The Renewable Enemy of Big Oil

By: Karla Fetrow

Legislating for the Good of the People
An old saying, “you can’t fight city hall”, has been modified over the years to “you can’t fight big oil”.  So it would seem.  When President Obama first announced his campaign to change the energy section to “green”, low environmental impact development, the first rapid energy bids were for off-shore oil drilling.  A push to run a pipeline through from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, the Keystone XL project, was met with opposition by the US Environmental Protection Agency, but continues to be on the board as a viable possibility.  The New York Times, apparently dismayed by the opposition of groups that did not want fire breathing out of their water faucets, assured its readers that gas fracking was inevitable.  It just needed a few tweaks.  It was round one for the oil companies, whose roles had changed to include the assertion that the gas they were offering was natural,  but it was still the same cast of actors.

What if, however, your elected officials were on your side?  What if they were actually drawing up proposals for renewable energy resources; resources that would alleviate the grinding, uphill spiral of energy consumption for electrical costs?  Alaska seems to be doing just that.  The State Legislature wants to see fifty percent of its energy use engineered through renewable resources by the year 2025.  Their proposal includes wind farms, geothermal conversion and hydro-electric power.  In fact, Senator Lisa Murkowski feels so passionately about it, she joined the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is currently one of its highest ranking members.  On March 21, 2011, she introduced  bipartisan legislation to accelerate the deployment of hydroelectric power projects across the country.

Said Senator Murkowski, “It is now all too clear that America needs a consensus policy on energy that can help keep prices low, create jobs and ensure a safe supply of power,” Murkowski said. “Clean, safe and domestic hydropower can help us reach our shared clean energy goals. Our bill achieves common sense regulatory reform, spurs economic growth and takes advantage of hydropower’s position as the country’s leading source of clean, renewable energy.”

Co-sponsors for the National Hydroelectric Association include,  Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Patty Murray, D-Wash., James Risch, R-Idaho, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

According to the Renewable Energy Project for Alaska, The Hydropower Improvement Act, NHA said, sets a dynamic hydropower agenda for the nation.

The bill will advance project deployment (from conduit and small hydro to non-powered dams to pumped storage) by requiring better interagency coordination; through funding of competitive grants for increased production; and with continued support for research and development activities.

“Hydropower has more multi-region and bipartisan support than any other clean energy technology. It is critical to our clean energy future that this legislation is passed as soon as possible,” said National Hydropower Association Executive Director Linda Church Ciocci. “Hydropower is already responsible for nearly seven percent of total U.S. electricity generation and two-thirds of our renewable electricity. This bill recognizes the vital role of hydropower as an affordable, reliable, available and sustainable domestic energy source.”

In addition to growing the domestic supply of clean energy, local job creation is a primary focus of the legislation. Already responsible for over 300,000 jobs, a recent study by Navigant Consulting, Inc. has shown that with the right policies, hydropower could create over 1.4 million cumulative direct, indirect and induced jobs by 2025.

Hydroelectric: the Original Solution to Energy
Alaska is no stranger to hydroelectric use.  Much of Southeast Alaska is powered by hydroelectric plants, including Ketchikan, Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell and Cordova.  Hydro power was experimented and used well into the late nineteen sixties and early nineteen seventies.  The shift away from renewable resources and to fossil fuels didn’t actually begin until the building of the Alaskan pipeline.

Currently, Alaska receives 53% of its electrical power from natural gas, 19% from hydroelectric plants and .2 % from other renewable resources.  Natural gas is an extremely abundant resource in Alaska.  There is an estimated 85.4 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in the Arctic region alone.  During Sarah Palin’s tenure as governor, she pushed for a natural gas line that would tie a North Slope gas pipeline in with the TransCanada Corporation and ExxonMobil.  Even one hundred million dollars in seed money was put out to begin the initiative, but by the year 2010, no agreement had been reached, and spiraling energy rates had begun to seize the state.  The legislators went back to their drawing boards, discouraged.

