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Lt. Gov. Treadwell concludes rural energy conference

Posted: September 30, 2011 - 12:04am

Representatives from a broad spectrum of Alaska’s small communities turned out at Centennial Hall Thursday for the seventh Alaska Rural Energy Conference. The conference is a collaborative effort by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) and the Alaska Energy Authority. This is the first time it’s been in Southeast.

The concluding remarks came from Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell on Thursday. He summed up some of the state’s perspectives on how to address some of the challenges getting energy to areas off the grid, of which he said there are 200.

He said high energy costs are the main challenge such rural areas face and the way to combat that is to become more competitive in the global market.

“Anything we do in Alaska on a local scale… is really on a global scale because we do serve global markets,” he said.

He said Alaska needs to become more competitive in attracting investments that will go toward funded rural energy and described his role as looking for game-changers to help do this.

He said cost stability is vital to this, as high power costs are limiting local opportunities. He cited fish processing done in China as well as Russian entities ready to move into the Arctic as examples.

“If we can get to where Alaska has stable cost power, it’s going to be better for the economy and the state won’t be so risky to invest in,” he said.

Treadwell said a big part of sustaining more affordable power in rural areas is to develop cost stability solutions for energy. He said a challenge for this is different rural communities have unique infrastructures. Individual renewable energy projects must be analyzed for each part of the state.

“Every one of these 200 communities has some unique quality so you can’t say one size fits all,” said Treadwell. “Hydro or geothermal will work in some places and not others.”

Different Alaska regions confirmed this by offering breakdowns of their own strengths and challenges for investing in renewable projects. Robert Venables of Juneau and Clay Hammer from Wrangell offered their analysis for Southeast.

They said a local strength is the availability of hydropower. Hammer said biomass availability is another that’s unusual here due to the highly forested region.

This connects to the challenges they pointed out for project development. They said federal ownership of a majority of Alaska’s land makes regulations difficult and cited the Roadless Rule as an example that leaves a lot of uncertainty for new projects.

They also said there has been a loss of focus on energy priorities and losses of Native community identities as challenges for the region.

Treadwell listed several energy initiatives in the capital budget, including groundwork for partnerships to develop utility projects, such as new hydropower ones in Southeast.

He said 50 rural power system upgrades and 71 bulk fuel upgrade projects have been completed as of July.

Several projects are funded for fiscal 2012, including $112.2 million worth of hydroelectric projects, $12.5 million for the Mount Spurr geothermal project and $36 million in renewable energy grants.

There has been $176.6 million approved for 207 renewable energy projects to date. Twenty-one projects are expected to be completed by the end of 2011. Fuel savings from these are estimated to be 6 million gallons annually.

The fiscal year 2012 budget also includes $52.25 million for Roads to Resources, $64 million for conservation and weatherization and $400 million for power cost equalization.

He said the state also has a commitment to achieving 50 percent renewable energy by 2025.

Treadwell addressed how the state’s initiatives to reverse decline in the Trans Alaska Pipeline System go toward that, saying oil is vital in increasing state competitiveness to fund rural energy projects. He said it is not always apparent but rural energy projects like those listed depend on the oil and gas revenues. He said 90 percent of Alaska’s revenues are tied to the pipeline, including energy costs for such communities.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars supporting power generation, but look at where that money comes from,” he said. “Places we’re having the toughest time with this is the rural areas that get support from the oil patch.”

ACEP Business Director Julie Estey said the goal of this conference was for Alaska’s regions to share what they’ve learned as far as their energy needs go.

She said the challenges that were addressed a lot included limited capital constraints, lack of consensuses and planning around solutions, and regulatory and permitting issues.

She said things have gotten better in the sense of more state programs, which offer more options, while the bad news remains the limitations of high costs.

“People are optimistic because Alaska is very forward-thinking but our challenges are still great,” she said.

She said the conference has evolved over the years and the various regional representatives are agreeing more on how to find solutions.

“There now seems to be more cohesion in our thoughts,” Estey said.

Estey said there were 435 people from more than 75 different Alaskan villages and urban centers at the conference. There were 40 booths present. Estey said this makeup represented every region in the state.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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