the state’s wealth into carbon-free renewable power to lower everyone’s energy costs.

Back in 1981, the time of the state’s first energy-price boom, then- Governor Jay Hammond proposed the “Year of Transportation,” briefly suggesting the state use most all of that year’s expected oil-price windfall to rebuild all of the state’s highways. If that had actually happened, we would have been far better off than we are a quarter century later still laboring to upgrade the Railbelt’s transportation network, much less fashion one for the rest of the State.

Let’s be bold this time, learn from the past and energize our future by revolutionizing our energy sector once and equitably for all. Let’s make 2008 the “Year of Energy.” As the Anchorage energy plan points out: “Hope is not a strategy.” But Alaskans helping ourselves to solve one of our most vexing problems is a strategy we can be proud to accomplish.

Sen. Murkowski is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.