Why risk Alaska’s electrical grid by increasing renewables?

By Rick Whitbeck

Updated: 4 minutes ago Published: 13 minutes ago

The Anchorage Daily News’ recent editorial attempted to walk the middle of the road between expanded development of natural gas and enhanced renewable power for the Railbelt between Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula.

Anyone who has seen roadkill — or played the “Frogger” video game — knows how perilous that action can be.

It was a bit confusing to see an ownership group from the Interior championing the decommissioning of the Healy 2 power plant — currently fed by coal from Healy’s Usibelli mine, a key Interior employer and community partner — and extolling the chance to replace its power with a mixture of wind and natural gas. It’s all part of the narrative that “green” energy is somehow the answer. It isn’t, for a few reasons.

First, the weather doesn’t always cooperate, and wind doesn’t always blow. Reliability is one of the biggest issues with wind power — battery storage is another — and as anyone who has seen the giant wind blades on Fire Island standing still can attest, there isn’t a way to guarantee wind will cooperate with power- generation goals.

Second, wind power in Railbelt Alaska is more expensive than natural gas. Look at any Chugach Electric bill, where you’ll see a line item for “FIW Renewable Energy Adj*,” with a corresponding note on the bill stating, “*Represents the cost difference of Fire Island renewable wind power compared to other generation. ” Families are already dealing with record inflation and vehicle, plane, boat and off-road gas prices; add why another increase?

Third, increasing renewable energy comes with grid-security risks. Over 80% of all wind (and solar) components are manufactured by China, with raw materials owned and controlled by China, and exported to the US and other countries. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, supplies of personal protective equipment, pharmaceuticals and essential medical devices like respirators were not made available for import by the Chinese, causing the federal government to scramble to find domestic alternatives. Thankfully, companies were resourceful and adjusted their manufacturing plants and processes on the fly. Within days, PPE, hand sanitizer, respirators and other items critically needed to fight COVID-19 were available.

However, what was done during the COVID pandemic can’t be repeated with grid components; not without domestic supplies of critical and strategic minerals that the US doesn’t mine, nor without a tremendous amount of coal used in the manufacturing process. Coal is the only heat source that burns hot enough to forge steel and bind carbon-fiber, which are the backbone pieces of any wind-generation package.

Domestic environmental have — to America’s detriment — effectively made burning coal a last-resort action, fraught with public-relations risk. China, however, has no qualms about burning it, and as a result, continues to enhance its position as the world’s chokepoint for supplies of “green” energy materials. If they decided to have recent history repeat itself and restrict exports of those products, any electrical grid dependent on China for resiliency would be imperiled.

The old saying goes, “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.” “Green” energy isn’t as reliable, cost-effective nor safe from supply-chain disruption. Why push for solutions that have so many problems? That’s a question the Daily News’ editorial board should answer in its next editorial.

Rick Whitbeck is the Alaska State Director for Power The Future, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for American energy jobs. Contact him at rick@powerthefuture.com and follow him on Twitter @PTFAlaska.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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