Senate committee hears testimony on microgrid technology

Murkowski, Cantwell conduct field hearing for Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Testimony at a U.S. Senate field hearing on energy held in Cordova on June 10 had one clear message: to be successful in renewable energy innovation, collaboration and sharing of information between all stakeholders is a must.

That, in a nutshell, is the message that Cordova wanted to emphasize to Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources convened the field hearing to examine Innovation in Action-Microgrids and Hybrid Energy Systems.

Murkowski is the committee’s chair and Cantwell is the committee’s ranking member.

The witness panel included Clay Koplin, mayor of Cordova and chief executive officer of Cordova Electric Coop; Abraham Ellis, the principal member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.; Gwen Holdmann, director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power; (ACEP), at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; Meera Kohler, chief executive officer of Alaska Village Electric Cooperative; and Geoff Larson, the chief executive officer and founder of the Alaskan Brewing Company, in Juneau.

About 100 people turned out to listing to the hearing at the Cordova Center.

After welcoming the witness panel, Murkowski spoke about innovation, collaboration and progression regarding energy needs in rural Alaska and across the nation.

“Senator Cantwell and I work together on the energy committee and are continuing to work on energy bills. The innovation in energy is exciting, dynamic, and we’re glad to be here in Cordova for this hearing,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski noted that 12 percent of hybrids and microgrids in the world are in Alaska.

“We want to make sure Alaskans keep looking for ways to rely on other sources of energy, such as hydro, geothermal, and other microgrid technologies,” she said. “Microgrid renewable systems are smarter and cheaper, not only for remote communities. Keep working on robust systems and make progress on them, tailoring them to the needs of places like Cordova. We need to have a strategy, set up a system and build up resiliency in all of our states,” she said.

Cantwell said she hoped that Alaskans would take away from the hearing just how important it is to keep pioneering in the energy arena.

Koplin visited Washington, D.C. in March, to testify at a field hearing on infrastructure investments to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. It was then that he suggested that the energy committee visit Cordova, to see firsthand the challenges faced in a remote community, and the progress Cordova Electric Cooperative, and residents, have made on the energy front in rural Alaska.

“In my closing remarks at the March 14 field hearing on infrastructure investments to this committee in Washington, D.C., I encouraged the committee to hold a field hearing in Cordova where they could see the social benefits of strategic infrastructure investments,” Koplin said.

“I wanted them to see how a community that works together can accomplish much, particularly with some well-placed investments on the federal side. We also wanted them to realize that these small coastal communities are very innovative and have a lot to share,” Koplin said.

“The Department of Energy is playing an important role,” Ellis told the senators. “The committee is aware that investment into advanced energy technologies will have a great impact nationally.”

Alaskans live in a unique area, Larson said. “Our attitudes are different and we have to do things differently.”

Larson described a cutting-edge technology developed at the Juneau brewery, using spent grain as the sole fuel source for steam generation. “We’re the only brewery in the world targeting 60-percent fossil fuel replacement with spent grain,” he said.

Koplin said he considered the field meeting in Cordova fruitful on several levels.

“The community got some insight into how field hearings and information gathering works for our U.S. Senate,” he said.

It was also a reminder of how much Alaska and Washington are connected and that senators can and do work across the aisle to benefit their states and our country, he said.

“As Senator Murkowski pointed out, Congress works together better than the negative news media might lead you to believe. I think some very meaningful seeds were planted, not only with the senators and their staff, but among those testifying as well,” he said.

The mayor said he would be surprised and disappointed if this hearing did not result in more interest in partnering with Cordova and Alaska around innovation, microgrid, and renewable energy development and installation. “I am particularly hopeful that we do more work with Sandia and other national labs, and with the energy industry,” he said. “Continued federal investments can help accelerate and leverage these relationships and opportunities.”

Earlier that day, Murkowski met for an hour with select Cordova residents at the Union Hall for an informal citizen’s discussion.

Residents spoke with Murkowski on a variety of topics, but predominately on proposed changes to national health care coverage and funding cuts to education.

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She’s been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She’s lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at cgibbens-stimson@thecordovatimes.com or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.