What they drew up was a massive proposal to build a dam that would supply hydroelectric energy for the railbelt, an area of Alaska that begins in the Kenai Peninsula and extends into the Denali Park area and Fairbanks.  This dam would be situated within the Denali Range of the Susitna River.  The proposed Susitna River hydro project, as described by Alaska Dispatch,  would involve building the biggest dam in the United States in 50 years and change the flow of one of the most loved rivers in the state.

A hydroelectric project on the Susitna River about halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks was first proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1970s, although talk of generating power from the Susitna dates back to the 1950s. Work went on until 1986, when the project was shelved due to an economic downturn.

The proposed dam is bigger than anything that’s been built since the Glen Canyon Dam went up across the Colorado River in northwest Arizona in 1966 and created Lake Powell. Glen Canyon Dam is 710 feet high and is capable of producing about 1,300 megawatts.

The proposed dam has met with some serious opposition.  The landmark town of Talkeetna, resting directly on the banks of the Susitna River is worried that construction will disrupt the salmon migration as it heads towards its spawning grounds.  They are worried that the new course the river will take might destroy their own spectacular waterfront access.

Susitna River by Talkeetna @2011 Karla Fetrow

These fears are reflected in a large number of Alaskans.  The Susitna River is a popular vacation and fishing area, lined with numerous lodges and campgrounds.  The fourth largest King Salmon run swims up the tributaries to their spawning grounds.  If a river’s oxygen content, chemical composition, temperature, or flow patterns are altered, the effect on fish could be disastrous.

Opponents point out that glacial melt is what feeds the Susitna River and that projections show a fifty percent reduction in the sized of the glaciers by the year 2025, leaving a question as to the long term production of the dam.  The project is often compared to the Hoover Dam and other reservoirs in the United States that ultimately created a negative impact on the environment by changing the courses of rivers, drying up areas that had once been farm lands.  Opponents point out the costs of building the dam are not cheap.  The official estimate for building the dam has been placed at $4.5 billion, with possible overflow costs for mitigation measures that would include rectifying, reducing, or compensating for impacts on habitat, wildlife, and business interest on bonds.

These are very real concerns, but their basis has a more emotional than practical foundation.  Changing the course of a river is much like plotting a new highway.  There is more than one way to arrive from point A to point B.  A recent proposal for a hydroelectric dam was scrapped when it contained an itinerary for building an access road through a portion of the historic Iditarod Trail  It’s back to the drawing boards until they can come up with a better plan for access.  The dam project does not necessarily have to disrupt the flow of the river by Talkeetna nor damage the industry of sport fishing near the mouth of the Susitna River.  The proposal has had a great many years to mature, and along with it, significant advances in hydroelectric technology.  It can be altered and redirected to include all the concerns of the affected communities.

The Icelandic Solution

Iceland is the only country in Western Europe that still has large resources of competitively priced hydroelectric power and geothermal energy remaining to be harnessed. Although electricity consumption per capita in Iceland is second to none in the world, at about 28,200 kWh per person, only a fraction of the country’s energy potential has been tapped. Total economically viable electric power potential is now estimated at 50,000 GWh/year. About 8,490 GWh/year of this power had been harnessed in 2003, i.e. only about 17% of the total electrical energy potential.

Despite the advances in hydroelectric power, Iceland is still dependent on imported oil to operate their vehicles and thriving fishing industry.  However, with the ingenuity characteristic of Iceland’s inhabitants, they have been tackling this problem as well.  They have begun manufacturing vehicles that run off fuel cells.

Fuel cells generate electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen into water. And fuel cell technology is clean — the only by-product is water. “It’s just like a normal car,” says Asdis Kritinsdottir, project manager for Reykjavik Energy. Except the only pollution coming out of the exhaust pipe is water vapor. It can go about 100 miles on a full tank. When it runs out of fuel the electric battery kicks in, giving the driver another 18 miles — hopefully enough time to get to a refueling station. Filling the tank is similar to today’s cars — attach a hose to the car’s fueling port, hit “start” on the pump and stand back. The process takes about five to six minutes.  Hydrogen itself, is released naturally from waterfalls, and practically, by tapping the waters released from their hydro-electric reservoirs.

