When I think of Alaska, two words immediately come to mind: innovation, and energy. Alaskans are by necessity often creative problem solvers, with a history of innovation deeply ingrained in our culture.
Our identity and our economy are deeply connected to our role as an energy exporter. Yet at the same time, we also are heavily reliant on energy to survive in an often cold, harsh climate. So, while we are a major energy exporter, we are also an energy importer.
For example, we are heavily reliant on imported fuel oil to provide heat and power to many of our far-flung communities. And that imported fuel is shipped over long distances, at costs tied to global markets over which we have little control.
That’s why geopolitical situations like the tragic war in Ukraine have a direct impact on a community like Noatak, where escalating global fuel prices have caused the most recent shipments to skyrocket to $14/gallon.
For these reasons, the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference coming up May 24-26 in Anchorage that’s being organized by Gov. Mike Dunleavy could not be happening at a more important time.
I applaud the administration for leading this conversation and bringing Alaskans together with experts from around the world to discuss topics ranging from renewable energy potential in Alaska, to micronuclear technology, to electric vehicles and to new forms of power generation and energy storage.
Alaska is examining an “all of the above” energy strategy.
Alaska has the potential to occupy a critical role in the current energy transition. We are centrally located in the Pacific region from a shipping and air logistics perspective. A good portion of shipping traffic in the North Pacific skirts Alaskan waters.
The Ted Stevens International Airport is one of the top five busiest cargo hubs in the world. While we have long sought markets for our natural gas, perhaps we could pivot to also meet international demand for lower carbon fuels such as blue and green hydrogen in the form of synthetic fuels like ammonia or methanol.
Rethinking our role as an energy exporting state within the context of a global energy transition to a net zero carbon economy gives us a chance to reinvent ourselves.
When it comes to domestic strategies for energy production and use, Alaska is also an accidental innovator. Alaska has never had an integrated electric grid. Instead, we rely on local microgrids to provide power to all Alaskans.
Even the Railbelt grid is just a series of independent but connected services areas, or microgrids. It turns out by not having access to the same infrastructure as everyone else, we’ve had to get really good at developing and maintaining local, distributed energy resources.
This necessity has translated into Alaska being a global leader in microgrid technologies, small resilient islands of power.
Today, Alaska leads the U.S. in total microgrid capacity with over 3,500 megawatts of installed capacity, with some microgrids continually operating for a century or more. Renewables have been integrated into these power systems to reduce ongoing fuel costs and to make them more resilient and sustainable. We’ve been learning about what works – and what doesn’t.
I’m excited about attending this conference. It provides a chance to learn, a chance to showcase our strengths and a chance to bring together thought leaders and ordinary Alaskans to think about our future as not only Alaskans, but collectively as global citizens.
In the end, only by sharing our successes – and failures – can we as a society tackle the pressing problems facing the world. Energy is intertwined with so many aspects of life. The war in Ukraine is just one example of how we are all interconnected, even if our power systems can be totally independent from a traditional grid.
It is time to think outside the box and continue with the pioneering spirit that has served the state so well and which has the capacity to shape the broader world of energy both at home, and abroad.
Gwen Holdmann is the director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.