Powering Alaska After The Oil Runs Out

Renewable energy is defined as any source of energy that is replenished by natural phenomena, such as growing trees for firewood or the water held behind by a dam used for hydroelectric power.  Renewable energy sources include solar, hydropower, wind, geothermal, and biomass. Conversely, fossil fuels are a non-renewable source of energy.  Fossil fuels, which include oil, gas and coal, represent about 85% of the world’s present consumption of energy. Nuclear energy is not renewable, since requires a fuel of limited supply (uranium) to be mined out of the ground.

The environmental benefits of renewable energy include, but are not limited to: greatly reduced pollution, especially air pollution and carbon emissions, and renewable energy sources that are both produced and consumed in the same area; indigenous sources with no fuel costs.  This means that no fuel has to be imported.

The term ‘alternative’ energy is not as good as ‘renewable’, since it is not descriptive of how renewable energy differs from fossil energy.  In the long run there is no alternative to renewable

The Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), which started in 2004, is one hopeful sign that there are dedicated Alaskans who want to change all of this.  REAP is a coalition of small and large electric utilities and utility interests, environmental groups, consumer groups, businesses, and Alaska Native interests with the goal of increasing renewable energy production in Alaska. REAP’s mission is "to facilitate the increased development of renewable energy in Alaska through collaboration, education and training, and advocacy."  REAP’s goals are ambitious, but absolutely necessary:

REAP’s message will include the fact that renewable energy is abundant in Alaska; that its use will result in lower energy bills; that Alaska can become a world leader in the development of renewables, which will benefit both the private sector and the University system through increased research and development; and that continued reliance on fossil fuel is related to climate changes that Alaska is already being adversely affected by.  REAP’s education campaign will also contain basic information about how different renewable technologies work.  It will strive to do away with the many misconceptions about renewable energy that still prevail amongst the public.

The Sustainable Energy Commission of the Alaska Peninsula (SECAP) is another group that has recently formed.  Local, grassroots efforts such as this organization are much needed.  The good news is that Alaska has more than enough renewable energy potential to power the states needs.  However, taking advantage of these clean resources remains a challenge.  Renewable energy sources in Alaska are not alternatives, but superlatives.  Alaska has more hydropower than any other state, and extensive tidal, wind, and geothermal energy potential. 

The concept of sustainable development includes, but is not limited to, environmental protection.  Economic innovation is needed and renewable energy development is far more innovative than what the oil and gas companies could ever dream of doing.  The task of solving Alaska’s, and the world’s, energy problems is like a race to the moon, but far more important. Without renewable energy development, Alaska’s future looks bleak.

Water Power

Water, or hydroelectric, power uses the energy of moving water to generate electricity.  Alaska has one sixth of the land area of the United States, but 40% of its flowing fresh water.  This directly translates to one third of the nation’s hydroelectric potential being possessed by Alaska.  Less than one half of 1% of the state’s hydroelectric potential has been tapped.  When most people think of hydropower, they think of large and ecologically destructive dams.  Much of the hydropower in the world certainly comes from such facilities.  However, hydropower is a diverse resource, coming in many shapes and sizes.  The degree of environmental impact of a hydro plant is site-specific, and some hydroelectric sites do not require dams or impoundments.

Hydropower played an important part in Alaskan industrial development between the 1880s and the early 1900s.  Alaska’s first hydroelectric plant was built in Juneau in 1893.  By 1908, more than 30 waterpower plants had been developed, powering the mining, timber, and fishing industries.  As late as 1956, half of Alaska’s electricity came from hydro.  Also by mid-century, several huge and destructive proposals were in the works.  The most notable of these was the massive Rampart Dam on the Yukon River which would have created a 10,800 square mile reservoir, flooding Native communities and what is now the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Small and micro-scale hydropower offers huge promise in Alaska, especially with improving technology.  Small and micro-scale hydroelectric plants can really make a change in rural Alaska.  Untapped small potential in the state has been estimated by the U.S. Dept. of Energy as being as high as 8,000 Megawatts (MW).  A megawatt is one million watts of electricity, enough to power an Alaskan town of about 750 people. The entire state has at present 2300 MW of electric generation capacity.

