Alaska’s pro-oil Republican governor is quietly pushing green energy projects too

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters at a fundraiser in January, 2020. (Nat Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and disbanded the commission charged with guiding his state’s response to climate change.

Kerry Williams and Ceal Smith are climate activists who were among the 50,000 Alaskans to sign the application to recall the governor.

Nonetheless, all three found themselves on the phone in January. Dunleavy initiated the call after reading about Williams’ idea for a hydroelectric megaproject at Eklutna Lake, outside Anchorage, which would tie in with a huge expansion of wind energy across the state.

“We were quite surprised by how enthusiastic he was,” said Smith. “He said he even drove out to Eklutna to conceptualize it.”

Alaska is warming twice as fast as fast as the global average, and even as climate change threatens to impose steep costs here, Dunleavy and other elected officials have continued promoting the oil industry, which underpins the state’s entire economy.

RELATED: As Arctic warming accelerates, permafrost thaw hits Red Dog mine with $20 million bill

But the plummeting costs and increasing availability of renewable power sources are making their adoption increasingly inescapable, and even major oil companies like BP have expanded into the industry.

Renewables make an especially compelling case in Alaska, where electricity costs nearly twice the national average. And the Eklutna hydroelectric concept isn’t the only renewable power idea to draw Dunleavy’s interest.

The governor has also quietly pitched Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, on Alaska’s wind power potential, with Buffett responding in a letter that he hopes he can “join forces” with Dunleavy. Executives from one of Buffett’s companies, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, have held a series of meetings with the governor and senior administration officials.

“I know there’s a view, on the part of some, that a Republican governor that is supportive of Alaska’s resource extraction industries, including those around fossil fuels, would not want anything to do with renewables,” Dunleavy said in an interview Friday. “That’s not the case.”

Improvements in technology and decreasing costs of renewable power, he added, “open up some new and tremendous possibilities for Alaska.”

The Eklutna project is still more of a concept than it is a formal proposal, and neither the governor nor Berkshire Hathaway is talking about what could come out of their discussions. But alternative energy boosters say that the governor’s interest reflects a growing political consensus around the benefits of renewable power.

“Things are shifting,” said Smith. “And this is a new place we’re in, that we haven’t been in before.”

The Eklutna hydroelectric project and accompanying wind power investments could cost $5 billion or more. But boosters say that the project could supply most of Alaska’s road system communities with 100% renewable power and cut electric costs by a third over time.

The concept stems from an inherent problem with wind power: It isn’t consistent, because it rises and falls with the wind itself.

A view of Eklutna Lake.
Eklutna Lake is tucked into the Chugach Mountains not far from Anchorage. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

Williams and Smith want to use the project at Eklutna Lake, tucked in the mountains outside of Anchorage, as a kind of battery: When winds create more energy than Alaskans need, the extra power would pump water uphill to the lake, and to two new reservoirs built even higher in the mountains.

Then, in times when more power is needed, the water would be drained downhill out of the reservoirs and through an existing hydroelectric plant that connects to the lake. It’s a system known in the energy industry as “pumped hydro.”

Supporters say that extra water flowing out of Eklutna Lake could actually boost salmon runs in the Eklutna River downstream — a major difference from another major hydroelectric project that Alaska elected officials advanced in the past, in the Susitna River watershed.

And the Eklutna project faces no opposition from the region’s Indigenous people, according to Aaron Leggett, the president of Eklutna’s tribal government.

Dunleavy said he stumbled on the idea doing some late-night internet research and felt like “the concept had potential.”

“It makes total sense to explore pumped hydro, using wind as a main source of energy and the reservoir as the batteries,” Dunleavy said. “We have the topography to make this work.”

Alaska’s electricity costs are the second-highest of all 50 states, and Dunleavy said that he’d like to install more predictable energy sources, like renewables, as a means to recruit businesses to the state. He said Alaska could tap into not just wind and hydroelectric energy, but also into tidal power, given the massive tides in Cook Inlet near Anchorage.

After discussing the Eklutna project with Williams and Smith, Dunleavy asked them to write a memo on their idea, which has since been published.

Dunleavy also asked the Alaska Energy Authority, a state agency charged with reducing power costs, to review the proposal.

The authority has not published any of its own findings, but its preliminary analysis suggests that a pumped hydro project may have more potential near an existing state-owned hydroelectric dam at Bradley Lake, on the Kenai Peninsula, said Executive Director Curtis Thayer. He said the authority aims to produce more detailed recommendations within six months to a year.

The Eklutna project was what sparked Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s interest in Alaska, Thayer said. The authority hasn’t had detailed conversations with the company, but Berkshire Hathaway does have a copy of the memo about the project, Thayer said.

The company’s executives have held at least four phone calls with Dunleavy since he wrote to Buffett in May, according to copies of the governor’s schedules obtained through a public records request. A Berkshire Hathaway Energy spokeswoman, Jessi Strawn, declined to comment.

Dunleavy also declined to describe his conversations with the company. But in his original letter to Buffett, also obtained through a records request, Dunleavy said he’d read Buffett’s annual message to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that touted the company’s success in harnessing wind power in Iowa and attracting new high-tech plants to the state.

“I believe Alaska presents similar opportunities and would welcome the opportunity to discuss them with you,” Dunleavy wrote. “Transitioning Alaska to clean, reliable, inexpensive electricity is one of the greatest things we could do to attract additional investment, diversify and grow our economy and lower the economic burden on Alaskans in powering their homes and businesses.”

Chris Rose, who leads an advocacy organization called the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, said his group welcomes Dunleavy’s interest in efforts to make the state’s power grid more efficient.

But Rose said he wants to make sure that planning for renewable power projects is careful and strategic, not driven by political interest in megaprojects. That’s because many of Alaska’s road system utilities use relatively new power plants fueled by natural gas, and displacing them with projects that are too big could actually drive costs up, Rose said.

“We have to, I think, look at this a little bit more surgically and say, ‘We’re going to be displacing this much natural gas by putting in energy storage here, or by putting in a smaller wind farm over there,’ rather than thinking about much larger projects,” Rose said.

Rose said he’d also like to see the governor focus on efficiency efforts that might be “less sexy” than megaprojects but that are already underway, like an initiative to better coordinate power generation and transmission between Alaska’s many different road system utilities.

Dunleavy said his administration is planning “a lot more” action on renewable power. And he cited his State of the State speech earlier this year, when he said he was pushing his departments to hit a 2025 goal for Alaska to produce half of its energy from renewable sources.

“I think Alaska has tremendous opportunity in this,” Dunleavy said. “Alaska is open to business, and the governor is trying to reduce energy dependence — and we’ll use any and all methods to get to that.”

Previous articleAlaska News Nightly: Monday, September 21, 2020
Next articleIn secret recordings, Pebble Mine execs say Donlin mine is too expensive to build