Alaska needs a new approach to energy problems

People gather in front of the Alaska Capitol for a climate rally in 2023.

Written by Matt Jackson

November 15, 2023

Two bills bode well for renewable energy in Alaska

Alaska Climate Alliance members sit on the floor and paint banners for a climate rally in 2023.

Alaska’s oil math doesn’t add up. The state subsidizes oil extraction to the point of bankrupting itself, while regular Alaskans pay some of the highest fuel prices in the country and have some of the highest per capita carbon emission rates in the country, falling fourth behind other rural petro states. While fisheries and villages are collapsing, unleaded gas in Utqiagvik, just miles from the start of the Trans- Alaska Pipeline, was $7.30 per gallon this year and, closer to home, residents of Kake were paying $7.09 per gallon last winter; Alaskans are reaping all the risks and none of the rewards.

Governor Dunleavy would have you think Alaska is one of the best places in the world to extract fossil fuels — and he’s right if you’re an oil executive. Alaska has been the most profitable place to drill for oil in the world for nine out of the last ten years according to Alaska’s own bipartisan legislative budget office. Unfortunately for non-oil executives, it hasn’t worked out so well, with half the number of oil jobs as 10 years ago, the highest energy prices in the country and temperatures heating up at a chinook- killing, permafrost melting pace.

While I’m deeply cynical of the State of Alaska’s approach to resource extraction, I’ve actually got a lot of hope for our future. We’re resourceful, hard working folks and our communities are blessed with an incredible abundance of renewable energy opportunities. One of the biggest wins of 2023 was the permanent extension of the Renewable Energy Fund. The REF is one of the most impactful state programs for making energy affordable, exactly because it’s not an energy subsidy, but a grant program that invests right at the root of Alaska’s energy crisis. Its goal is simple: to help communities switch from expensive, dirty, fossil fuels to clean, cheap, renewable energy.

We have a long way to go before Alaska could truly claim to be the best source of energy in the nation, but we have many opportunities and some concrete steps we can take to start getting there. There are two bills, in particular, before the State Legislature this coming session that you may have heard me talk about before, the Renewable Portfolio Standard and the Green Bank bills. Both would supercharge the Alaska renewable energy industry in different ways.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard bill would require the big railbelt utilities to hit ambitious goals for renewable energy production. While it only sets standards for the utilities stretching from Homer to Fairbanks, a scaled up renewable energy industry there will help lower costs and increase the infrastructure and expertise needed to electrify the larger Alaska economy. It also includes a provision for those utilities to buy “Renewable Energy Credits” from rural utilities, further incentivizing renewable energy across the state.

The Green Bank bill approaches the same problem from the other end, creating a state financing agency, within the existing Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, to finance energy efficiency technologies (think heat pumps) and renewable energy production (think solar panels).

With those two policies in our toolbox, Alaska would be one step closer to living up to its true renewable energy potential, and ready for the next big steps toward a just energy transition.

Photos: Lauren Cusimano

Read this story in the Ravencall Fall/Winter 2023-2024 PDF edition.

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