Robert Seitz: All of Alaska depends on Railbelt energy



With my first commentary published in Must Read Alaska (Feb 7), I had hoped to find practical and knowledgeable readers, who understand that we (Alaska) must make some effort to replace Cook Inlet gas, in kind, or with some alternate source of energy very soon. 

To do so, requires that Alaska has a plan in place to allow positive progress to this end. This plan is needed with or without a “Renewable Portfolio Standard,” or RPS.   

If I still lived on the Seventymile River (where the family had a gold mine in the 1940’s) and we had solar panels, I would still have cords of wood cut and stacked outside the cabin, to last the winter, because surviving is so much more important than counting carbon dioxide molecules.  And applying that consideration, ensuring continued production of Cook Inlet natural gas is imperative for the foreseeable future until a dependable, long term base energy source is established.  

Alaska needs to be actively evaluating all possible solutions, including the Eklutna Pumped Hydro, so we don’t miss whatever our best opportunities might be, to have cheap and abundant energy.

David Bigger submitted a letter to the ADN that was published on Feb. 27.  His concern was with the evaluation that Cook Inlet Gas provided to the Railbelt was more important than money into the Permanent Fund. I and others have made this claim, and it was not done in any way to diminish all the communities which are not on the Railbelt power system. The continued production of Cook Inlet Gas for the Railbelt is just as important for every community in Alaska, including Mr. Bigger’s town of Kalsag, as they would suffer greatly if the Railbelt power system were to collapse. 

Travel, food (other than subsistence), medical needs, major equipment, building supplies and much else that is critical to survival or comfort, anywhere in Alaska, whether in remote communities or Anchorage or Fairbanks, depend on the Railbelt power. If the Railbelt shuts down, there would be a mass exodus of those who work in the box stores, banks, universities and oil companies. There may not be enough people left to provide service to the remote communities. Everyone in Alaska would be in survival mode without many conveniences or comforts.  If you have a wood stove for heat and for cooking, you might get along.

One commenter on my first column in MRAK thought $1 billion was a large price for approximately 500 megawatt of pumped storage.  That is a low price for that much power and especially since it is rechargeable with just the cost of running a pump from the excess wind or solar energy or whatever other electrical energy they want to dispatch to the dam. And it can be built in stages so the initial cost is nowhere close to that value.

Even Texas could use some long term energy storage. Just because they have good oil and gas production, and have more wind and solar farms than anywhere else, an ice storm did cripple Texas. A storage of LNG, or some other energy storage, that was readily accessible when the gas well froze, and the wind turbines froze and the solar panels were covered in ice, their electrical system could have remained powered.

I began writing about the need for a long term energy plan and long term energy storage for Alaska in January of 2016.  There is still no plan and now that we are running out of natural gas, there is no reliable long term energy storage. Whether or not GHG is a real problem, running out of natural gas is a real problem, so there is reason to have a plan and to act on that plan.  Generally one looks at more than one solution while working these things out to make sure there is still a solution to work on when some of them fail to be realizable.   

In conclusion, I want to see a plan worked out for what sources are planned for and that if wind and solar are considered in the plan, what energy storage is being considered for them. More legislation for RPS is not necessary. And every source considered should have the projected cost per kWh provided whether from an IPP or utility.  If we could have cheap energy that would allow refining our mined ore in state, and that would be very good.

Robert Seitz is an electrical engineer and lifelong Alaskan.


  1. I imagine much of Alaska would disagree. Especially SE, the Aleutians, and most of Alaska west of Fairbanks.
    We don’t have rail, much less a road system. We’d like them, but the rail belt legislation isn’t inclined to share.

    This is basically a Parks Highway issue, with north Kenai an interested observer..

      • And that attitude is why Princess keeps getting elected and why the rail belt is going to hell.

        • S/E is a giant and artificial financial drain. If they’re not whining about how they need a grossly expensive cash sink to cart themselves to and from S/E they’re sucking up cash from landslides, broken docks or squandering money with their insistence on being an inaccessible and self sequestered elected officials.

          It also has nothing to do w/ the Railbelt. Try to keep up, Ma.

