Rural energy and Alaskan community development


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Last Friday the Department of Energy had a statewide meeting with about 3 dozen people who were interested in Alaskan rural energy from a business/finance angle.  The information is to help inform the overall department about tribal issues when it comes to energy.  There were quite a few questions about finance models. About what the government could provide as far as grants, how federal agencies can work together on one project, the likelihood of other tribes from gaming states investing in Alaskan tribal energy projects, etc…Also discussed were the real energy sinks in various rural communities such as water, sewer, schools, etc…

Several tribes spoke of wanting to get at local fuels near their villages, such as coal.  Wind and solar were the other energy sources mostly spoken of with a bit of hydro mentioned from Southeast tribes.  One even spoke of a project utilizing hydrogen to run electrical generation…..

The overall impression of someone sitting in on the meeting who possibly had not been at a roundtable before of many Alaskan rural communities was that each village had different issues depending largely on their resources per location; but also they had different starting points as well as various capacities of human capital to possibly build projects in the future!

Finally, also mentioned was the opportunity to learn with other countries through an initiative which Alaska Center for Energy and Power is putting out. ‘Applications are now being accepted for the 2017 Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy (ARENA).  ARENA focuses on sharing knowledge and establishing professional networks related to microgrids and integration of renewable energy resources for remote Arctic communities, and has been endorsed by the Sustainable Development Working Group of the Arctic Council. About twenty participants, coming from across the Arctic, will be selected in late December to participate in the on-site program.  (Detailed information about ARENA and the application forms are available at or by contacting Alaska ARENA Program Manager George Roe, Applications should be submitted before December 9, 2016)’.

What do rocks have to do with a natural gas??


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There have been some interesting presentations at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) providers conference going on this week in Anchorage.  Sitting in on the Energy track today there were representatives from BIA as well as  Alaska Housing Finance Corporations and Alaska Energy Authority on a panel in the morning.  Energy efficiency, community development energy projects, and the possibility of the a natural gas pipeline were all discussed.

A gas line going through Alaska and Canada is still a hope for many.  Securing right-of-ways are always important ‘footwork’ prior to any project which tribal villages and tribal corporations may be consulted on if the pipe goes over their land; payments may be made for right-of-ways.  Another revenue opportunity for tribes that had mentioned by an BIA engineer is rock.  Sand.  That is, material for aggregate.  While gold, silver, oil, gas are all subsurface rights belonging to tribal corporations or the State, rocks and gravel under the surface belong to the landowner.  So in Alaska, where at this point the BIA does not hold tribal lands in trust (such as on Lower 48 reservations and Metlakatla, AK), the tribe can extract gravel and sand which has good cash value as a construction necessity when putting down the pad footprint to run a pipeline on.

So, while BIA does not hold the tribal lands in trust the message was they can provide technical assistance in setting up extraction and sales by Alaskan tribes.  Of course, it’s all about transportation.  The gravel and sand is used to make a stable base to transport North Slope gas; but also to get the gravel and sand to a pipeline footprint it is going to cost gas in diesel, time and drivers to haul it to the sites.  Ultimately then, it will may be proximity to roads, rivers, or coasts that determines which tribes can get the rock/sand to building sites at a  competitive cost.

Now those that remember when the original oil pipeline bill went through Congress in the mid ’70s it was a small interior village that pretty much put a halt through court action of the construction until land rights were sorted out (hence Alaska Native Claims Settlement  Act- ANCSA- was born).




Changing the line up out- what about energy?


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With a presidential new administration comes a new cabinet, and the formation process is going on right now to make a switch on January 20, 2017.  Names are being floated for new cabinet secretary positions.  As the Department of Energy is being  examined,  even a past contender for president is a possible candidate for the position.  During the campaign, President-Elect Trump promised to streamline permitting processes across the board  and will most likey open up onshore/offshore land leases to extraction and transportation firms. Whoever directs the Department of Energy, they may be accompanied by an Alaskan as former governor Sarah Palin is being considered as the Secretary of the Interior.  It is plausible that land adjoining national parks could be used to explore of possibly extract fuels.


I yet think the highest yield for decades to come of cheap energy is just off the North Slope coast in the ice where the methyl hydrates lay. The trick is in safe extraction, yet a treasure trove of frozen BTU packets is certainly present.  A cleaner fuel than crude in combustion, and once stabilized there may be a variety of transportation methods.  Innovative ways have been looked at to get natural gas off the slope into Fairbanks- maybe such ideas an help here.  Possibly this will be a focus on emerging energy sources at the national energy labs, a great public investment that can work with firm’s R&D offices.

