State fund for renewable power falls prey to budget woes

Since 2008, the state has set aside a pot of money for renewable energy projects like small dams and wind turbines. Called the Renewable Energy Fund, the projects it’s backed have replaced tens of millions of gallons of expensive diesel in communities from Skagway to Nome.

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Sand Point wind turbine (Photo by Zoe Sobel, Alaska's Energy Desk - Unlaska)
Sand Point wind turbine (Photo by Zoe Sobel, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Unlaska)

But with the current budget crisis, that money has disappeared.

For example, utility TDX Power last year asked the Alaska Energy Authority for about $650,000. The utility needs the money to help improve a wind power system in Sand Point, a community of about 950 on the Alaskan Peninsula.

Sand Point City Administrator Andy Varner said an improved wind system would lead to cheaper power.

“Energy is a big issue, it’s a big chunk out of people’s paychecks, it’s a big drain on, in our situation, on the community budget,” Varner said.

If Sand Point’s two wind turbines were more efficient, the town would use less pricey diesel. That means more money for other things, Varner explained.

“You know, fixing up our fire truck, making our roads safer — all the stuff that we need to be doing,” Varner said.

A screen showing the status of one of the wind turbines at Sand Point (Photo by Zoe Sobel, Alaska's Energy Desk - Unlaska)
A screen showing the status of one of the wind turbines at Sand Point (Photo by Zoe Sobel, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Unlaska)

The Alaska Energy Authority also thought improving Sand Point’s wind power system was a good idea. They added it to a list of projects slated to receive funding from the state’s Renewable Energy Fund.

But due to the budget crisis, the legislature didn’t provide money to any Renewable Energy Fund projects this year.

And the state won’t accept applications for new projects this year, either. Sean Skaling of the Alaska Energy Authority said instead, they’re giving the legislature the same list of 39 projects they turned in last year.

“We feel it’s the fairest way to move forward given the financial times in the state and giving those 39 projects another opportunity to get funding, possibly,” Skaling said.

Sand Point’s wind power system is near the top of that list. But Skaling said it’s hard to predict if the projects will get funding the next time around.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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