Renewable energy group reaps results

Posted: Thursday, December 17, 2009

Energy is the lifeline of any economy, and key to filling that need is a predictable, reasonably priced source of renewable energy sources, says the director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.

Worldwide demand for energy will double by 2050, according to a forecast from the International Energy Agency, and with the supply of non-renewable hydrocarbons being finite, renewable energy is a hedge and can make a dent in the state's energy problems, said Chris Rose, executive director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.

"The more there is, the more investors will want to invest in this state," Rose said. "We are trying to get predictability. Businesses like predictability, and there is no predictability in natural gas or oil prices."

REAP is a coalition of large and small Alaska utilities, businesses, conservation and consumer groups and Alaska Native organizations, as well as municipal, state and federal entities with an interest in developing Alaska's renewable energy resources.

REAP's goal is to increase the production of renewable energy in Alaska and to bring the benefits of clean and economic renewable power to Alaskans. The organization is led by a board of directors elected from its membership.

The nonprofit organization's work is funded through membership dues, sponsorship from organizational members and grants from foundations.

To date, REAP's efforts to educate state legislators on the importance of meeting energy needs have paid off in legislative appropriations of $360 million in 2008 for weatherization and energy rebate funds administered by the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., and, in 2009 in a $125 million renewable energy grant fund.

Alaska gets 24 percent of its power through renewable energy - mostly through hydro projects, he said.

"Our goal is to be the first state to be 50 percent renewably energy - wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass, ocean energy and even solar," Rose said. "I think we can get there. I think we are all going to have to get to beyond 50 percent."

Rose's organization does well to mobilize communities and get backing from utilities, a refreshing approach, said Jim Posey, general manager of Municipal Light and Power in Anchorage and a REAP board member.

"We were among the first to sign up. To have an organization with a decided environmental bent to be supported initially by some of the utilities in town is somewhat unique," Posey said. "A lot of what the state has been able to achieve in getting so much rural energy money out (for renewable energy projects) is by everyone singing the same song. Conservation and renewable energy go hand in hand, and that is a basic piece of what REAP talks about. Conservation is number one, renewable energy is number two and it just goes on from there."

Alaska is doing more per capita in renewable energy and state grants than any other state, he said. "And we all did it as a group: the utilities, REAP, legislators and some others too," Posey said. "We all were of some influence in the process that got us to this point. We have achieved a great deal by working cooperatively before going to Juneau."

Rose had a successful career as a criminal defense lawyer and in mediation, but decided more than seven years ago to devote more time to issues like the economy, foreign policy and the environment.

"They were all centered on energy, and I started thinking, 'What is a solution?' and renewable energy popped up," he said.

Rose said he started communicating with people running education and advocacy groups related to renewable energy in other states, then facilitated a meeting of representatives of Alaska utilities, environmental groups, consumer groups and others.

"In 15 minutes, we had a consensus to start the group," he said. "It was a small group, but it was a start. Now we have almost 70 members, and that's without working too hard to get more members. I think just providing a forum for energy stakeholders is important, having all these folks at the table at the same time, thinking about this, and taking action together."

REAP is focused on utility and community alternative energy development, rather than on the individual.

"We feel there is greater economy to scale to get utilities and communities to work on that," he said.

Even with four full-time staff and two summer interns, the organization has had to triage priorities, "but we're on the right track," he said.

Rose said he is optimistic too that the leadership in the Alaska Legislature realizes that energy is a huge issue and that the upcoming 90-day session will produce results benefiting such development.

"I don't think people are against renewable energy," Rose said. "Some are just stronger voices than others. We are focused on education of the general public and policy makers. There is a whole lot of information out there."

Rose sees the quest for increased use of renewable energy in Alaska as a lifelong project.

"We are going to all have to keep working on it, but we have only scratched the surface," he said. "Our vision is that Alaska should be a world leader on this."

REAP counts among its major accomplishments to date the millions of dollars that the state has committed for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, plus five renewable energy fairs that have attracted well over 10,000 people.

REAP representatives have also addressed literally hundreds of organizations about the potential for renewable energy sources, and has become a trusted source of information, Rose said.

But success to date hasn't put a damper on the goals REAP has for coming years, he said.

Small, remote communities in rural Alaska that need affordable, reliable energy are potential laboratories for demonstration projects, which can be developed and exported, he said.

"There are 2 billion people on the planet with no electricity and they all wanted it yesterday," Rose said. "We have all these places we need to solve problems for our own villages, and in the process of doing this, we can develop projects that we can export."

Margaret Bauman can be reached at margie.bauman@alaskajournal.com.



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