This post was co-authored by organizers Ben Boettger and Satchel Pondolfino
Inletkeeper takes great care to endorse HEA candidates who understand that diversifying energy is not only essential for our climate, but also for stabilizing rates and maintaining energy security. We attend every HEA board meeting and track boardroom conversations and votes to ensure accountability and transparency. This year we are endorsing incumbents Jim Levine in District 3 and C.O. Rudstrom in District 2. In District 1 we are endorsing challenger Rob Ernst.
Jim Levine has been urging HEA toward a more renewable grid since first sitting on the board in 2009. If re-elected to another three year term, he’ll continue the push during this critical moment when HEA must prepare for a future with less affordable Cook Inlet gas.
As ballots and candidate packets hit mailboxes, we’ve received questions about the south peninsula’s District 3 race. We’re endorsing Levine over his challenger, Michael Jones, because we believe the concerns Jones raises about renewable energy are more likely to be obstructive than helpful in our shift away from natural gas. While Jones leans into his experience with renewable technologies in his candidate statement, his comments to the HEA board raise fears – unwarranted based on the experiences of other utilities in Alaska and elsewhere – that deploying renewables with the necessary speed would be too costly.
Maintaining the status quo will be costly. Magnifying the technical issues of integrating renewables, as Jones does, will slow HEA’s transition from natural gas without adding value to the co-op’s already careful planning.
HEA Can Manage Renewable Integration
Presenting to the HEA board at their March 8 meeting, Jones spoke against HEA’s goal of being 50% renewable by 2025 — a very ambitious target that has so far managed to survive despite a deeply divided board, though sometimes merely on a technicality.
Jones said the goal “doesn’t really reflect the real-time complexity or true cost of operating the grid with intermittent renewable resources” and “really hides the true cost and the poor quality of the energy that comes from these renewable resources.”
He focused particularly on the challenges of solar energy, a variable power source that rises and falls uncontrollably, often out of sync with the times of greatest energy demand. As for wind power, his presentation centered aesthetic concerns with a slide headlined “How do we protect our beautiful horizons?”
The challenges of integrating variable renewables are real. But many other grids have overcome these challenges by pairing solar and wind with battery systems such as the one HEA has. Alaska’s largest solar farm opened last year in Houston — a 6 megawatt project built by private developers to sell power to Matanuska Electric Association. MEA staff wrote to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska that compensating for the variability of this project is not a significant cost. The same developer is now planning a 20 megawatt solar farm for HEA, and while it remains to be seen how we will integrate this system, there’s no reason to believe variability will make it uneconomic.
HEA’s own engineers are looking at this. At the Oct. 11, 2022 board meeting, staff presented a computer model that simulates HEA’s existing grid plus wind, hydro, and solar projects currently planned. Running the model for optimal economic results produced a 54% renewable grid. One factor not included was the certainty that natural gas prices will rise — either because of the increasing costs of production from Cook Inlet or because we’re importing gas from elsewhere. Renewable generation for 50% of our power or more is not only technically possible, but likely even more of an economic benefit than the model showed.
Jones was present at this meeting, and his questions focused again on solar variability. HEA’s model used a year’s worth of hour-by-hour solar output — Jones said that really accounting for the cost of solar integration would need even higher resolution data. HEA is continuing to model renewable scenarios, and isn’t relying on a single simulation. There is also a completely separate team running a separate model, and at some point we’ll see whether they reach similar conclusions.
HEA Renewable Goal is a Path Forward
There will certainly be problems to solve, but we know the long-term benefits of sustainable, fuel-free power are great, as are the costs of failing to bring on alternatives as accessible gas supplies wane. It’s good to have skeptical voices in the room, and we share Jones’ desire for HEA to engage with its members and be maximally transparent. But continually raising general concerns about renewables in order to second-guess a technical analysis based specifically on HEA’s own data and system prolongs our expensive and precarious dependence on natural gas.
Levine supports HEA’s 50% by 2025 renewable goal even while recognizing its practical unlikelihood. The goal sets a destination and a tempo that HEA’s staff is working toward, solving its specific problems along the way. We hope Jones will continue asking sharp questions at board meetings, but for the role of guiding the co-op in the right direction at the urgent pace it needs, Inletkeeper endorses Jim Levine.