A bold new energy plan

Sarah Palin is receiving praise from some unusual quarters lately. Some environmental groups are saying positive things about the conservative governor’s announcement of her statewide energy plan, which proposes that 50 percent of Alaska’s power be produced from renewable resources by 2025. Pat Lavin of the National Wildlife Federation described the governor’s announcement as “a defining moment in Alaska’s history.” Alaska Conservation Alliance director Kate Troll characterized Gov. Palin’s energy proposal as “a very forward-thinking energy plan.”

Is this the same Sarah Palin who, as governor of a state rich in oil and natural gas resources, advocates drilling in ANWR and has pledged to support oil companies who want to drill in Alaska’s coastal waters? Is she the same Sarah Palin who, as the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate, inspired enthusiastic crowds on the campaign trail to chant, “Drill, baby drill?” Indeed she is. What many have overlooked is that nearly every time Gov. Palin said, “Drill, baby, drill,” she also said that drilling is just one component of her “all of the above” approach to domestic energy production. And it is an energy policy which draws on diverse energy resources which the governor promotes as the pathway to U.S. energy independence.

The plan, as revealed by Palin energy advisor and executive director of the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) Steven Haagenson, is not so much a plan of action as it is an atlas of the state’s resources which local communities may use to develop their own solutions. The 245-page document (available online as a 33 MB pdf file) is titled “Alaska Energy: A First Step Toward Energy Independence.” The strategy being used by Gov. Palin and her energy advisor is to get citizens involved in deciding which energy solutions they believe are best suited for their own respective Alaskan communities.

The Palin Administration approach is consistent with the smaller-government-is-better philosophy preached by Ronald Reagan and embraced by the Alaska governor. It rejects the “one size fits all” method and instead recognizes that the relative level of energy use and cost varies across Alaska. The first step taken by Haagenson’s team was to identify each Alaskan community’s current energy needs for electricity, heating, and transportation. AEA held 28 town hall Meetings around the state where they asked residents what resources near their community could be developed to help lower energy costs, which resources should not be developed and why not. Once the team had collected all of the answers to their questions, they developed a resources matrix for each community, identifying the potential resources as hydroelectric, in-river hydro, wind, solar, wave, tidal, biomass, geothermal, municipal waste, natural gas, propane, coal, diesel, coal bed methane, and nuclear. Also identified were opportunities for gasification and production of Fischer-Tropsch liquids.

Then AEA consulted with energy experts at the University of Alaska and elsewhere to identify technologies, options and limitations for each resource. After identifying appropriate technologies for each fuel, the capital, operating and maintenance costs for each technology were calculated and adjusted by region. The result is what AEA calls a “focusing tool” for each community to use to evaluate its relative options for generating electricity and heat through the use of locally available resources. Haagenson considers this to be a critical step. AEA intends for the process to occur in stages, allowing the state to provide its help with maximum support from Alaskans who have bought into the plan. It is a bottom-up approach which starts at the local level by involving citizens directly in creating energy solutions which in turn can be developed into regional and statewide energy plans.

Can the Palin Plan meet her announced goal of having half of Alaska’s power come from renewables by 2025? A key factor the plan has in its favor is that Alaska is rich in exploitable sources of renewable energy. To be successful, a plan’s goals must be achievable, and hers certainly is, considering that 25% of Alaska’s energy use is already derived from renewable sources.

The 49th state has the highest wind-power potential in the country, and some small wind projects are already providing power to some isolated villages. Some Railbelt utility companies are exploring wind power possibilities.

Alaska also has a large tidal and wave energy potential. Current estimates are that half of the United States’ tidal potential and three quarters of its wave energy potential belongs to Alaska. About a dozen companies are engaged in research and development work on wave and tidal energy in the state. Chris Rose, director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), says that these technologies could be commercially feasible as soon as 2014 to 2016.

Although Alaska has very cold winters, a significant amount of heat is just waiting under the ground to provide the geothermal component of Gov. Palin’s energy plan. The advantage of this energy resource is that new technologies are not required to tap into it. In some areas of the state, the geothermal sources are located in relatively close proximity to transmission lines, so large construction projects would not be needed.

About one-fourth of Alaska’s electric power already comes from hydroelectric sources, and there is good potential for expanding it. Huge dams will probably not be built, however. Small hydro projects which supply communities along Alaska’s rivers (the state has about 12,000 rivers) are the more likely scenario.

There is also great biomass potential in The Land of the Midnight Sun. One major source is fish oil, some 8 million gallons of which a year is being used in parts of the state as an alternative to diesel fuel. It has been estimated that another 13 million gallons is being dumped into the ocean yearly in the form of unprocessed fish waste. Biofuel energy potential also exists in Alaska in the form of garbage, forests and agricultural land.

Gov. Palin’s energy plan will be attacked by those of her critics who find only flaws in anything she does. Some will denounce it as being too grandiose, and others will say that it doesn’t go far enough. But these are people who are obsessed with destroying her politically. They could care less about the relative merits of any initiative which has her name attached. But some of her critics, those who are not driven by hatred, will judge this plan fairly. It has already been welcomed by members of some environmental groups. Knee-jerk “conservatives” who reject anything which even remotely appears to be “green” will use the plan as “evidence” that Sarah Palin is not a “true” conservative.

More open-minded conservatives, those who actually read the plan and see how it lets citizens choose which energy resources they want for their own communities, will find much to like in it. Many will also realize that the federal government, especially one so solidly in the hands of the Democrats, will make it increasingly difficult for Alaska to expand its oil and gas production. Indeed, the incoming Secretary of Energy has made no secret of the fact that he’s a big fan of higher gasoline taxes. Given the slightest excuse to raise the tax, an Obama administration is a sure bet to do so, and the Democrat Congress will be only too eager to rubber stamp it. Rather than just cry in their beer over it, Palin and her energy team appear to be doing all they can to develop the diverse resources their state has available to meet Alaska’s growing energy needs.

Sarah Palin has taken a major step here. The plan will help Alaskans solve some real-world energy problems, including those of those small and isolated communities which have to rely on diesel fuel, which is much more expensive in Alaska than in the lower 48. The plan plays to the state’s strengths, which include a bounty of energy resources, both renewable and not. The bottom-up approach the governor’s energy team used will assure strong public support, since the people of Alaska played such an important part in its development.

Politically, this has to be scored as a win-win for Gov. Palin. It demonstrates to the grassroots of the environmental movement that perhaps she isn’t out to shoot Mother Nature with a moose gun after all, as she has been portrayed by some of its more radical elements. It also provides compelling evidence that she is an able government executive who formulates innovative policies and builds teams of capable people to implement those initiatives. It exposes those who have wrongly portrayed her as an incompetent dunce as the fools that they are. And it proves to those who have argued that she should quietly retire to Alaska and build her resume rather than answer her media critics, that she can easily do both. This is, after all, a woman who multitasks with two BlackBerrys.

Sarah Palin is determined to make Alaska the nation’s energy leader and show the other 49 states how it is done. If her energy plan is a success – and first impressions are that it will be – she will become an even more formidable force, not only in her state of Alaska, but on the big stage of national politics as well.

– JP