Geothermal in Alaska Presents Challenges

It’s no surprise that Alaskans pay twice as much for electricity compared to the rest of the country. In rural areas, it can cost three times as much.

The state is looking to stabilize some of those costs with the help of renewable energy, such as geothermal energy. But, it’s proving to be a lot more difficult to find.

Across Alaska, fossil fuels keep the lights on. Gas provides nearly 58 percent of Alaskans’ electricity and oil provides about 15 percent, according to the Alaska Energy Authority.

But, green energy is on the horizon, says Sean Skaling, AEA’s programs and evaluation director.

“In many cases, renewable energy is more cost effective than the existing infrastructure,” Skaling said.

Skaling oversees Alaska’s Renewable Energy Fund, created by the Alaska Legislature in 2008. Its mission is to fund green projects across the state in hopes that Alaska generates 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2025.

“The biggest four projects that we see are hydroelectric, wind, biomass and heat recovery,” Skaling said.

In 2011, hydroelectric power supplied about 20 percent of the state’s electricity in an average water year. Wind power accounted for less than 1 percent, according to the AEA.

The focus is now on geothermal energy, heat that’s generated from the earth’s core. Geothermal energy can be used directly for heating and cooling or to produce electric power. In the process, steam can be extracted through deep wells and then used to turn a turbine to generate electricity. This energy is usually found along major plate boundaries, where earthquakes and volcanoes are concentrated. And, according to the AEA, it can last for decades. It also releases less carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide into the air.

Alaska has four potential geothermal regions: the Interior Hot Springs; the Southeast Hot Springs; the Wrangell Mountains; and the “Ring of Fire” volcanoes, which includes the Aleutians, the Alaska Peninsula and Mount Edgecumbe. But pockets can be hard to find and expensive to develop, Skaling says.

“The trick with geothermal is just like any of the other resources,” he said. “You have to find the resource, find it in abundance, make the energy cost effective, which also means it has to be close to a population base.”

So far, there’s been no luck finding this energy near Anchorage.

Another challenge lies in the fact that the state’s communities aren’t connected through one electrical grid.

“In Alaska, there are very few transmission lines, and almost all the communities have their own separate diesel generation,” Skaling said.

Alaska has more than 150 standalone electrical grids. In the Lower 48, electric lines connect almost everybody to one grid — making it easier to deliver power once it’s found.

But the future is looking green for Alaska. Nome is hoping to build the state’s second geothermal plant to create electricity for the city. This could carve a path for other parts of the state to follow.

The state Legislature has spent more than $200 million through the Renewable Energy Fund on 227 projects. The first 62 are expected to save the state more than $1 billion over their lifetimes, the AEA says.

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 30th, 2014 at 9:08 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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