Op-Ed: Renewable energy opportunities abound in Alaska

On Saturday, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which I’m the ranking member, will host a field hearing at Chena Hot Springs to discuss renewable energy sources, strategies to help rural communities harness their potential and what this type of development means for our state. 

The hearing will help me hear from Alaskans about what Congress can do — from both a policy and financial aid standpoint — to move renewable energy into widespread commercial deployment. 

This is especially important in rural Alaska, where extreme energy costs can cripple economies. We need only remember how our rural villages and their residents suffered last year as prices spiked. Many Alaskans continue to suffer to this day, paying up to $1 per kilowatt-hour of electricity and more than $9 for a gallon of fuel. 

The setting of the hearing, during the Chena Renewable Energy Fair, is quite appropriate for the subject at hand. Chena Hot Springs was the first site in the country to develop a low-temperature geothermal power plant. The “Chena Chiller” and other innovations developed by Bernie Karl and his staff are an inspiration for the host of renewable projects under consideration in Alaska. 

The possibilities are astounding — the Fire Island wind farm; the geothermal projects at Mt. Spurr, Naknek, Manley Hot Springs and Akutan; the hydroelectric projects at Lake Chakachamna, Grant Lake, Thayer Creek and Gartina Creek; the proposed biomass projects from Southeast Alaska to McGrath; and our massive potential in wave and current power. No other state has a comparable range of resources and opportunities. 

Alaska, long a leader in conventional energy production, is quickly emerging as a leader in renewable energy. As our nation seeks to transition to lower-carbon energy resources, both our state’s resource potential and our pioneering spirit are on full display. 

Our state ranks first per capita in traditional biomass energy generation, burning 100,000 cords of firewood each year for space heat. In Kodiak, some 8 million gallons of fish oil are burned each year to dry fish meal, and some is used for electricity generation. 

Alaskans are working to convert municipal waste from landfills and woody biomass from our vast forests into energy. And then there is wind — turbines have already been erected in a dozen villages in rural Alaska. Seventeen turbines help power Kotzebue. 

We also will discuss some of the challenges that must be overcome to deploy renewable energy widely. Truth be told, we have a long way to go. Renewable sources — aside from hydropower, which is by far our largest source of renewable generation — accounted for slightly more than 

3 percent of our nation’s electricity consumption in the first half of this year. While that number is growing, we will need exponentially more power from renewables to equal the amount of energy provided by fossil fuels. 

One way to accelerate the transition is to ramp up investment. A primary issue is the capital costs associated with developing new technologies and projects. While energy from wind, water and the sun is free, the cost of developing those resources is not. Increased federal funding is on the way, but unprecedented budget deficits are making it very difficult to find extra money for research, development and construction activities. 

In some respects, Alaska is ahead of the curve. Two years ago, I authored the Renewable Energy Deployment Grant Program to provide funding for up to 50 percent of the cost of building all types of renewable energy in Alaska. While Congress has not yet authorized money to pay for the program, I continue to work to secure funding. 

I also have worked to make sure Alaskans are eligible for the same level of assistance and support offered in the Lower 48, including from provisions in the energy bill approved by the energy committee in early June and currently awaiting consideration by the full Senate.

No matter what happens at the federal level, the state of Alaska will play a key role in the development of renewable energy. The funding appropriated by the Legislature during the past two years represents a solid start. It will take a substantial — and sustained — commitment to make the most of Alaska’s many opportunities and reach the ambitious goals set by the administration. 

Today, we pay closer attention than ever before to our supply of energy: where it comes from, how it’s used and ways to make it cleaner and cheaper. Saturday’s hearing at Chena Hot Springs will continue this important conversation as we search for ways to turn our state’s tremendous renewable energy potential into reality. 

Lisa Murkowski, who has served Alaska as a U.S. senator since 2002, is the top-ranked Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The committee hearing Saturday begins at 10 a.m. at Chena Hot Springs. Due to time constraints, testimony is by invitation only.

By:  Originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on August 21, 2009
Source: The challenge is in jump-starting more investment