Andrew McDonnell

Renewables at scale can strengthen Alaska’s economic and energy security

If you’re like us, you might feel that the pace of technology breakthroughs is astounding. The phone you’re holding in your hand was scarcely imaginable 20 years ago, and continues to relentlessly advance in performance, reliability, and usability. Remember flip-phones and family feuds over who was to blame for such a high bill from texting? Today, paying per text is obsolete, with waterproof smartphones now commonplace. When Matt first entered the energy industry in the mid-2000s, renewable energy was like those old flip-phones — clumsy and with limited capabilities. Solar was just for off-grid cabins, wind power cost more than coal, batteries were not cost effective for balancing the times when the wind didn’t blow, and the bottom line was that these new technologies still had unresolved component issues that got in the way of critical reliability. And that reliability is required, since electricity is more foundational for human society than ever before. But now, thanks to billions of hours of engineering and hard work by the 11.5 million people who work in renewable energy around the world, we’ve achieved what many thought was impossible: Renewable energy is the cheapest, fastest-growing source of power globally — and the most reliable. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar, wind, and batteries together will account for more than 80% of power plant capacity additions this year. Meanwhile, not a single coal-fired power plant is under construction in North America. Instead, wind and solar have become “firm” — where the intermittency of the resource is balanced out by smart system engineering and enabled by massive declines in the cost of batteries. Economies of scale and manufacturing consistencies have enabled downtime of just a few hours per year, which is ten times less than a typical gas or coal power plant. And the same software advances on your phone and computer have transformed the controls for renewables so that operators can monitor the plant from the comfort of the control room, and head out for maintenance on their own timetable. The dollars and cents of renewable energy speak for themselves: It’s now the cheapest source of power in nearly every part of the globe, including Alaska. And best of all, there’s no variation in fuel pricing month-to-month, meaning that projects can offer a fixed, low rate of power for the entire 40-year life of today’s equipment, without unpleasant surprises due to global economic forces. Put simply, renewable energy offers Alaskans more affordable and reliable energy resulting in more money in their pockets. Right here in Alaska, those advances in reliability and cost are manifesting in real time. Recently, Homer Electric Association installed a grid-stabilizing, 93-megawatt-hour battery. It’s one of the largest in the U.S., and both Golden Valley Electric Association and Chugach Electric Association have released visionary calls for renewable energy proposals to help the community achieve the goals of low-priced, zero-carbon sustainable power; all signs that the electric co-ops are listening to the persistent requests from their members for the smart implementation of renewables. At the same time, it’s important to note that there is a well established and diligent permitting process at both the state and federal level that’s required for these large projects, covering every angle of analysis from aviation to wildlife. The immediate financial benefits to communities of today’s proven technologies like wind and solar are now clearer than ever, and taking action to accelerate this industry sector today positions our state to become the future leader in new energy technologies, from green fuels to tidal power and beyond. A renewable power plant is an upfront investment that eliminates typical recurring costs such as fuel and emissions controls, and drives down the long-term energy cost of energy with stable, fixed prices that beat out inflation. It’s an investment in the future of our state that enhances our economic and energy security while protecting land and air quality for generations to come. Alaska’s future is intertwined with renewable energy; we invite you to join us in working to make that future happen today. Andrew McDonnell and Matt Perkins are the founders of Alaska Renewables, a renewable energy development firm based in Fairbanks, Alaska.
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