PUBLISHED: 4:58 PM on Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Fueling the Future
More rural Alaska communities are craving energy autonomy in the wake of skyrocketing gas prices, hoping to eventually wean themselves from fossil fuels entirely. A new age of alternative and renewable energy projects could be on the horizon sooner than many think.

"Rising energy costs have created urgency for these projects," said AEA Executive Director Steve Haagenson, the senior energy coordinator in Palin's administration. "This funding will help develop projects that could annually displace millions of gallons of diesel fuel and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas."

Energy experts say that Alaska can be - and in many ways already is - a model for the rest of the United States in terms of converting to renewable energy.

Professor Rich Seifert, a University of Alaska energy expert based in Fairbanks, believes some form of renewable energy is possible in nearly every part of the state in the form of either hydro, wind, solar, biomass or geothermal energy. Wave energy is another option, though more research is needed before it can be considered a stable energy source.

"Alaska is an example of a place in the U.S. to push for renewable energy," he said. "We're not connected to Canada or the lower 48 grid - we're on our own already and we have the money. We have the choice to build our own future."

Seifert said the conversion to renewable energy could "leave a legacy for the rest of the world." The roadblocks preventing that future, he said, are technological limitations, lack of research and society's "oil addiction."

"We have this situation where we're all heir to this huge oil gold mine. In about 50 years we'll use up all this oil and turn it into money. What will we have to show for it beside the Permanent Fund (Dividend)?

"People think that all you have to do is drill your way out of (the energy crisis). Supply and demand doesn't work in a diminishing resource base. 'More' was always the way America grew. But 'more' is not possible anymore, but people can't deal with that. It's the paradigm they grew up with."

Bridge Fuel

Haagenson said the average Alaskan uses 750 to 1,000 gallons of fuel each year. That quantity is multiplied three- to four-times that in rural communities. Statewide 39-54 million gallons of fuel is burned annually for transportation and heat.

Haagenson, who became Gov. Sarah Palin's resident energy expert last March, has spent months traveling to rural Alaska communities to review which alternative energy methods could be available to those dependent on diesel and natural gas. The goal, he said, is to find a "1,000-year energy plan."

Until that long-term energy plan is found, he said, natural gas would likely be considered a "bridge fuel" while alternative energy projects come online. Palin's administration is still pushing for a natural gas pipeline to be constructed from the North Slope into Alberta, Canada.

Palin signed a bill in May that will provide $250 million in funding over the next five years for renewable energy projects. The Denali Commission and Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) followed suit by awarding another $5 million for 33 alternative energy projects statewide.

Kate Troll, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance, an umbrella organization for dozens of other groups boasting 38,000 members statewide, said the $50 million is a good start for a sustainable future.

"We would love to see more money go into renewable energy funds," she said. "But right now, $50 million can make a huge impact."

In the meantime, Troll agrees that natural gas is needed during the transition.

"You can't go green immediately," she said. "We see natural gas as a bridge fuel to a completely clean, renewable energy future. It's far cleaner than oil and twice as clean as coal. My organization has supported the operation and construction of the natural gas pipeline. We see that as the bridge."

Troll said about 24 percent of Alaska is already using alternative energy and the state's goal should be to reach 50 percent by 2025. She said wind and hydro have been the most affective alternative energies used in Alaska thus far, but more breakthroughs are needed to store alternative energy.

Haagenson said his current priority is to find the most affordable energy for Alaskans.

"The combo of hydro, tidal and wind can serve Alaskans well," he said. "We're trying to find the lowest cost opportunities so we can build the economy across Alaska."

Construction of a hydro plant can cost between $1 million and $1 billion, depending on project's size, Haagenson said. Juneau's Lake Dorothy hydro project, which is scheduled to be online in 2009, is expected to cost $60 million. Sitka's Blue Lake hydro project constructed in the late 1970sand early 1980s cost $80 million at the time.

Haagenson said his visits to rural Alaska were about presenting options, not offering a state bailout to exterminate high energy costs.

"This isn't about the state coming to save you, this is about Alaskans becoming self-sustaining again," he said. "Do they want you to build it for them for free, or do they want to find state subsidy to pay for part of it and they must pay for part of it? I don't think it's a sustainable model to ask for money to build some of these projects. It's better to partner with state and private partnerships."

Haagenson said he is aware of the cost of staying warm in winter and said his people are looking for solutions to help rural communities by December.

"We may be out sooner and say, 'Here's what you can do today,'" he said.

Charles Westmoreland can be reached at

Proposal includes $21 billion for alternative energy

Alaska lawmakers threw a curve ball to state officials during the special session July 9 by introducing a draft proposal that would contribute $20.75 billion into renewable and alternative energy project grants.

But the proposal references using liquefied coal as an alternative energy, drawing criticism from legislators and critics who say coal is a fossil fuel in any form.

The money would reportedly come from Alaska's oil revenue surplus. The legislation could be formally introduced within the next three weeks before the specialsession ends.

The majority of Alaska's coal resources are in the North Slope, Central Alaska-Nenana and Cook Inlet regions.

The coal in these three regions is estimated at more than 130 billion metric tons, about half of the coal available in the rest of the United States combined, according to the USGS.

Web resources

Know your energy

BIOMASS: Organic matter such as crops, wood waste, animal waste and aquatic plants.

FOSSIL FUELS: Fuels formed in the ground from the remains of dead animals and plants.

GEOTHERMAL ENERGY: Energy produced by the internal heat of the earth, such as magma.

SOLAR ENERGY: Electromagnetic energy transmitted from the sun.

TIDAL POWER: The power available by either the rise and fall or flow of ocean tides.

WIND ENERGY: Energy derived from the movement of wind across a landscape

*definitions obtained from the Renewable Energy Atlas of Alaska