We've been talking about getting new energy supplies for Southcentral Alaska. But it's been just that: Talk.
It's time to get real.
State officials, local utilities and businesses need to work together to make something happen soon, or it's going to get very cold for Alaskans.
Natural gas is our main source of fuel for power generation and heating. Hydropower from dams at Bradley Lake and Eklutna provide about 20 percent of our electricity, but gas provides the majority of our energy. And the gas-producing fields in Southcentral are sputtering, leaving us with about eight years of supplies.
The news gets worse. The aging gas wells in the fields can't produce enough gas for heating and power generation on the coldest days. Luckily we have the liquefied natural gas plant in Kenai as an emergency backup, but we may not have that forever. The federal license for the plant expires in 2009, although it may be extended to 2011.
There are huge stranded gas reserves on the North Slope, but there's no pipeline and so there's no access to that gas. And plans for building a gas pipeline are bogged down in Juneau politics.
Eight years of gas left. That's really right around the corner. Even if our state politicians can agree on a gas pipeline plan, it will be 10 years or more before Slope gas will flow.
Meanwhile, big Southcentral power utilities Chugach Electric Association and Municipal Light and Power are planning to replace old turbines and build new power plants. Want to guess what they're building? New gas-fired plants.
Matanuska Electric Association wants to generate its own power to be less reliant on buying power from Chugach, but MEA had to back off a proposal to use coal as a fuel source, and will probably wind up generating power with gas.
We need other alternatives, and we need to get working on them now. No one energy source should supply all of our needs. Renewable energy, like hydro, wind power and even geothermal, should be part of a diversified solution.
Hydro has proven to be cost-effective and reliable - the track record of the Bradley Lake and Eklutna are proof of that - and we applaud the interest of state legislators in taking a new look at the Susitna hydro proposal, which could make a valuable addition to the Railbelt electricity grid.
Susitna was considered as a large hydro project in the mid-1980s but it was deemed too costly and would have generated more power than the Alaska power market could have used. The plan was scrapped in the mid-1980s. Legislators have in mind a smaller version designed to fit the region's current power demand.
It isn't the only hydro project available. TDX Power is investigating another project near Anchorage that could fit nicely into a plan to meet the Railbelt power needs.
But hydro projects take years to build and they are not near-term solutions.
The Fire Island wind project could be online sooner. Local utilities have mixed views on whether wind turbines could produce power at competitive rates. These questions should be resolved.
The mothballed Healy Clean Coal Plant should be put back into operation as soon as possible. This is a new-technology coal-fired power plant that was shut down over a commercial dispute between the state - its owner - and operator Golden Valley Electric Association of Fairbanks.
And let us not forget conservation. The state should build on awareness programs to encourage reducing consumption in homes and businesses, and educate Alaskans on federal tax breaks relating to energy efficiency, in remodeling for example.
Wind power from Fire Island and coal power from Healy are near-term actions that could cut our use of gas for power generation. Gas use will be further reduced if midterm solutions, like new hydro projects, are viable. That will allow our remaining gas supplies to be used for home heating and as a chemical feedstock for manufacturing.
Eventually, if a North Slope gas pipeline is built, there would be still other options. That's way off in the future, though.
All of the near- and midterm options should be front-and-center when Gov. Sarah Palin appoints a new state energy director, which is expected soon.
But let's not have more bureaucratic shuffling on this. Eight years of gas is cutting it thin.
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