Alaska needs energy policy

My turn

Posted: Monday, January 29, 2001

The importance of energy to the economy of Alaska and the lifestyles of its residents is much greater than in most states. This is largely because of the energy reserves, developed and undeveloped, that we have, the associated employment of many Alaskans that is provided by the energy industry, the importance of revenues from energy production to operation of the state as well as local governments, and the need and difficulty of providing energy at a reasonable cost to urban and rural communities.

Alaska's per capita consumption of energy is extremely high. In addition to oil production, our other major industries are heavy consumers of energy. The relatively high costs of the energy we use in Alaska affect our lifestyles.

Just as the nation needs to develop an energy policy to guide and balance its energy dependence in the future, for similar reasons the state should prepare for the future by developing an energy policy. Alaska is fortunate to have vast energy reserves and is the major energy-exporting state. Because of our large size and associated energy distribution problems and our remoteness from national and world markets, Alaska is unique among the states in the urgency of its need to develop a state energy policy.

No one source of energy is the answer to our in-state energy needs. Alaska and the rest of the United States will need to support the development of a diversity of energy sources. Alaska is poised to continue to play a major role in supplying oil, and perhaps in the near future natural gas, to the rest of the United States. Our huge North Slope gas reserves, once they become available to Alaska's major population centers and to the Lower 48, will contribute substantially to improved air quality for Alaska's urban communities, the nation and the entire global environment, and will result in reduced emission of greenhouse gases. Advances in fuel cell technology are making it possible to convert fossil fuels to available energy with far greater efficiency and with much less pollution than through conventional combustion of these fuels. Natural gas is the fuel of choice for fuel cells.

Alaska has potential, on a regional basis, for development and use of energy from a variety of sources in addition to the conventional fossil fuels of coal, crude oil and natural gas, although fossil fuels will undoubtedly continue to play dominant roles in our energy dependency and economy well into the future.

Hydropower has greatest potential in Southeast Alaska and other Gulf of Alaska coastal communities to contribute to a more favorable balance between renewable energy sources and fossil fuels in supplying energy needs. In many parts of western and northwestern Alaska, and probably in most of Alaska's outer coastal communities, wind generation offers potential to reduce dependence on diesel fuel that is used in community power plants, and to reduce the high costs of barging it to these communities during the limited season for freighting. There have been substantial improvements in wind generation technology in recent years. As a result, wind generation of electricity is proving economically feasible in Kotzebue, thanks to a state-supported trial program. Alaska could be a leader in development and marketing of technology for wind-power generation. There is a rapidly expanding market for wind power generation technology throughout the world. Alaska has greater wind power generation potential than any other state and more than most countries.

Several additional energy sources, unique to the diverse geography and geology of Alaska, occur throughout the state with potential to supplement or even meet power needs of local communities. These include local reserves of coal, natural gas and geothermal energy; tidal and wave power near some coastal communities; and solar power. These offer potential for seasonal balance with wind generation.

It is manifestly clear that Alaska needs to prepare for its energy future through development of an energy policy that goes beyond, but also includes the current focus on a gas pipeline. An energy policy must be based on an accounting of our current and anticipated energy needs, consideration of present and projected energy transmission systems, an assessment of our known and potential energy resources and their potentials for development, potentials for energy conservation in building design and efficiency of energy use, and assessment of environmental costs of energy options. I urge Gov. Knowles and the Legislature to jointly initiate, and work for, development of an energy policy for Alaska.

David R. Klein is a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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