  2. I believe if you want to explore viable means to diversify sources of kWh to the Railbelt Power System, maybe it would be appropriate to list out possible solutions, such as:
    … Susitna – Watana Dam
    … Pumped Storage HydroPower
    … GeoThermal
    … Existing Coal Plant @ Healy
    … Small Modular Reactors (Nuclear)
    … Tap into the available gas in the Tanana Region
    … Construct a Natural Gas Pipeline from N-Slope to South Central
    … Power Plant on the N-Slope with connectivity via Overhead Power Line
    Then, advance the discussion to costs, schedule, risks, reality – viability, etc.

    • “… Power Plant on the N-Slope with connectivity via Overhead Power Line”

      ^^^ This is the way. Moving gas is a freakishly inefficient and cumbersome process; 35kV compressors and a monstrously long new pipe. Moving electricity is neither and a prime example of a powerhouse atop a gas field is a short skip across the Inlet from Anchorage to Beluga. The same concept will eventually be applied to PB. When the last fumes are harvested from that field and the lights are shut off it will have been a powerhouse that choked down the last remaining hydrocarbon.

      • It’s a great idea up until the point that line goes down and we have no power in 2/3 of the state.

        • Then pay 10x and go U/G. System reliability goes up at a similar rate, a 400kV DC U/G circuit wouldn’t be a unicorn, and the ROW is already there. Trench a couple of the river crossings during winter and avoid some of that suspension nonsense currently seen.

    • Good list. Don’t forget CTLs out of Tyonek. Plop a 80,000 bbl/day plant there and you solve railbelt liquid fuel while generating up to 350 MW.

      Last I checked, transmission is in the neighborhood of $1 million/linear mile. It’s nearly 500 miles between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, so half a billion dollars. And that’s before anything is spent on generation and ongoing maintenance. A far better choice would be GTLs, batched thru existing infrastructure in TAPS and taken out at the various pump stations.

      We tried geothermal at Mount Spurr. 2010 or so. Found the rock underneath the volcano would not economically support a geothemal plant. Cheers –

      • That $1,000,000.00 per mile is probably quite a bit higher after the record inflation we’ve seen, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were closer to $2,000,000.00 and if it were put underground the cost will be measured in multiples higher.

      • Exactly! CTLS = Coal to Liquids. Who owns the coal at Tyonek … I think it’s Summitomo? I believe there’s another sizable coal source in the Kobuk Valley (on ASRC lands).
        GTLS = Gas to Liquids. Already producing NGLs from Point Thomson and that’s built to be scaleable. Extremely high-pressures there. The infrastructure and operational costs are pretty high.
        A suite of various of options to buildout the portfolio of energy sources with the associated inter-connectivity (Inter-Tie Lines) should be the focus of the conversation.

  3. Why was the Susitna Dam never built ? It’s been studied to nauseam. Spent hundreds of millions of dollars . Probably best solution as it creates jobs and nice big lake .

    Then my second question is why gas is not coming down from the NorthSlope ?

    1) crony capitalism

    2) largest city on continent without piped in natural gas is Fbks . We spent nearly a billion dollars on coal fired power plants in the interior .

    3) a Fairbanks Natural Gas company in the fifties announced “ gas to Fbks in 18 months “ . This was from huge gas discovery at Umiat .

    4 Crony Capitalism

    • Watana was mostly dead before beiing resurrected by the Chugach Board majority (along with a bunch of others) 2009 – 2010. Got enough interest to set up a project office to study once again. The greens hired to that office used it to line their pockets as long as they could while stringing interest out as long as they could with the goal of never building it. Cheers –

    • There in the basement of the Rasmuson Library @ UAF, you’ll find an extensive collection of studies conducted on the potential project. The dollars expended on those studies could’ve paid for a lot of that great project. so far, we have nothing to show for the sunk costs to date.
      Moving forward, we need leadership with courage – cajones – willpower – foresight – ambition – testicular fortitude to solve this issue.

  4. Iceland uses geothermal to run generators!
    We have the largest geothermal field in world just south of the Chugach Beluga Turbines and the famous windmills! Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes!
    And lots of geothermal all over Alaska especially Aleutians!
    Also have worlds best bituminous Coal right on the rail belt being shipped off to other countries.
    Unalaska tried a windmill and a storm shredded it!

