While many state leaders focus on the graph that shows the expected decline of oil from Prudhoe Bay (a field that currently exceeds its 30 year forecast), there is another energy graph that merits equal attention. It is the graph that shows a sharp, steady increase in the production of renewable energy across the nation. Whether its wind, solar, hydro or biofuels, the prospects for renewable energy are remarkably bullish.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory concludes in their recently issued Renewable Energy Futures report that “renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country”. The primary reason for this rosy outlook is the sharp decrease in prices for electricity produced from wind and solar.
According to Stephen Byrd, Morgan Stanley’s Head of North American Equity Research for Power, and Utilities and Clean Energy, Midwest wind is now cost competitive with natural gas and coal.
“Even without the production tax credit subsidy, some of these wind projects have a lower all-in cost than gas,” notes Byrd. Add to this development General Electric’s new line of wind turbines, which are being hailed as a “game changer,” and the prospects for cost competitive wind are robustly strong. And in 2013, solar electricity finally hit grid parity with coal. In February 2013, a southwestern utility agreed to purchase electricity from a New Mexico solar project for less than the going rate for a new coal plant.
Former Vice-President Al Gore likens this development of cost competitive wind and solar to the difference between 32 degrees and 33 degrees. “It’s the difference between water and ice. And by analogy there’s a similar difference between renewable electricity that’s more expensive than electricity from coal and renewable electricity that’s less expensive.”
“Improvement in the cost and performance of renewable technologies is the most impactful lever”, notes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Crossing this competitive price threshold makes 2013 a banner year for renewable energy.
Even here in Alaska, 2013 was a notable year for renewable energy. The Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP, a consortium of 80 organizational members representing a diverse coalition of small and large Alaska electric utilities, environmental groups, consumer groups, businesses, Alaska Native organizations, and municipal, state and federal entities) sent out their list of notable achievements on the renewable energy front. With Alaska having more that 75 percent percent of the nation’s wave energy, REAP highlights the significance of Yakutat receiving their preliminary FERC permitting for moving forward. Alaska is also rich in geothermal energy and here too remarkable progress is being made. A drill rig is now chewing away at Pilgrims Hot Springs’s 200 degree water to hopefully deliver geothermal energy to Nome residents by the end of the next summer.
With the state’s expansive wind potential, Alaska has often been referred to as the Saudi Arabia of wind. Although wind turbines are not new to Alaska, it is exciting to see Cook Inlet Regional Corporation entering phase two of the Fire Island Wind farm just outside Anchorage. Wind capacity in Alaska has grown from 3.3 megawatts in 2008 to 66.5 megawatts at the end of 2012, Alaska Energy Authority spokeswoman Emily Ford said. “Wind is an important part of our energy mix and continues to grow,” she said.
Despite all this upbeat news about renewable energy there is a still a lack of political will to lock us into an energy program that gets the country to 80 percent renewable generation by 2050; that gets Alaska to its stated goal of 50% renewable by 2025. We have no national or state energy plan. Although important, simply getting more oil in the pipeline does not constitute an energy vision for the 21st century. With renewable energy crossing the price and technology barriers to be competitive with fossil fuels, the path for Alaska remaining an “energy state” lays in the wealth of our world class renewable energy resources. Although the Legislature has established a renewable energy and emerging technology fund, there is much more to do to capitalize on the bright future of clean energy. All we need do is look to Iceland for an example.
Iceland, a country comparable in size and population to Alaska, wants to be the first country in the world to have a fully functional hydrogen economy by 2050. They intend to produce enough hydrogen to no longer need any fossil fuel imports. A recent survey shows that 93 percent of the residents of Iceland are fully supportive of this vision.
We have one of the nation’s premier research facilities in cold climate energy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Nowhere else in the nation is so much of the state’s population off the grid; making our diesel dependent villages the perfect venue to pioneer cost-effective hybrid (wind plus diesel, tidal plus diesel, geothermal plus diesel, etc.) systems that could be exported to much of the developing world. With all these exciting developments in renewable energy, now is the time to think big about Alaska’s role in the clean energy economy and we are fortunate to have a statewide organization like REAP to show us the way.
• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas. She serves on the Juneau Assembly. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other assembly members.