Tidal power uses the energy of the moving tides. Tidal energy is a form of hydroelectric power that has not yet been tapped in Alaska, despite enormous resources.  Commercial tidal power plants exist in France and Canada. Tidal current power offers the least environmental impact, and is a technology in the development stage. Wave power is another variation on hydropower, using the oscillating energy of ocean waves. Alaska’s long coastline should offer some wave energy potential. Wave and tidal current power are still under development, and only a handful of grid-connected ocean energy plants exist.  The technological state-of-the-art for these energy sources is roughly equivalent to that of wind energy 25 years ago. The UK is currently the world leader in wave and tidal energy technology.  Alaskans should start seriously considering wave and tidal power, as well as low-impact small hydro, and be ahead of the game.

Wind Energy

Wind energy is the process of converting the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical or electrical energy.  Windmills have been used for centuries to pump water and grind grain.  Alaska’s statewide wind energy potential is huge, especially in the peak-demand winter season.  The wind energy potential is especially good in the Aleutians and the Bering Sea Coast, although good wind sites can be found in all parts of Alaska.

Wind energy is already powering Alaskan homes.  For example, Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA) installed ten small wind turbines in 1997, and is working to expand its wind generation greatly.  Wind now provides 5 to 7% of Kotzebue’s electric power needs. St. Paul Island uses wind power to offset diesel fuel costs, and the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC) has several wind turbines installed in the village of Selawik, 70 miles SE of Kotzebue. The Fire Island wind power project just west of Anchorage is the largest proposed wind project in the state, and is the largest renewable energy project most likely to proceed in Alaska before 2010. A consortium of Raibelt utilities, led by Chugach Electric Association, is intent on developing the project.  Fire Island has not yet received final approval, and is awaiting further funding.  Also, Golden Valley Electric Association has been looking into wind energy in the Fairbanks area for the past several years.


Geothermal energy refers to naturally occurring "earth heat" underground, such as hot rocks or hot water, often in active volcanic areas.  Geothermal energy potential is high in much of Alaska, especially on the Alaska Peninsula and out along the Aleutians.  Mt. Makushin on Unalaska Island underwent extensive geothermal energy studies in the early 1980s, and again in 1996.  Under re-investigation, this geothermal site could power the city of Unalaska, as well as fish processing facilities and hydrogen production.  Also in the Aleutians, studies are underway on Akutan geothermal energy, which could power a fish-processing facility.  Large amounts of geothermal energy are also found in the Mt. Spurr area, just 70 miles west of Anchorage, and near Mt. Sanford near Glenallen.  Chena, Manley, and Circle Hot Springs around Fairbanks are under investigation for use of very efficient geothermal heat. Geothermal energy is exploited commercially in Iceland, New Zealand, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Central America, and Italy.  In the U.S., geothermal energy is used in California, Nevada, Oregon and Hawaii.


Biomass energy is the burning of plant or animal matter.  SE Alaska wood waste is a large potential source of biomass fuel.  Under study in Ketchikan is a wood-waste to ethanol project.  In Unalaska, fish oil fuel is used at the Unisea fish processing plant, displacing over one million gallons of diesel in 2003.


Photovoltaics convert sunlight directly into electricity, while solar thermal energy makes direct use of the heat energy in sunlight.  The high latitude of Alaska precludes large-scale use of (direct) solar energy. However, the use of direct solar energy, in the form of solar thermal or photovoltaic, can contribute a significant portion of Alaska’s energy in the summer time.  The annual hours of sun are high in Alaska due to the extended summer days. Passive solar design of homes offer great potential energy savings, and much existing roof space can be used for solar panels.

Energy Efficiency

No discussion of sustainable energy is complete without mentioning energy efficiency.  The use of any mix of energy sources should be accompanied by a simultaneous effort to improve energy efficiency.  A penny saved is a penny earned, and being able to do more with less is hard to argue against.  More efficient use of energy will only make the state more economically competitive. Not surprisingly, Alaska has the highest per-capita consumption of energy of any U.S. state.  According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, Alaska consumes 26.4 British Thermal Units (BTUs) of energy per dollar of gross state product (GSP), while the national average is 10.3 BTU/ $GSP.  Energy efficiency gains can be made in transportation, heating, and the use of electricity.

Electric vehicles are the most energy efficient form of transportation, even when the electricity used is generated by fossil fuels.  Increased public transit is needed in urban Alaska, as well as investigation of the use of electric buses and rail systems.  More public transit is a sure-fire way to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion in Anchorage.  The entire Alaska Railroad system could be electrified, saving on oil consumption and air pollution.  Electric-powered buses could become economical in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau.  Electric trolleys could be tourist attractions in the dense, non-highway connected cities of Southeast Alaska.  An advantage of hydrogen powered vehicles is the lack of batteries required to operate them. Toxic disposal of used batteries can be difficult, and it is uncertain how much waste a large amount of battery-powered vehicles would produce. 

