Beyond the fishing boats, the snug homes and the tanks of diesel fuel marking an indigenous village on the Bering Sea, three huge wind turbines tower over the tundra. Their blades spin slowly in a breeze cold enough to freeze skin.
One of the US’ harshest landscapes, it turns out, is becoming fertile ground for green power.
As interest in cleaning up power generation grows around the country, Alaska is fast becoming a testing ground for new technologies and an unlikely experiment in oil-state support for renewable energy. Alaskans once cast a wary eye on anything smacking of environmentalism, but today they are investing heavily in green power, not so much to reduce greenhouse emissions as to save cash.
In remote villages like this one, where diesel to power generators is shipped by barge and can cost more than US$5 a gallon (3.8 liters) in bulk, electricity from renewable sources like wind is already competitive with power made from fossil fuels. In urban areas along the state’s limited road system, large wind and hydroelectric projects are also becoming attractive.
Alaska produces more oil than any state except Texas, but most of it leaves the state. Small markets and high transportation costs have kept local fuel prices high. As oil prices spiked last year, the state’s coffers overflowed with oil tax revenue, but the rising cost of diesel and other fuels became a local crisis.
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and state lawmakers responded by pledging last year to spend US$300 million over five years in grants to utilities, independent power producers or local governments to plan or build renewable energy projects. It is a substantial sum for a state with only 670,000 residents.
“Oil used to be cheap and convenient,” said Steve Haagenson, who was appointed last year by Palin as statewide energy coordinator. “Today, it’s just convenient.”
Advocates of renewable energy here say Alaska, with its windy coasts, untapped rivers and huge tidal and wave resources, could quickly become a national leader. The state already generates 24 percent of its electricity from renewable sources — almost exclusively hydroelectric — and Palin last month announced a goal of 50 percent by 2025.
“Today’s current low oil prices should not lull Alaskans into a false sense of security, as if these low prices are going to last,” she said.
Environmentalists concerned about the impacts of climate change, already widely apparent in Alaska, have strongly backed the state investments in renewable energy. But the driving force among politicians was economic.
In many rural areas of the state, high fuel costs have resulted in electricity prices of up to US$0.75 or more per kilowatt-hour, five to 10 times the prices common in the lower 48 states. Despite high installation costs and the need for cold-weather engineering, wind turbines can often produce power at a lower cost than diesel generators by eliminating the need for fuel.
The Kotzebue Electric Association in northwest Alaska first demonstrated the value of utility-scale wind power in Alaska in 1997. Since then, nine other rural communities have added turbines and dozens more are pursuing projects.
A state review completed last year found that wind power was technically and most likely economically feasible in more than 100 Alaskan villages, said Martina Dabo, who oversees wind power programs at the Alaska Energy Authority, a public corporation whose mission is to reduce the cost of energy.