Robert Seitz: Railbelt utility, electricity, gas, and how we move forward

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By ROBERT SEITZ

There is nothing more important that to secure increased natural gas production in Cook Inlet in order to give Alaska the time to work out what the replacement primary fuel source will be in our future (it could be more natural gas).   

Increased production of Cook Inlet natural gas is much more important than contracting for LNG to be shipped in to Cook Inlet, and would be more expedient than building a new pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to South Central Alaska, although shipping LNG into Alaska seems to be solution selected by those in position to make such decisions.  I hope that efforts are not abandoned to find a way through to increased production of Cook Inlet Natural gas.

There are working groups dedicated to studying many different energy sources that might benefit Alaska in the future: micro-nuclear reactors, geothermal energy, Cook Inlet tidal power, and hydrogen. These all could be used in remote communities as well as for the Railbelt electrical system. But the timelines are long enough for each of these so that none will be ready to provide Railbelt energy until current production of Cook Inlet gas will have decreased too much to sustain the system.  

Since this brings up “sustainability,” I will point out that wind and solar energy are proving not to be viable for a sustainable energy future. Look at California, with rolling brownouts, curtailed EV charging and forced reduced energy consumption. Without coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants there is not enough electrical energy produced to support the system in California. For those of us in Alaska, this is a critical concern, as many people can perish in the cold dark winter when energy supplies are at risk.  

I have been very supportive of wind and solar installations in Alaska over the past 15 years, where the buyer (end user) has accepted the cost and computed “return on investment” before proceeding with the installation. I am all for utility scale wind and solar installations as long as the independent power producer and the electric utility have negotiated the price and conditions of operation, that will ensure no negative impact on the electric utility. This is a much better approach than mandated installation of variable energy sources that have been demonstrated to provide more expensive electricity and less reliable electricity.

The negative impact of ESG (environmental, social, governance) influences on funding of new Cook Inlet Gas production wells, and the negative impact that our federal government has had on availability of new gas leases has also worked against our sustainable “natural gas” energy source, to leave Alaska in a vulnerable state.  There has been opportunity to encourage more rapid wind and solar installation on the Railbelt, if the citizens of Alaska would have supported the development of pumped hydroelectric facilities, or supported keeping the Eklutna Lake power source with ability to convert it to a pumped hydro facility. A reliable, cheap, energy source should be considered as more valuable than a few salmon spawning in a lake.  

What is even more disturbing is that with the value that high density energy production (e.g. hydroelectric) of a pumped hydro system that the Eklutna Lakes could be developed for, which would be able to fund construction of flowing water path for salmon into Eklutna Lake. With pumped hydro, the level of the lake would be maintained at a higher level than is provided by the current project. We can subsist on the salmon, but we can prosper with high-density energy.

The Regional Utilities on the Railbelt system are each developing plans for how they each can accommodate alternate energy connections and how they can maintain stability, provide resiliency and cheap energy to their customers.  The transmission line upgrade is an interregional effort that the State of Alaska will have responsibility for, but which must be properly integrated into the systems each of the regional utilities are developing.  This will be another multiyear project.

“Cheap energy” is the key to keeping living costs at a reasonable level and to promote industrial development that is necessary to enhance our economy. With the Federal interference in North Slope oil and gas production projects, which have greatly stifled the development of new finds, with most delayed and some canceled because of the war on hydrocarbon fuels.   

Gov. Bill Walker had his hand in the halted Mustang project with his blocking of tax incentives which would have allowed Mustang to progress the project. Without all of the interferences we might be approaching a million barrels per day of production on the North Slope. That would be of great help to the legislature to build a state budget. If we cannot depend on our gas and oil production we need to develop other resource extraction and exploitation to find ways to fund Alaska state operations and for projects and jobs for Alaskans to work at.  

A March 2024 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory entitled “Achieving an 80% Renewable Portfolio in Alaska’s Railbelt: Cost Analysis” provides cost analysis that shows $1 billion per year can be saved in fuel costs once there are 80% renewable sources on the Railbelt by 2040.   

The problem with this kind of analysis is that there is no stepwise plan on how effectively, reliably, and safely this result can be achieved.  This is the planning the regional utilities (Chugach Electric Association, Homer Electric Association, Golden Valley Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association, and City of Seward Electric Department) are doing now before they jump into projects that might fail if not properly approached.  

The analysis is based on a significant increase in Railbelt fuel supply and on adoption of Renewable Portfolio Standards, which would provide a mandated rate of increase of renewable energy sources into the system. This approach probably won’t end up with the “cheap energy” we desire.

With cheap energy, we could provide power for the refining of mined ore in Alaska and thus provide more income to flow to Alaska, or we could have some value added manufacturing that would provide more jobs and result in more cash flow into the State. To have this in our future we need to keep our energy flowing from Cook Inlet gas so that we can get to sensible energy future that will result in cheap energy, with sustainability and resiliency.    

Let’s encourage our legislators to take the actions that will result in increased production of Cook Inlet natural gas.  And for those who have board election at your utility, vote for those who support the reasonable and responsible development of your utility. Vote in those who support cheap energy. 

Robert Seitz is a professional electrical engineer and lifelong Alaskan.

11 COMMENTS

  1. The cheapest most secure and best solution is a couple of new gas wells in Cook Inlet.
    Leave out the BS and get it done. The world is not going to self destruct because we are using gas.
    If the CO is a problem then all the climate scared humans should stop using fossil fuels and all wars need to stop and all entertainment like sports and concerts draw tens of thousands using fossil fuels.
    Stop all that first then we will see if the left is serious or just crying like they do about everything.
    Look at the quality educations they have but no common sense or realistic views.
    A whole generation who can’t tie shoes what a waste.

    • I strongly question the term “quality education”. Time spent, yes. Money spent, yes. Degrees earned, yes. Specialists created, yes. Quality education, judging by our current state of affairs, I’m not so sure,. Someone once stated: “ Specialists are those that know more and more about less and less”. Lol.

      • I was being sarcastic as the education business is giving us these smart people who can’t tie shoes.

  2. Since Hilcorp is the dominant player in Cook Inlet gas, has anybody asked them what needs to be done to explore and develop additional gas supplies? For example what is stopping the utilities from negotiating new contracts based on sharing risk or paying higher prices? If imported gas is going to double our cost – we could offer equally double rates for future locally developed gas. Or maybe something less. Or is this already in the cards? It seems like Hilcorp is in a strong position to negotiate.

    • I agree Chris. What should we be doing to incentivize Hillcorp or others to drill more.

      That was a very long article and I double checked it, didn’t list any specific steps that need to be taken to increase production. Just circular talk about pros and cons of renewable resources.

  3. What is Robert Seitz going to be getting out of this? He keeps coming back every couple of months with his song and dance.

    • Same thing we all are, stability, affordability, security, vibrancy, light switches that work every time.

  4. Robert is fundamentally correct, an increase in Cook Inlet reserves/production is the best long term solution for South Central Power and Sustainable Economic Development.

    Slightly higher risk but great reward for every part of the Alaska economy.

    Exporting Alaskan cash for energy is foolish.

  5. Moving forward iNOT the green goal.. They want us in huts, freezing or dead!! We are the carbon they want to eliminate

  6. Bob … I would suggest pursuing a “Micro” or “Small” Modular Nuclear Power Planet based on Fire Island. You might even be able to mount these Modules on Barges, mored // anchored in Cook Inlet … Nikkiski, Beluga, Fire Island, or Point McKinzey (obviously close to connectivity to Rail Belt Intertie System).

Comments are closed.