By ROBERT SEITZ
Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 121, left over from last year are again being touted by those who want to rush into adoption of renewable energy sources whether the Railbelt can properly accommodate them or not.
Until there is a real plan for the modification of the Railbelt energy system, a RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standard) will be of no practical value, and in fact would be quite harmful to the ratepayers for the Railbelt utilities. There needs to be a plan for moving forward and not just some scenarios of possibilities, but with some specific plans for the replacement base source of energy and the particular long term energy storage that would provide storage for all the excess renewable energy generated.
Please read Rick Whitbeck’s “Red states should run far, far away from Renewable Portfolio Standards” published Jan 31, 2024 in Must Read Alaska.
In consideration of possible energy storage for excess renewable energy, I have been following various studies and reports concerning the Eklutna Lake Hydroelectric project over the last five or six years. I attended one of the recent hearings about the Elune Lake project and was greatly disappointed that no effort was given to the idea put forth by Kerry Williams for the Eklutna Complex to be a Rechargeable Battery, (a hydraulic battery).
Kerry Williams and his co-authors, Ceal Smith and Bretwood Higman, published a report (Feb 3, 2020) at the request of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, entitled “Pumped Energy Storage for Alaska.” When I enquired about how the report and concept of the Eklutna complex was accepted, I was told that it was too expensive and there was no current renewable source to run the pump, so it was given no real consideration.
In my opinion, the Eklutna Lake complex is a much more positive incentive than Susitna Dam could ever be. The Eklutna project could begin storage excess wind and solar energy no matter where on the Railbelt system it might be generated. This would provide good incentive for further wind and solar installation.
The authors of the report laid out a plan so that it would be a four-part project, so that the full expense did not have to be made at the front end of the project. It should not have to be considered as too expensive, just to study how it could be fit into the overall energy plan for the State. One of the benefits of the proposal is that Eklutna Lake would be able to maintain a higher level than it does now as it would be filled from below by the pump. This might allow the salmon to return to Eklutna Lake, a consideration definitely worth looking at.
Looking at costs, converting the existing system to pumped energy storage was estimated to be $29 million. This first step would be necessary to allow excess renewables to immediately be saved for use much later. The estimate for the total conversion of Eklutna Lake and the upper lakes to form a pumped energy storage complex was $855 million. Such an investment in long term energy storage would go a long way to provide encouragement to private sector IPP (Independent Power Producers) to install more wind and solar farms. With this positive motivation, there should be no need to resort to mandates (such as the Renewable Portfolio Standard), and fines and extra rates for exceeding demand limits. The study also included two more proposed pumped energy storage facilities, which would add another 300 megawatts to the Eklutna Complex power.
The capacity of the Eklutna Complex was estimated to be 426 MW power and 507 GWh energy storage. This would be an excellent start to a long term energy plan, and might have been the easy way to get salmon back into Eklutna Lake. There are currently plans for more than 300 MW of wind and solar energy projects in the near future, so with such progress in the works why do we need the Renewable Portfolio Standard?
So as we develop our long term energy plan, the first two things that need to be done are 1) Secure future Cook Inlet natural gas production and distribution and 2) Get a start on pumped hydro installation. These steps will help secure our energy reliability and resilience, and allow proper engineering for whatever the future Railbelt system needs to be. Encourage you legislators to find solutions to our Cook Inlet gas supply problem and to resist entanglement with an Renewable Portfolio Standard for our Railbelt electrical utility.
Robert Seitz, PE, is an Electrical Engineer and lifelong Alaskan.