This post addresses why electricity is so expensive in Alaska despite of Alaska having oil and gas fields.
- Despite Various Resources Alaskans Pay More for Energy
- Alaska Is only 2% Developed
- Development Costs Are Key
- Example Fairbanks’ Electricity
- Why Electricity Is So Expensive in Alaska Rural Areas
- The Challenges of Small Grids
- Look of the Day
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Despite Various Resources 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 in Healy. At various places, Southeast Alaska has high tidal differences suitable for hydropower. 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.
As a result, one would think that energy should be cheap with these abundant possibilities of resources to choose from.
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% and the road network is sparse and has often unpaved roads.
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. Even in the three largest cities of Alaska, you may have to dress in the dark due to outages caused by trees falling into powerlines during snow or thunderstorms.
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.
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 solar and wind energy. There are the diesel fired Zehnder Power Plant in Fairbanks, the coal fired Aurora Energy plant in downtown 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 Hydro-electrics, 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. Recently, a new power plant replaced the 50+ old plant of on the campus of Alaska’s first university.
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.
Why Electricity Is So Expensive in Alaska 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 aircraft 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.
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 and are used as seasonal roads. Break-up is late in spring. For instance, the Tanana breaks up in April or May.
In many areas, solar technique has to be deployed to alert when drivers are too fast. However, using flag(wo)men for regulation in traffic for road construction is a more reliable solution.
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.
Look of the Day
I opted to wear my sequin patched denim jacket with a tired and pleated midi skirt. I went for a black blouse to create a long vertical line. It elongates the frame. When you are a petite like me, a midi skirt asks for (sky) high heels to not drown in your clothes. This is one of the 101 reasons to wear heels over 40. To look tall and slimmer than you actually are. Why? Well generations Y and Z are taller than we baby boomers and gen X ladies. Who wants to be invisible in a crowd?
Photos of me: G. Kramm
Other photos: N. Mölders
Kramm, G., Sellhorst, G., Ross, H., Cooney, J., Dlugi, R. and Mölders, N. (2016) On the Maximum of Wind Power Efficiency. Journal of Power and Energy Engineering, 4, 1-39. doi: 10.4236/jpee.2016.41001.
Kramm, G., Mölders, N., Cooney, J. and Dlugi, R. (2019) Near-Surface Wind-Speed Stilling in Alaska during 1984-2016 and Its Impact on the Sustainability of Wind Power. Journal of Power and Energy Engineering, 7, 71-124. doi: 10.4236/jpee.2019.77006.
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