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See why electricity is so expensive in Alaska

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Alaskans pay more for energy

Given the huge amount and different energy resources of Alaska, it is hard to understand why electricity is so expensive in Alaska. As a matter of fact, Alaska has huge oil and gas reserves on the North Slope and its continental shelves, gas reserves at various locations on land as well as the World’s cleanest coal. At various places, Southeast Alaska has high tidal differences. Not to mention that Alaska has many rain and glacier-fed rivers. On the Aleutian Chain, various volcanoes exist. In Central Alaska, hot spring witness access to the Earth’s heat. In summer, the Sun shines 24/7 at places close to the Arctic and North of it. Along the Arctic Ocean, there are strong winds. The boreal forest provides a large wood resource. Thus, one would think that energy should be cheap with these abundant possibilities of resources to choose from.

Alaska shown at the same scale as the Lower 48s
Alaska shown at the same scale as the Lower 48s

Alaska is only 2% developed

Let’s go to the roots of the problem, the development. Alaska encompasses 663,300 square miles (~1717939 km2). This means Alaska is about 2.5, 2.7 or 4.8 times larger than Texas, France, or Germany. Alaska has 738,432 inhabitants, i.e. Alaska’s population density is 0.4 people per square kilometer (1.3 per square mile). For comparison, in Texas, France or Germany, 40, 118, and 231 people exist on average per square kilometer. The lowest population density in Europe is 17 per square kilometer in Finland. When you now consider that more than 400000, 100000 and 100000 people live in the Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau metropolitan areas, it is quite obvious that Alaska is only developed to 2%.

Development costs are key

In the Lower 48 and Europe, for instance, electricity grids are all connected. The distances are relatively small which means comparatively lower costs for setup and maintenance of an electricity network with overland power-lines. Furthermore, the number of consumers is high. Thus, the costs for building and maintaining the electricity grid is shared among many consumers. Since cities are close to each other their power producing facilities can back each other up in case of an emergency or outage. In addition, in Europe, even villages have the size of Alaskan cities except for the three largest cities Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.

In Alaska, however, even the three major cities are far away from each other. There is not even a land-way to get to Juneau from Central Alaska. You can only get there by boat or plane. The distance Anchorage – Fairbanks is 360 miles (579 km). The Parks Highway connects these cities and passes the World’s third highest mountain range. The ride Anchorage to Fairbanks takes about 12 hours in winter.

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Any construction over a long distance in complex terrain with glacier and many rivers, permafrost and extreme climate is very expensive and risky. Avalanches, for instance, may knock down power-lines. Now add to the mix that the construction also has to withstand earthquakes of a magnitude of 8.5 or more as well as wildfires. Wildfires are a natural landscape evolution mechanism in the Interior.

Example Fairbanks’ electricity

Fairbanks’ electricity mainly relies on burning coal or oil – what ever is cheaper -and some wind energy. There are the diesel fired Zehnder Power Plant in Fairbanks, the coal fired Aurora Energy plant in donwntown Fairbanks, the North Pole Expansion power plant, and the diesel fired North Pole Power Plant, the coal fired Healy Power Plants, the wind farms in Eva Creek and Delta, the diesel fired Delta Power Plant, the Bradley Lake Hydroelectrics, and the Natural Gas Generation. The university has its own power plant, but is connected to the Fairbanks grid for backup and to support if needed. Currently, a new power plant is under construction on campus to replace the 50+ old plant.

College, Alaska power plant
View on the old UAF power plant

North Pole is a city within the Fairbanks metropolitan area (see map below). Delta is 99 miles (160 km) south of Fairbanks at the confluence of the Tanana and Delta River. Healy is located on the Parks Highway 111 miles (179 km) from Fairbanks. Eva Creek is about 14 miles north of Healy.

Alaska Maps of the Yukon Flats and Tanana Valley
Google map screen shots of the Yukon Flats (upper panel) and the western part of the Tanana Valley (lower panel). Circle is the only city in the Yukon Flats which is on the road network. Note that the road to Circle becomes as small as a lane beyond Central. Light gray and yellow roads indicate dirt (unpaved) and paved highways. There are no other roads connecting the cities.

Electricity in rural areas

It is obvious that most villages in Alaska have to have their own micro-grid for electricity. This means most of these communities rely on diesel generators to produce their electricity. These generators can be their own or a central one feeding several households. If a village is off the road network, the diesel has to be flown in by small planes. These planes land on dirt air stripes. In winter, the small aircrafts land on the snow with skids.

The challenges of small grids

The large distances between villages especially when they are off the road network mean that these villages have often no backup electricity. This means when their main electricity producing device fails they can’t feed their micro-grid with electricity from somewhere else. Furthermore, since they mostly rely on one type of fuel the customers on micro-grids feel market-price changes much stronger than customers of large grids like in the Lower 48s.

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Some small coastal communities have added small wind turbines to lower their electricity bills. However, icing of the turbine blades is a major problem in the cold season, i.e. when the most electricity is needed. In the Interior with its calm winds, adding wind energy is not an option. The average annual wind speed is less than the cut-in speed of wind turbines.

While micro-grids with hydro-power exist in Southeast Alaska, using hydro-power in Central Alaska is an engineering and technical challenge. Here rivers freeze every year in late October/early November. Break-up is late in spring. For instance, the Tanana breaks up in April or May.

Where does your electricity come from? What do you pay per KW hour?

You may also like to read about the challenges of drink water, road construction or transport.

Stay tuned for further Focus Alaska posts on energy and its impact on Alaskans’ lifestyle. Focus Alaska is a weekly series on Alaska lifestyle, events, curiousa, insider travel tips, Alaska shopping and street style.

Photos of me: G. Kramm
Other photos: N. Mölders

Copyright 2013-2017 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

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