Can Renewable Energy Be The Solution To Rural Alaska’s Energy Crisis?

by Jessica Goad

Alaska is a very important area for U.S. fossil fuel development. But, somewhat paradoxically, rural Alaska and its 250 Native villages are facing an energy crisis: Residents are forced to burn diesel for electricity; a gallon of gas sells for around $10 in some communities; and gasoline and diesel have been barged in from as far as Russia.

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An event called “Challenges and Opportunities for Renewable Energy in Alaska” sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the Alaska Federation of Natives yesterday helped shed light on an extraordinarily important local solution to this energy crisis — renewable energy.

As Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), who spoke at the event, described:

…we bring a lot of people up there to see what the opportunities are. Once they come there and they see for example a windmill working in a small remote village, and what it’s doing and lowering costs, they got it there, they’re maintaining it in very unique conditions, suddenly you get people saying “well maybe there’s something here.” Or some of these other smaller projects. So I think from a private investor standpoint, we are a unique opportunity from that perspective.

Watch it:

Alaska has tremendous renewable energy potential. The state’s location on the Ring of Fire provides geothermal resources, its rivers provide untapped hydropower, its oceans have over 90% of the nation’s tidal resources, its vast forests provide biomass resources, and many areas have high class wind. Dozens of projects — ranging from wind to geothermal — have already been built and have started generating power for communities.

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Villages in Alaska are generally remote, and approximately 150 have stand-alone electrical grids that prevent traditional, centralized energy development. However, panelists at the event discussed how this challenge can provide opportunities — particularly when it comes to designing innovative, decentralized renewable energy technologies that could be exported to the developing world.

While there are tremendous opportunities to scaling up renewables in Alaska, there are also challenges. These include human capacity, overlapping government agencies, and a lack of incentives. As one panelist, Scott Borgerson, put it: Alaska remains one of the world’s last “emerging markets.”

So while companies start eying offshore oil resources off the coast of Alaska, perhaps they should be looking to renewables instead.

Jessica Goad is the Manager of Outreach and Public Communication for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.