International score card is in concerning energy


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The International Energy Agency (IEA) looks each year at the energy sector from an economic point of view (in a global context).  The report is then published that looks also at tech and policy changes, and from there it makes some predictions.  This year’s report claims a spike in demand for renewable energy production is on the horizon for the next two dozen years.  The report was created after world leaders met in Paris this year concerning carbon levels (yet before our presidential election).

The report points out that carbon emissions have been static the past several years as the  global economy showed growth, and thus it just might be that using renewables and becoming more efficient with fossil fuel combustion  has broken a correlation between development and carbon levels throughout the world.  More transportation being run off of electricity has possibly helped, as has a switch in financial incentives (from fossil to renewables).

The report expects global energy demand to increase by a third in the next two dozen years, which points to all types of current power production sources also increasing.  Some nations like are going through an economic shift from manufacturing to service industries per growth, and this means they may well use less coal while other countries may have to change their power production regime to almost two thirds renewable sources to help meet the IEA’s goals.

What we don’t know is how our U.S. elections will effect or fit into the overall estimates and goals the IEA has set up.  If Britain leaving the EU is just the start of other countries pulling out, that could effect the IEA’s scenarios (as could OPEC’s possible dissolution).  Governmental policies of individual nation states and collaborations between nation states may more important than the technology and science in predicting and adjusting carbon levels.


Changes coming in U.S. national energy policy


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With the  wild and spinning election cycle over, Alaska will no doubt be in the spotlight of Washington D.C. (or at least its resources).  This is due to not only Senator Murkowski remaining as the Chair on the U.S. Senate committee, but also due to President Elect Trump having specifically mentioned energy  resources in Alaska in terms of greater accessibility during the presidential campaign. With OPEC coming unglued (waning Saudi influence, Iran back on the crude supply market as a producer, Venezuela falling apart domestically,etc…) there will no doubt be a new oil market construct in the next several years.  While predicting specific prices is near impossible, one thing is sure: there may be new opportunity for Alaskan energy both economically and politically.

ANWR and other petroleum reserves in the state have been political footballs of national players for the last couple decades due to the crude reserves yet left on the North Slope. This past administration has had extraction activity not active on these reserves, and regulations/litigation over touching them has been well entrenched.  And ironically,  the 2007 boom in oil prices pretty much over and the price at the pump for concerned consumers averaging as low as $1.87 in Oklahoma (and averaging $2.57 in Alaska) the national average price is back down to  where it was a decade ago this month:


I think the gem that Alaska holds for affordable fuel for the future that is not laden with all the baggage which the North Slope petroleum reserves carry (and may arguably be a cleaner fuel to combust) is Methyl Hydrates.  The abundance off the North Slope coast is vast, as far as supply of the raw resource is concerned. The main difficulty is safe/cost effective extraction. This BTU strong source is locked up in ice, and is volatile to remove due to phase changes that can quickly take place per the chemical state of the Hydrates.

Yet as firms’ R & D departments and universities work viable extraction methods, hopefully it will be kept on the forefront of Washington D.C.’s radar as a ‘clean’ alternative to Alaskan crude benefiting the country in terms of emissions, public perception, environmentalists concerns of animal impacts, and possibly even regulations.



Mild weather, less fuel, problem septics


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With a mild fall (yes it is officially, until December 21st- with official winter only 41 days away) there have been no problems of freezing pipes that I have yet heard of.  There is a concern among some that with the accompanying lack of snow it could be a year of trouble for many with septic systems.  Because most people keep their septic tank  thawed by passively letting warmth from the discharge water and the generated heat from the waste composting at the bottom of the tank do its thing.


However, with the transfer of water out of the tank into a leech field, there can be a freezing up that occurs if the ground is also not well insulated.  Though some people spread hay or straw over their field the best insulation on the surface is a healthy coating of snow. If we have temperatures that become the standard for Jan and February of years past with a pretty much bare surface there can be problems so that the wastewater in the house has no where to go until the leech field gets thawed out due to break-up or by imputing heat from above.


If it becomes a repeating problem (wastewater becoming backed up) and continues after breakup and soil thawing you may want to look at checking the pipe joints where the inlet pipe comes into the septic tank (which will require some excavation- at times the leech field may need to be moved also).  If you have a septic system, call the outfit which pumps out your tank (suggested as an annual event) and ask them at what temperature and depth (lack of) of snow cover you need to begin to be concerned about your septic system (and what coverings you should use for your field to keep it operating!)

Burning it up-


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Earlier this year, for the first time in almost four decades, carbon emission from vehicles ended up topping the industrial sector (while overall carbon emissions have dropped for almost the past decade due to switching fuels and being more efficient); this is according to Bloomberg Financial.   Our transportation increase is probably due in part to the relatively cheap gas and thus more driving we see.

