Energy in Alaska

In the 1960s, oil was discovered in seemingly endless quantities in Alaska. The state had it made and perhaps there were many that thought that this would be the end of any energy worries for the state. Yet, somehow the opposite occurred. Far from freeing Alaska from its dependency on fuel sources, oil strengthened the reliance on which communities and individuals harness energy.   The state boasts no universal grid, nothing to tie the state to outside provinces or states beyond.  There isn’t even a grid within that connects the state as a whole.  Instead, Alaska is unique in the US, that it blends a combination of traditional urban grids, with micro grids in isolated communities and even smaller independent grids for smaller communities and individual households.

In Alaska’s urban areas, there are a hodgepodge of ways in which electric companies provide power to the residents.  Both Juneau and Anchorage primarily use a system of large generators, along with power from hydroelectric generators and wind turbines.  Fairbanks is unique in that they use none of those options.  Instead, the city and borough use the tried-and-true dirty method of coal power.  The city boasts two coal plants, with two additional plants located on the military bases, Fort Wainwright and Eielson, located just outside of town.  There are no plans to stop either, one of the city’s plants was built and unveiled in 2018. The first and only coal plant to have been built in the United States within the past decade.

Coal!

During my time in forestry, we had the opportunity to tour the Usibelli coal mine in Healy.  We were shown some of the heavy equipment and large trucks they used to transport the coal and took a tour of a dragline. We were shown the surrounding hillsides, mined in previous decades but now replanted and growing with alders and other natural vegetation.  The coal is taken from the plant and brought down to the railroad, loaded on the cars and ferried to the north.  The material is one of the primary reasons the Alaska Railroad is able to stay in operation to this day, comprising the bulk of its cargo as it takes coal from the mountains to Fairbanks and the military bases beyond. It’s definitely local, but is it best?

The dragline

In more rural locales, both on and off the road system, the community’s electricity setup will be dependent on the size and financial ability of the community. Larger and wealthier communities will typically mirror that of urban centers, having large generators that distribute power to the surrounding households.  In smaller communities and those without the means to source such or maintain such generators, individual solutions are the norm.  This was how things operated in Wiseman when I lived there and how the residents there continue to source power to this day.  For most people, this means solar power as the main source for the bulk of the year. A wind turbine could be used to complement this in some areas and a generator is used throughout the darkest periods of the year when solar cannot be sourced.  Such a system is cheaper than relying on traditional power means and the community becomes more resilient as a whole.

Where I lived in Wiseman.

Other communities have explored a return to older means of harnessing electricity.  At another point during my time in forestry, we were also able to take a tour of the Tok power plant at the local school. The school pursued and ended up installing a steam generator.  The boiler can burn any type of wood and to avoid suspicion of stealing from the Tok community, the school choose to burn solely scraggly black spruce.  The school ends up burning about 40 acres worth of spruce per year, or 3 semi-loads full of wood.  This provides heat and electricity to the school, as well as power to 15% of the community with the ability to provide beyond 100%.  Some of the heat is pumped into a greenhouse next door where students are able to grow and harvest all kinds of plants throughout the year. At $0.50/kw, this system is cheaper than many other systems in Alaska and is more resilient against external energy supply and price fluctuations.  Yet, the idea is limited by the lack of steam power throughout the rest of the country and thereby a lack of modern steam generators.  The school’s engine was built in the early 1900s and they found themselves bidding against Jay Leno in the auction for it. To date and my knowledge, there is only one other similar system like this in Alaska, in a school somewhere near Bethel.

Tok steam engine
The wood is ground and stored outside before being fed into the boiler
Tok school greenhouse

The community of Kodiak is perhaps the best example of what can be achieved with the forced necessity of creative thinking due to higher costs.  A town of 15,000, that includes a Coast Guard base, set the goal of providing 100% of the community’s electric needs and achieved it in 2014. The town uses a combination of hydropower and wind power with connections to a flywheel and a battery grid to go about achieving this. It is surprising that this is the only example of such a community in Alaska, rather than dozens with the ample solar, wind and hydro resources this state is blessed with.

Since my arrival in Alaska, I have had a diverse means of sourcing power for my own needs. From purchasing it from the local electric company to sourcing it myself via solar and generator. The latter option was my only option during the time I lived in Wiseman and is the option that Alana and I use now. For roughly 8.5 months of the year, solar fulfills the bulk of our energy needs without problem.  This even includes large energy draws like multiple chest freezers. Throughout the darkest 3.5 months of the year, there isn’t enough energy from the sun and we fire up the generator about once a week to charge our batteries. Currently, I am exploring thermoelectric generators that we could attach to our woodstove, possibly further whittling down our generator use.

Our current home

In the coming years, Alaska will continue to have to combine multiple sources of energy as prices likely increase worldwide.  Many of the communities, both urban and rural, could stand to explore alternative means of sourcing power, such as solar, wind, and steam. Perhaps sometime soon, Alaska can be a model for the world in terms of electricity. Achieving electrical independence for everyone without damaging the surrounding environment and actually living the values the state preaches.

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