ANCHORAGE -- Energy experts say that Alaska can be -- and in many ways already is -- a model for the rest of the United States in terms of converting to renewable energy.
It's ironic that the state with billions of gallons of oil and natural gas and about half the nation's coal supply would spend heavily on alternative fuels, but state politicians are willing to pony up for the research. The long winters and remote locations force Alaskans to use more fuel -- and at a greater transportation cost -- than their counterparts in other states.
The average Alaskan uses 750 to 1,000 gallons of fuel each year. That quantity is multiplied three- to four-times that in rural communities.
At the same time, the state has many viable sites for wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and geothermal energy production.
Rich Seifert, a University of Alaska energy expert based in Fairbanks, believes some form of renewable energy is possible in nearly every part of the state.
"Alaska is an example of a place in the U.S. to push for renewable energy," he said. "We're not connected to Canada or the Lower 48 grid. We're on our own already, and we have the money. We have the choice to build our own future."
Alaska lawmakers recently proposed investing $20.75 billion in alternative-energy research grants. Gov. Sarah Palin signed a bill in May that will provide $250 million in funding over the next five years for renewable energy projects. The Denali Commission and Alaska Energy Authority followed suit by awarding another $5 million for 33 alternative-energy projects.
Until the research bears fruit, Palin's administration is still pushing for a natural gas pipeline to be constructed from the North Slope into Alberta, Canada.
Kate Troll, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance, an umbrella organization for dozens of other groups boasting 38,000 members statewide, said the $250 million is a good start for a sustainable future.
"We would love to see more money go into renewable energy funds," she said. "But ... we see natural gas as a bridge fuel to a completely clean, renewable energy future."
Troll said about 24 percent of Alaska is already using alternative energy, and the state's goal should be to reach 50 percent by 2025. She said wind and hydro have been the most effective alternative energies used in Alaska thus far, but more breakthroughs are needed to store alternative energy.
However, Alaska lawmakers' $20.75 billion proposal for alternative-energy research grants is drawing criticism because it references using liquefied coal. Critics say coal is a fossil fuel in another form.
The money would reportedly come from Alaska's oil revenue surplus.
But the governor's approach is aimed at economics, according to Steve Haagenson, the senior energy coordinator in Palin's administration,
"We're trying to find the lowest cost opportunities so we can build the economy across Alaska," he said.
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