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New report may help energy-starved Alaska communities zero in on solutions

Jill Burke
Aaron Jansen illustration

Alaska's energy wonks are twittering over 144 pages of newly assembled geological data about the state. The report -- Fossil Fuel and Geothermal Energy Sources for Local Use in Alaska: Summary of Available Information -- inventories what's known about land-based heat, oil, natural gas and coal from the Aleutian Islands to Barrow; from Kotzebue to Juneau, the state capital.

The compilation is the result of four years of work scouring past and current scientific assessments. It’s intended to help Alaskans battling high diesel-based energy prices that are crippling many families and the communities they call home.

"We recognize the urgency," Dan Sullivan, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, said of the need for affordable energy during an Anchorage press conference Friday morning.

"People are desperate. They are absolutely desperate," added Alaska state geologist Robert Swenson.

No silver bullet

The new "map" of energy-resource basins across the state is not a "silver bullet" fix for any community's energy woes, Sullivan said. What works in one part of the state will not necessarily work elsewhere. And many communities will need a mix or "suite" of energy-generation methods to strike the right balance between sustainability, reliability and cost.

The report makes that point in its summary: "Economic growth and stability in Alaska hinges partially, if not primarily, on the availability of a mix of affordable and sustainable energy sources. …Developing local energy sources that are not tied to a global market will help diversify the state's energy portfolio and facilitate growth."

But the report continues with this stark reality: "Unfortunately, all areas are not created equal in energy accessibility." Translation? Some Alaskans in dire need of energy relief may not live near fossil fuel or geothermal resources. Others may have a basin nearby, but the community may be too small or too remote to justify the expense of extraction. Each community will need to customize based on location and size.

The report is meant to complement a companion publication mapping renewable energy sources across the state -- the Renewable Energy Atlas of Alaska, which looks at water, wind and biomass potential.

For example, the new report on fossil fuels and geothermal sites says that there isn't much potential for these projects in the Lower Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Instead, small local-use gas projects may hold the most promise. And there may be brighter hope in renewables. Geothermal springs exist at Ophir in the mountains near Chuilnuk, along the Denali fault line. And there is potential for wind and hydroelectric power generation, too.

Sizeable coal field?

In the Northwest Arctic Region, fossil fuel and geothermal solutions are also limited to northern areas. But there appears to be potential for methane and shale gas, and there is a geothermal heat source on the south side of Norton Sound -- with a thermal spring near the Reed River in the region's interior. The Kotzebue area also has hydro and wind potential. And then there’s coal. The Kobuk Basin east of Kotzebue is filled with it. Determining how much coal requires more exploration, but Swenson said they did uncover data suggesting at least of portion of it is 100 feet thick -- a "substantial" find.

If that seam is as long as it is thick, it could be a find rivaling the Usibelli coal mine in Healy, just north of Denali in Alaska's interior, Swenson said. But whether a commercial or local-scale coal mine (or any coal mine at all) makes sense in the Kotzebue area would need to be analyzed. Just because coal is there doesn't mean it makes sense to mine it.   

It turns out that substantial coal fields are sprinkled across the state -- near Nome, in Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, Minchumina, Nenana, Yukon Flats and most of the North Slope. Many people don't realize, Swenson said, that Alaska has potential to produce more raw tonnage than any other state or province in North America.

Community choices

For Swenson and Sullivan, the statewide energy synopsis gives local communities a comprehensive set of information about potential energy options in their area. Without it, Alaskans might, for instance, have trouble trying to harness wind power -- maybe it blows too little or too much -- without knowing the wind turbine sat atop a coal-rich field, Swenson said.  Similarly, a community with access to geothermal resources might choose not to go after them if it could forecast the well would need to be too deep to be economic.

Ultimately, officials said, the more information the better. "We believe the combination will spur action to address one of the biggest challenges facing the state," Sullivan said.

While the "state is blessed with a world-class resource basin…throughout the state," Sullivan said the new map "isn't meant to replace anything." If renewable energy sources are the best option for a community, he said, residents should "go for it."

"It's about giving people all of the information so they can make their own choices," Sullivan said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com