The energy prospects on the horizon in December 2022 are very different from those of December 2021, and in December 2023, the picture is likely to be different once again. With action and engagement, we can make it a much brighter one.
Mitigating the destruction that climate change is bringing to our ecosystems and lifestyles has been a long-time priority of Inletkeeper. Now we’re starting to see institutions acting on these priorities.
As Cook Inlet’s reservoirs of cheap, readily-available natural gas are dwindling, we need to diversify our energy and conserve gas to prevent ever-climbing rates and climate chaos. Bringing renewables into our power system — and making our system efficient and robust enough to handle them — is overwhelmingly in our interest. Homer Electric Association recognized this fact in 2021, when their board of directors set a goal of being 50% renewable by 2025. Hilcorp isn’t committing to future gas supply contracts, and with HEA’s present Hilcorp contract up in March 2024 – and Matanuska and Chugach Electric Association’s in 2028 – local institutions are seeing the need for change.
Here is some of the progress that has come this year from growing awareness of our energy situation:
- In May, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly extended tax exemptions for independent power producers, third-party companies that build power generation and sell it to utilities. The change spurred forward a proposal from the company Renewable IPP to build a 20 megawatt solar farm in Sterling, which will be Alaska’s largest.
- In the Mat-Su Valley, Renewable IPP is at work on a 8.5 megawatt solar farm in Houston. In 2019, they opened Alaska’s current largest solar installation, the 1.2 megawatt Willow Solar Farm. The Houston farm is set to be completed in August 2023.
- Funded by the state’s Renewable Energy Fund, HEA is now set to begin wind studies in four locations on the peninsula.
- The Renewable Energy Fund also granted HEA funding to design a methane capture project at the Kenai Peninsula Landfill. HEA and the Kenai Peninsula Borough now need to formalize financial agreements to move the project forward.
- Governor Mike Dunleavy introduced a bill for Renewable Portfolio Standards, which would require the Railbelt utilities to be powered by 80% renewable energy by 2040. Though it didn’t pass the legislature this year, there are plans to bring it back for another shot when the next session starts in January.
- In October, the owners of the Fire Island Wind Project near Anchorage – Cook Inlet Region Incorporated – announced they’ll be seeking to triple the wind farm’s output.
- Hilcorp is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to study the possibility of adding tidal turbines to its aging Cook Inlet oil platforms.
- HEA is seeking funding from this year’s Renewable Energy Fund grant to investigate wind turbines on old oil platforms and geothermal power from Mt. Augustine.
- The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act are set to bring in floods of money for renewables that could boost our economy, unless our leaders sleep through it.
And in 2023, the legislature will (hopefully) be considering:
- A revamped version of Renewable Portfolio Standards
- Community Solar legislation that will allow renters, residents with low or fixed-income, and folks with shady yards and roofs to share the economic and climatic benefits of solar power, even if they can’t install panels on their own property.
- An extension of the Renewable Energy Fund grant program until 2033. This grant, given by the Alaska Energy Authority, has funded over 100 renewable projects, including HEA’s current wind exploration and landfill gas plans. If renewed, it may fund prospective geothermal on Augustine and possible oil platform wind turbines.
These milestones have all been supported by less visible but no less essential work of grid modeling, grant writing, policy crafting, and financing. The staff and engineers of our electric co-ops — along with those from numerous research outfits, independent power producers, and agencies — have spent 2022 working hard to make the energy change we know we need.
For this needed work to continue, there is one vital prerequisite: utility co-op boards that understand and support it. The electric co-ops of the Cook Inlet watershed – MEA, CEA, and HEA – are led by boards of directors, elected each spring by every household that pays an electric bill. An energy transition can’t happen unless a majority in each of these boards says yes to every major step along the way.
Our energy system is leaning in the right direction, but it isn’t guaranteed to move in that way. Keeping the progress we’ve made will take action from us, the co-op members, in support of board candidates who see the need for building renewables quickly. We can’t allow divided boards to be an obstacle to the future we need.
Inletkeeper is working in a coalition of non-profit partners to organize utility co-op members to become more engaged with their energy future, starting with their participation in board of director elections. Though these are small races, with a typical turnout around 15%, we will still need to mobilize at scale to win.
By voting, volunteering and donating, you are holding our institutions accountable to a brighter, cleaner, more affordable energy future by proactively pushing the renewable energy transition forward.