Other Northern Examples of Renewable Energy

For the obvious reasons, northern regions have far greater per-capita use of energy than temperature regions.  Other cold regions can give Alaska ideas about how to use energy in the future. Perhaps most important is the example of Norway, which gets 99% of its electricity comes from hydropower, despite high domestic production of oil and gas.  Norway exports oil, gas, and hydro-electricity, which earns the nation a lot of export revenue.  Norway, like Alaska, has abundant reserves of oil and natural gas, yet an increasing amount of homes and hot water systems are heated by hydro-electricity.  Norway is the world’s third largest oil exporter, but has the some of the world’s most expensive gasoline at $7 per gallon. The majority of this gasoline price is taxes, strategically used to encourage fuel conservation.  And it works: Norway’s per capita oil consumption is 1.9 gallons per day, while in the U.S. the nationwide average is about 3 gallons per day.  Not bad for a place as far north as Alaska.

Iceland already has made ambitious plans to become the world’s first hydrogen economy, to be completely powered by the island’s abundant hydro and geothermal resources.  Most of Iceland’s electricity comes from hydropower, and most of its heating comes from geothermal energy.  Research is also underway in Iceland on hydrogen-powered buses and fishing boats.  Sweden and Finland also have ambitious renewable energy programs, particularly in using forestry products for biomass fuel.


[Photo: Existing electric transmission lines along the Turnagain Arm, which is an area of high tidal energy potential.]

Where from Here?

In switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, Alaska can serve as an impressive example for the rest of the world.   For example, off-the-grid areas around the world can learn from off-the-grid renewable energy projects in Alaska, and vice-versa. Alaska’s economy is driven by natural resources found in rural areas. As a result, sustainable rural development is key to the success and livability of Alaska’s urban areas.  Urban and suburban areas, despite increasing in size, still make up a tiny percentage of the state’s total land area.  Remote villages off the power grid in Alaska offer many exciting opportunities for new energy technologies.  The knowledge for sustainable off-grid power systems is especially important for the two billion people around the world who do not yet have electricity.  Alaska is an excellent model for rural renewable energy development in much of the world.  In many remote places in the world, such as rural Alaska, electricity is available but it is both polluting and expensive.  In such areas, the most common source of power is noisy, polluting diesel generators.  There is a huge demand worldwide for reliable off-grid power systems and isolated mini-grids, as many poor countries are finding that this is the cheapest option for rural electrification.  Jobs can be created in renewable energy research and development, and satiate the hungry construction lobby.

Among Alaska’s electric utilities, Kotzebue Electric Association and the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative are clearly the leaders in non-hydro renewable energy.  But other electric utilities are showing important initiative, and local activists are campaigning for new renewable energy projects around the state.  The transition to a truly sustainable society will take decades, but we must begin now.  A reasonable goal is for 100% of Alaska’s energy to come from renewable energy by 2050.  Non-fossil energy may well be our only option by then.

Some possible ways for developing renewable energy in Alaska:

-A small tax on oil and gas production to directly fund Alaska renewable energy programs.  If the big oil companies don’t like it, threaten them with nationalization (state takeover).

-Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a mandated percentage of electric generation that must come from certified renewable energy sources.  18 U.S. states and the District of Columbia already have an RPS. 

-A statewide fund for renewable energy and energy conservation projects

-Aggressive energy conservation measures to minimize use of fossil fuels, ranging from individual actions (such as home energy efficiency measures) to large-scale efforts such as energy-efficient urban planning and transportation projects.

The Permanent Fund is meant for when the oil runs out, what better use for it than renewable energy development?  Responsible, long-term investment in the state’s people is what the Permanent Fund is meant for anyway, and we owe it to the rest of the world to change our wasteful ways.  The long-extinct organisms that provide us with today’s fossil fuels have done their evolutionary duty, its time for them to retire.  Our own species must do its own evolutionary duty and stop using fossil fuels.  The future of Alaska depends upon renewable energy, so let’s all go north to the future.

Brian Yanity is a student activist and freelance journalist who resides in an undisclosed location in Southcentral Alaska. He can be reached at  byanity@insurgent49.com. A longer version of this article was previously published in www.insurgent49.com, independent media for progressive Alaskans.