Alaska Editorial: Palin energy plan is more modest than Alaska needs

Posted: Monday, December 29, 2008

The Palin Administration will take another month before rolling out its statewide energy "plan," and that's probably a good thing. To date, the planning effort led by state energy coordinator Steve Haagenson has not been getting good reviews.

In May, Haagenson described the planning effort this way: "The Palin administration is working with communities across Alaska to identify local energy sources under local control to provide local energy that is sustainable, lower-cost and environmentally responsible."

Laundry list

That sounded pretty good, but lately when Haagenson describes his approach, it sounds more like a laundry list or menu of energy options than a plan.

There's concern the state's work focuses too much on long-term, capital intensive alternative energy projects and not enough on quicker moves that could ease the pain of high costs. Those moves might include expanding weatherization and other energy efficiency programs, or creative bulk buying arrangements that help reduce the delivered price of fuel. The $1,200-a-person state energy rebate that Gov. Palin pushed through eased some pain - but it does nothing to help the Bush weather another crisis if fuel prices spike again.

There's little argument with the state plan focusing on rural communities, because that's where energy costs are highest and jobs are generally scarce. But Bush energy woes are only part of a much bigger picture that needs serious state attention.

Outside the bush

A separate energy planning track will cover electricity needs in the Railbelt, but it's unclear how it will deal with the biggest energy challenge facing Southcentral Alaska, which is the disappearance of the region's once-cheap natural gas supplies. For decades, that cheap gas fueled the region's generators and heated homes and businesses. Now, natural gas prices are spiraling up and up, while supplies get tighter and tighter.

Is the answer a bullet line to bring gas here from the foothills of the Brooks Range? More drilling for gas in Cook Inlet? Geothermal power from Mt. Spurr? A hydroelectric project at Southcentral? Will any meaningful help come from the wind turbines planned at Fire Island?

Fairbanks woes

Fairbanks is facing an even tougher energy challenge. It doesn't have a ready supply of relatively cheap natural gas. The state's only coal mine is not far away, so some civic leaders are excited about the expensive, inefficient and environmentally damaging option of coal gasification. The best solution is to get a supply of natural gas to Fairbanks, ASAP, and the bullet line is probably the best hope of doing that.

Another pressing energy question is why Alaska's gasoline prices are stuck so high above national averages. The Flint Hills refinery in North Pole is Alaska's largest supplier of refined products, but it's creaking along and its future is uncertain. If it closes, Alaska will have to import huge amounts of jet fuel, gasoline and diesel, and the state-owned Alaska Railroad will lose its biggest customer.

State energy planners should also look at the role public transportation can play in the state's larger communities, especially Anchorage. Good public transportation can cut fuel demand, reduce pollution, ease traffic congestion and help stretch highway construction funds, but the state doesn't provide any ongoing operating support to transit systems.

No magic answers

In the Bush, wind power and diesel combination systems are showing promise, at least in communities with the skilled labor to run the complicated systems. Wind power projects have faltered in some smaller, less sophisticated communities.

Wood can be used as a renewable, local fuel for heating in many small communities, such as Craig in the Tongass National Forest, but only where the local forests can sustain the necessary cutting. Run-of-the-river hydro or tidal or wave power units are exciting experimental technologies, but they are nowhere near ready for widespread use.

'Sweeping changes'

This summer, in the lead-up to a rural energy conference, energy coordinator Haagenson said, "Alaska stands at the threshold of making sweeping changes in the way we heat our homes, schools and facilities, generate our electricity and provide for our transportation."

So far, there's not a lot of evidence that the Palin Administration's energy planning will help turn that bold talk into meaningful action.

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