Wanted: New alternatives

Cook Inletkeeper, borough eyeing energy resources

Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Editor’s Note: This is the final in a series of stories examining the Chuitna Coal Project.

Alaska has been called the “poster state” for rapid climate change, and there is little debate among serious scientists that unprecedented change is occurring in Alaska and other circumpolar regions, said Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inletkeeper.

Pointing to evidence that manmade sources of carbon dioxide, including coal burning, are aggravating the rate and effects of climate change “like no time in recorded human history,” Shavelson noted that those effects are to be seen in Alaska in eroding shorelines, dying forests, melting icepacks and receding glaciers.

Increasing temperatures in Kenai Peninsula rivers and streams, he said, could make critically important salmon stocks more vulnerable to pollution, predation and disease.

“The socioeconomic and environmental effects of rapid climate change are becoming disturbingly clear,” he said. “Cook Inletkeeper believes we have an obligation to current and future generations of Alaskans to forge an energy future that creates good, long-term jobs by harnessing Alaska’s renewable energy resources, such as tidal, wind, small-scale hydro and geothermal energies.”

The Kenai Peninsula Borough is supportive of the Chuitna project, but also has its eye on the same renewable energy sources, said Bill Popp, the borough’s energy industry liaison.

“I’m currently monitoring three different proposals for tidal energy,” Popp said. “Several proposals have been filed with federal agencies (including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), and they would undergo review by various agencies.”

Popp said the borough also was keeping tabs on Chugach Electric Association’s wind power project proposed for Fire Island west of Anchorage, as well as discussions surrounding enhancements to existing hydroelectric dam facilities.

The borough is not actively tracking the possibilities for using small-scale nuclear power, Popp said. However, he added that, “I don’t think any options should be off the table.”

Oil, gas and coal are among the most utilized energy resources because they are, relatively speaking, cheap, compared to alternatives. The cost per million Btu (British Thermal Unit, a measure of a fuel’s energy content) has to be brought down significantly before alternative energy sources will become economical.

“There are a lot of challenges facing alternative technologies,” he said. “Eventually, it comes down to what are citizens of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the state of Alaska, the United States, willing to pay for a million Btu of energy? It’s an issue of markets, subsidies and balancing the two, so as not to go too far afield and create a system where the entitlements become more valuable then the power being generated.”

As for hydro power, Popp said such mega-projects have their own sets of pluses and minuses and that he’d be surprised to seen another major dam project proposed in Alaska in the foreseeable future.

Still, Alaska should be considering all its options, he said.

“We are going to have to look at other directions. It think tidal power needs to be looked at, promoted and supported,” he said. “But the power generation being discussed in the three projects already filed with FERC are not significant enough to diversify the energy mix enough. We are talking about 10s of megawatts, not the 100s of megawatts needed.”

Wind power has a lot of potential, but also a lot of issues, Popp said. “The jury is still out on it. We will have to see how successful Chugach is with Fire Island to see if it can get off the ground successfully and have a meaningful impact on the broader electrical grid issues.”

He predicted that within the next decade, Alaska should have a better understanding of whether wind power is going to work here.

None of those really address home heating costs. With natural gas about a third the cost of heating with electricity, it would be difficult for alternatives to compete. They might, however, help offset the need for natural gas for power generation, and create room in the existing natural gas demand, Popp suggested.

Hal Spence can be reached at harold.spence@peninsu laclarion.com.

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