  5. Rail belt GVEA needs to repeal the Consent Decree with the EPA and burn some coal. Who the hell signed that and why?

  6. MustRead subscribers tend to be free market advocates. We eschew government subsidies. We have a reverence for Milton Friedman, and we have little respect for Bidenomics. We see government entry into the private sector as the chief cause of economic dislocation, corruption, and even war.

    So Railbelt energy, Cook Inlet natural gas, and SC Alaska’s tiptoe into renewable energy must be done by the free market. Prices, supply, and demand will find a new equilibrium. Higher prices reduce demand, and supply and demand equalize at some new level.

    Juneau shows what I mean. Hydro power in Juneau was done entirely without government subsidy. Revenue bond sales allowed dams to be built and the rate payers paid off those revenue bonds. No subsidies, not even PCE. Juneau has too many hard-left liberals but when it comes to energy everyone pays their own way. We even continue to pay more and more because our two barge companies merged and now ocean freight rates have doubled. Many consumer nondurables like food have gone up 300 percent in price over the past 5 years!

    We cannot on the one hand advocate for free markets, but then when there is a change in supply or in the supply outlook go looking for subsidies to keep prices at a specific level regardless of supply. Makes no sense.

    • I can’t help but think if we built the dam today, our current rulers would fall all over themselves for federal funds.

  7. As the likely aforementioned “One commenter on my first column in MRAK thought $1 billion was a large price for approximately 500 megawatt of pumped storage.” I’m still waiting to hear about where the power will come from to provide for said pumped storage. Remember the $1,000,000,000.00 is just for the storage. Similar sized battery storage systems would cost fractions of the $1,000,000,000.00 granted they do not offer the potential medium to long term storage, but the power has to come from somewhere. “That is a low price for that much power…” that isn’t the price of the power, that the price of the storage, “…especially since it is rechargeable with just the cost of running a pump from the excess wind or solar energy or whatever other electrical energy they want to dispatch to the dam” what excess wind or solar energy or whatever other electrical energy? As I previosuly asked on your first article, how much will that excess “or whatever cost”? “And it can be built in stages so the initial cost is nowhere close to that value” if it’s built in stages it will cost more than the initial investment, you are correct. When the cost of the additional “or whatever” comes into play how many BIILIONS are we actually talking about, certainly much more than the $1,000,000,000.00 to build a storage system.

    You’re an electrical engineer trying to offer solutions, you should have better answers than “or whatever”.

    • We’ve done this before.

      Pumped storage at Eklutna was proposed as a solution to wildly intermittent power from Chugach’s proposed big wind and solar farms. Would have two benefits. First is that intermittent power works nicely with pumped storage, something known by every single rancher and farmer in the west and midwest. Second is that it is actually storage. Think of pumped storage as a water-powered battery, similar to the proposed Chakacamna hydro.

      None of the big renewable projects ever include storage. Why? Because storage is expensive. Frankly, CIRI should have done pumped storage on Fire Island. But they wanted the quick payback, and in doing so managed to kill all hope for subsequent expansion of their initial boondoggle. Cheers –

    • Steve
      Don’t forget about battery replacement as storage battery’s don’t last long.
      What’s the cost to replace the storage battery’s every 10 years?

  8. Mr. Seitz, your entire article is full of holes and holds no water imho. You stated, “I began writing about the need for a long term energy plan and long term energy storage for Alaska in January of 2016. There is still no plan and now that we are running out of natural gas, there is no reliable long term energy storage.” Alaska is not running out of natural gas. Apparently, we have just run out of honest companies who will go up against the crooked government. Please stop with the fear-mongering.

  9. There’s nothing wrong with supporting renewable energy resources when they make sense for fiscal reasons, reliability reasons, and consumer supply and demand reasons. Doing so simply because “good and proper engineering principles are applied in all installations” isn’t a reason in and of itself to support renewable energy resources.

  10. Lots of babbling here about renewable options. But people don’t understand the basics. We have 10 months … to fix our energy security. A cold snap in February next year could knock our gas supply offline. And then 40% of Alaskans will be in survival mode. 10s of thousands of houses freezing with pipes bursting. This would cause an economic hit to Alaska that will affect everything and everyone. We need to act faster than anyone with renewable dreams can possible fathom.

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