So while there may be an increase in transportation there also is a drop in industrial emissions at the same time due to natural gas replacing coal. Some of this is related to the Arab energy crisis half a century ago when we were locked out of cheap petrol from OPEC (which in turn helped to get the Alaska Pipeline built and operating). When oil went sky high in cost, coal became the predominate fuel for electrical generation.

Vehicles will probably be petrol dependent for sometime though there are solar and electrical options. Yet with the U.S. government having signed on with the Paris Accords from last year we will see carbon emissions, as well as price now shaping what fuel combinations we use for various purposes in different sectors of our economy.


Weather forecasts and wells/septic systems-


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As we go below zero in what would be typically late (latter October) some have been wondering if we will also have an early breakup like last year, where in the Interior most snow was well gone by early April with the El Nina system we had come through!  For the past few years Fairbanks has dodged 50 below temps, let alone week long stretches.

Overall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is looking at  a small La Nina weather pattern in the Western US, which could create heavy snowfall for the Rockies and Pacific Northwestern states.  Mountain areas in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, California, and Canada have already been getting hit with snow. (Even my Front Range Rockies hometown ski area, Arapahoe Basin,  opens their slope season this week already!)

In Interior Alaska, this means that most likely we will have colder weather and more snow (at least in the Tanana Valley area).  The snow will help to insulate pipes and septic vaults from freezing, yet with colder temps it is hard to know if the extra insulation will be nullified.  One thing you may want to do is put hay on top of underground septic tanks.  As far as copper water lines that run from wells to the the crawlspace or basement of a house, do not walk or cross over the trench which the connects the pitless to your pressure tank inside.  Having traffic over that buried plumbing line can mash down the insulative spacing in the snow on the surface, and thus it can ‘drive down’ the frost to the line itself.

If your copper water supply line comes up and out of the wellhead casing should have a run of heat trace as a solid line along the bottom of the pipe (not ‘wrapped’), and then covered with black foam pip covers and wrapped well with arctic grade electrical tape. The foam covering  can then be wrapped with fiberglass lightly, and that put inside a 1’x1′ box of 2 inch blue or pink foam.

We will see what the final forecast will be, yet regardless of frequency hopefully there will be enough insulation from even snow covers throughout the winter!




Tomorrow is National Bioenergy Day



What is bioenergy? It is a power or heat source that recently has been ‘alive’ (bio).  Not solar, not from the wind, not created from combustion of fossil fuels (that were ‘alive’ years ago….). You can get energy from oils extracted from seeds, crushed canola, algae, fish waste, manure, wood, etc….   Some of these sources make sense in using on location, such as a canola farmer crushing the crop in the barn to make a liquid that can be run in his/her tractor.  Others may be used miles away such as trees drug out of the forest and trucked hundreds of miles away.

In any case, one of the advantages- depending on the grow back rate- is that fuels can be collected within the region and thus extractors can take revenues and end up spending them somewhat locally. Conversely, when far off fossil fuels are used the money spend usually is far removed from the location of use.  Extraction may be up on the Alaskan slope, transportation companies may be from out of state, and refining of the crude for refined local use will probably be out of the state and maybe even country (before the fuel is brought back to Alaska to be burned).

One of the attractions of bioenergy is that on the books of carbon accounting, several fuels are considered ‘carbon neutral’ as regrowth can happen to replace what is combusted.  Some individuals also help to reduce trash waste by collecting used vegetable oil from the fryers of cafeterias and restaurants and using it in vehicles or heaters with little adaptation.  What do you have on your property or in your community that could be utilized?  How much would it take to process and refine?  Finally, how much fossil fuels could you replace with what is at hand?  Check it out, and keep on burning!



Valdez becomes ‘renewable’ for half the year

Last month the finishing touches were put onto the Allison Creek Hydroelectric Project. Backing up water through Allison Creek, it builds pressure as it approaches a steep drop and turbine below.  Thus  another power provider has become one of the utilities to run off renewable power.  Copper Valley Electric Association commissioned the $50 million Allison Creek in early October so as to eliminate diesel.  “Right now we are 100 percent hydro power, and it feels great,” said Travis Million, CEO said in Valdez, ( just under 10,000 pop.).

This will provide supplemental hydro power from Solomon Gulch Dam ( breakup to freezeup). When the ice hits, the utility turns on diesel-powered generators.  The project is half state and half privately funded so Copper Valley Electrical Association will end up paying about a million dollars a year for the next three decades to pay the project off at current fuel price levels.  The utility will join other coastal communities like Sitka, Juneau, Kodiak, Cordova which have been able to cut out diesel power seasonally (and in some cases all year).

While finessing with good engineering the power out of a free resource at hand, another community is able to diversify its electrical provisions!