Story last updated at 9:10 PM on Thursday, April 24, 2008

Alternative energy: technology whose time has come



By HAL SPENCE
Morris News Service - Alaska

It's blowing in the wind. It's the wave of the future. It's in plants and fish and even garbage. So to speak, it's there under our feet.

Alternative energy is literally everywhere in Alaska, and can be tapped to supply a host of needs across the state and beyond. Alaska is poised to become a world leader in renewable energy, Chris Rose, director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or REAP, told a noontime gathering Monday at Homer City Hall.

"You've got all these potential resources that a lot of states and other governments would give their eyeteeth for," he said. "Now what we really need is political will and vision on this stuff."

That appears to be happening. Recent state legislation has directed money and policy toward renewable resource development.

Formed in 2004, REAP is a coalition of groups interested in developing Alaska's vast renewable energy to be found in wind, waves, tides, geothermal vents, hydroelectric dams, biomass and sunshine.

It is clear that dwindling oil and gas reserves eventually will run out, Rose said, and as oil and gas prices soar, venture capital has begun flowing into renewable research and development.

In that financial climate, REAP has adopted five primary strategies to reach its goal of increasing production of renewable energy in Alaska. They include promoting projects and policies that increase production, building an in-state market for renewables, and fostering and demonstrating stakeholder unity in support of renewable energy.

Then there's "the low-hanging fruit" of energy efficiency.

"It wouldn't do to get a lot of renewable energy and then use it inefficiently or unwisely," he said.

The Alaska Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 289, appropriating $300 million to an updated Alaska Housing Finance Corporation weatherization program. (For more information, go to www.ahfc.us.)

"This is huge. Since the 80s, AHFC has spent $150 million on weatherization. Now all of a sudden there's $300 million more," he said.

Alaska's renewable energy resources offer significant advantages: Little or no fuel costs, the resources are local, they're environmentally clean and essentially inexhaustible, plus development offers broader economic opportunities, Rose said.

Alaska may owe its economy to oil and gas now, but at some point this century, the wells will run dry. Meanwhile, price fluctuations will affect investment decisions. Renewable energy, on the other hand, could make Alaska attractive to investors by offering stable energy costs over long periods, he said.

Much of the developed world is well ahead of the United States in developing and using renewable energy resources. Iceland, for instance, would be a great model for Alaska, Rose suggested.

That island nation launched an energy revolution 50 years ago and today generates 70 percent of all its energy from hydroelectric and geothermal sources. The country expects to be running all its vehicles on hydrogen by mid-century. Indeed, the nation has so much experience it is selling its expertise around the world.

Some 2 billion people around the world have no access to electricity, and represent "a huge market" for renewable energy development, he said.

Alaska abounds in exploitable sources of renewable energy.

It has the highest wind-power potential in the country, especially on the west coast and along the Aleutian Chain. Other areas include the Matanuska Valley and locations near Seward. Relatively small wind-generation projects are already displacing fossil fuels in isolated villages; in the Railbelt, utility companies are exploring wind power possibilities. There are proposed 50-megawatt projects at Fire Island and Eva Creek.

Alaska's huge tidal and wave energy potential is ripe for development. An estimated 50 percent of the tidal potential and 75 percent of the wave energy potential in the nation exists in Alaska. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued 12 permits to companies engaged in research and development, several of them in Southcentral Alaska. Rose predicted commercialization of the technologies could happen in five to seven years.

Significant geothermal energy lies beneath ground only 80 miles west of Anchorage under Mt. Spurr, Rose said. Tapping it would not require new technologies and the energy grid is only about 25 miles away, meaning development would not include constructing long transmission lines.

About a quarter of the state's electrical energy today is supplied by hydroelectric facilities. Building more is an option. For instance, there is renewed interest in the hydroelectric possibilities on the Susitna River. But a project of the size considered in the 1980s, about 1,600 megawatts, would supply about twice the power the Railbelt could use, Rose said.

"The big issue is going to be whether or not you can just simply downsize Susitna," he said.

A pair of transmission bottlenecks between Homer and Anchorage and between Anchorage and Fairbanks is another consideration for huge projects, he said.

Homer Electric Association is looking at small hydro projects on the Kenai Peninsula, Rose noted.

There is potential in exploiting biomass fuels. For instance, fish oil pressed from the carcasses of the commercial catch can be burned like diesel. Some 8 million gallons of fish oil a year is produced and used in place of diesel in Dutch Harbor, Akutan and elsewhere saving significant money. An estimated 13 million gallons more is dumped into the ocean every year in the form of fish waste that is not fully processed, Rose said.

Other biofuel energy potential is to be found in garbage, in forests and in Alaska's agricultural land. Solar power may have some applications in Alaska, but likely won't be used as it will be in states showered in sunshine. Still, Rose said he owns a Toyota Prius, a hybrid, and hopes to invest soon in solar panels and run his auto on sunshine during the summer.

Alaska has taken some major steps toward renewable energy development, Rose said, pointing to another bill passed by the Legislature this year. House Bill 152 commits $50 million a year for five years to a renewable energy grant program.

"At $250 million, there are only a few states in the country ahead of us now," Rose said. "We went from basically having nothing to having one of the more aggressive renewable energy funds in the whole country overnight."

The money, he said, would be available, for instance, to utility companies for exploring renewable energy possibilities and for construction of projects.

"I can't overemphasize how big a deal this is," he said.

Rose encouraged Alaskans to get involved and to press lawmakers at the state and federal level to fund renewable resource development.

For more information visit REAP at www.alaskarenewableenergy.org.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.

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