Alaskans usually think of energy in the form of oil, gas, coal or various alternative fuels like wind or solar power. However, a few people are thinking beyond those options and going directly to what Alaskans need — a way to electrify the state.
Since first used early in the last century, High Voltage Direct Current Transmission Lines have become an electrical transmission standard for sending energy long distances from a power source – like a hydroelectric dam – to consumers hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Meera Kohler C-E-O of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative says that HVDC technology could be used to solve Alaska’s energy costs and distribution problems. As chair of a Commonwealth North Task Force, Kohler has begun promoting the plan to businesses and to the public. Last week, she spoke to a group of legislators to let them know what is being discussed that would directly solve problems the people are facing. She said in the past decade, the price of diesel delivered in rural Alaska has tripled, people are spending about half their incomes on heating their home, and rural residents are spending more while using less energy than those in urban areas.
The dependency on diesel fuel in rural Alaska must be reduced by whatever means that are practical, through increased efficiencies and through the utilization of viable alternatives.
Those oil prices Kohler refers to are not expected to get better. Dr. Robert Jacobsen is Vice President for Science and Technology for Marsh Creek – a native-owned energy, environmental and construction company. Jacobsen says he did some original engineering on the project back in the sixties with ARCO Alaska. He says market growth in China and India almost guarantee oil prices will rise worldwide. And that will make life in Alaska even more difficult.
Jacobsen says the energy is on the North Slope – thirty five trillion cubic feet of known natural gas — but there is no market asking for it in the lower forty eight or around the Pacific rim. He says the market is disappearing.
Talks of liquefying our gas and shipping it to Asia, while making good press, why would Asia buy your gas when they can go Frack their own at two bucks a gallon – and they were. So the question then comes, whether the oil companies or Alaska likes it or not, the North Slope gas is a stranded asset.
The plan Kohler and Jacobsen are working on would actually have gas-fired generators on the North Slope with a dedicated DC power line to Fairbanks. That would provide energy to the existing Railbelt power grid which could include Anchorage.
Jacobsen says HVDC is a technical solution that quickly built, a power line would also be the least expensive of any other options being considered – delivering electricity to the railbelt for 9.3-cents per kilowatt hour. Less if the project is expanded to deliver current to Canada and the U-S – or to other parts of non-railbelt Alaska. Other factors could drop prices even more if power is added from the Susitna-Watana Dam.
Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell has seen HVDC lines in various parts of the Arctic during his travels and he says projects in Norway and Greenland have gotten attention. He points out that it is not the only option, however.
Alaska has a lot of stranded, renewable and – frankly – conventional power if you include natural gas on the North Slope. I think we’ve got a pretty good process underway right now to try and get an LNG project moving from the North Slope. But that doesn’t mean you can’t think about power. And we’re certainly thinking about large power sources coming from the Watana Project. So understanding the economics of DC cable makes sense as something we’re going to have to look into.
Treadwell says the state is aware of all the various options for using North Slope energy – but gas will only move to market when buyers and sellers get together on a development. He says the state is not getting in the way of any of them.