Pointing out the melting glaciers is a knee jerk reaction.  The glaciers will continue to melt with or without a dam unless climate change reverses the activity.  While it’s true that much of the might of the Susitna River is fed by glacial melt, it is also fed by the run-off of winter snow.  A dam would actually slow the feed of fresh water dumping into the salty content of the oceans and recapture snow melt.

Fish estuaries are extremely delicate, but this has not stopped developers from filling them in for highways, real estate and business applications.  This has not stopped oil and large mining interests from jeopardizing salmon beds and endangering marine life.  Leach fields and oil spills are unrecoverable in terms of damage to the fragile eco-system, but as long as the water and surrounding environment  is clean, fish and wildlife are extremely adaptable.  Caribou might change their migrational pattern to better fit their agenda for suitable river crossing points, but a change in the river course will not decimate their herds.  Salmon return to the point where they were spawned.  A number of fish hatcheries already exist in the State of Alaska to insure the healthy populace of its wild salmon.  There is no reason to believe a successful hatchery could not be built on the Susitna River to insure the safe return of its salmon.

Comparing the State of Alaska’s proposal for a hydroelectric dam to reservoirs in the Continental United States is unfair.  The function of many of the dam projects has not been for the sole purpose of tapping hydroelectric energy, but to have a reservoir of fresh water for urban areas and agriculture.  Alaska has plenty of fresh water.  The purpose of the dam would not be to conserve water for its residents, who primarily own their own wells, but solely for creating hydroelectric power to the economically energy strapped railbelt.

Behind the Masquerade

Interestingly enough, the opponents of the dam, the ones who are shrieking the loudest about possible environmental damage, are the advocates of natural gas development.  Natural gas, which began as a friendly face, providing cheap energy, has become as much of an energy tyrant as oil companies have become over recent years.   The price of natural gas has quadrupled over the last ten years, making it as expensive to heat your home with natural gas as it is to go all-electric.  Despite the vast untapped natural gas resources literally lying beneath the feet of the inhabitants, the development of natural gas has stagnated, and the drive for cheap, local natural gas has shifted to one concentrated effort; creating a natural gas pipeline that will furnish energy for the Continental United States.  In fact, the very fact that natural gas lies directly below our feet has resulted in various court cases when natural gas companies tried to declare subsurface drilling rights on private property.

“High Country News” states that, “opponents of the dam concerned about environmental impacts appear to be pushing Alaska to stay reliant on fossil fuel. Richard Leo, a member of the newly formed Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives, questioned whether the dam was necessary when the natural gas reserves could already fill the state’s energy needs. He fears the dam will impact caribou habitat and salmon runs, becoming “destructive on a massive scale.” Climate change may already be impacting the state, but that doesn’t mean it precious resources should be traded for their energy, he says.

“Massive dam projects have been shown internationally across the past 20 years to no longer be the most effective way to generate electricity…their potential destructiveness outweighs the amount of electricity they can create.”

Natural gas, along with oil, is becoming a has been, a washed up movie star still frantically applying botox, plastic surgery and tantrums to secure that leading role.  We have a role model for the successful use of hydroelectric and geothermal energy in Iceland.  It has successfully given its people cheap energy without disrupting its environment.  Alaska has the same geological features, but in greater abundance; volcanoes, geothermal pockets, earth pounding waterfalls, fast flowing rivers and giant lakes.  There is absolutely no reason Alaska cannot build an environmentally safe, hydroelectric dam that will provide cheap, renewable energy for its inhabitants and meet the demands of the local communities.  While building hydroelectric dams is not going to immediately resolve our economic difficulty with rising energy costs, it paves the way for a clean, renewable resource future.