Alaska gets $200M from feds for Railbelt energy project, Cook Inlet undersea cable

The view across Cook Inlet from Nikiski. (Riley Board/KDLL)

A massive $206 million federal grant will fund a project to run a 50-mile undersea cable through Cook Inlet, to better connect Railbelt utilities and improve access to renewable sources. KDLL’s Riley Board talked with reporter James Brooks from the Alaska Beacon about the project, and the flexibility it could create for energy security on the Kenai Peninsula and beyond.

Riley Board: Can you start by just giving me the lowdown on this grant and the project that it will fund?

James Brooks: So this was part of …this was one of several grants issued as part of the big congressional infrastructure bill that passed a couple of years ago. It was a competitive grant, and so it was kind of a surprise, a pleasant one, for the Alaska Energy Authority to get this. The request was the fifth-highest among the hundreds of grant applications that were submitted. And Curtis Thayer, the head of the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA), told me he was kind of in the position of the dog that caught the car. They weren’t expecting to get this, but pleasantly surprised that they did.

RB: And can you tell me a little bit about the cable and the project that they proposed? 

JB: Yeah, what AEA and utilities have been working on, is a way to improve the flow of electricity up and down the Railbelt. Right now, from Homer to Fairbanks, instead of an electrical grid, we’ve got really what — as the head of the Golden Valley Electric Association, John Burns called it — is basically a string of extension cords. There’s no alternate routes, if you want to …if you need to get electricity from one place to another and can’t, from the main route.

So what this will do, this will pay for a 50-mile undersea power cable from the Kenai Peninsula over to Beluga on the west side of Cook Inlet. And so in the case of another Swan Lake fire, for example, you’d have another way to transmit power north and south, and get around that.

And in addition, it’ll also help pay for two battery banks, which will help deal with the ebb and flow of renewable power. So if the wind dies down, or the sun goes behind clouds, and your solar plants don’t work as well, these battery banks will kick in, take up the slack, and utilities will be able to either wait out the clouds or wind, or spin up fossil fuel-fired generators, diesel generators, or natural gas generators to cover what they’ve lost.

RB: So I know here on the peninsula, in terms of our utilities, we’re getting a pretty small fraction of our power from renewables at this point. Is this project sort of being built in anticipation of a future with more renewables and more of those less less reliable sources? The more fickle sources of power?

JB: Yeah, exactly. And the idea is flexibility. That if you need, or if you’re able to get cheaper power from a wind plant, or a solar plant, you can switch to that quickly. Or if there’s a wildfire, and you need to switch to a new power line, you can do that, too. So flexibility is the bottom line here.

RB: And on that subject, as, as we all know, there’s a projected Cook Inlet natural gas shortage that has utilities and lawmakers sort of scrambling, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a plan last month to reduce the royalty rate to encourage development in the inlet. How does a project like this fit into the broader Railbelt energy future that gets a lot of discussion these days?

JB: So if there’s a shortage of natural gas, then you need to come up with alternate ways to generate electricity, generate heat. If you’re putting up new solar and wind plants, or expanding Bradley Lake, for example, then you can reserve your natural gas for heating instead of electrical generation. So that reduces the demand for natural gas. That’s a couple steps down the line. But this power line, the battery banks that this grant funds, allows that to happen.

RB: Is there anything about this that we didn’t touch on that you would want to mention? 

JB: Maybe it’s that we shouldn’t expect this to happen immediately. There’s an eight-year timeframe for this to happen, and a lot of steps along the way. There’s no place in the United States that we know of that manufactures this type of electric cable, this is not something you can just buy off the shelf. And you have to hire special ships to lay this cable and ensure that it’s protected from the tides, and the erosion that can happen from tides. So it’s gonna be a slow process, but it’s one that the utilities and everybody involved say is a good idea, and something that’s needed for Alaska.

Read James’ original reporting here.

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