Commerce Dept. focusing on addressing energy problems

Alaska Commerce Department Commissioner Susan Bell highlighted the wide-ranging work her department is involved in across the state in a May 19 speech to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

Bell said dealing with the ever-present energy issues the state faces are “central” to the mission of many of the 13 agencies in the broad Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

“When we’re thinking about our economic foundations something we all need to do is think about how we use the energy resources we’re blessed with and how we bring down the cost of energy across the state,” she said.

Through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and its sister agency the Alaska Energy Authority, both under the Commerce umbrella, the department is involved in major projects to lower the cost of living in the state.

Bell serves on the board of directors for both state groups, as well as the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board.

AIDEA’s Interior Energy Project includes more than $260 million of work to develop an area-wide natural gas storage and distribution network in Fairbanks and North Pole. While gas will initially be supplied via trucks hauling it from the North Slope, Bell said the distribution system is a long-term investment.

“Whether we have a large (gas) pipeline or a medium-sized pipeline it will be critical that we have a market in place and ready to use that gas when it comes.” Bell said.

Getting natural gas to the Interior could cut heating bills in half for the region’s residents that currently rely on fuel oil, economic impact studies have indicated.

Lowering energy costs is one of the single most important things the state can do to spur job creation, Bell said.

As AIDEA works to lower heating costs, AEA is focused on meeting the Legislature’s goal of generating at least 50 percent of the state’s electricity through renewable sources by 2025. Bell said a little more than 20 percent of Alaska’s power comes from such sources — primarily hydro — now.

She stressed that the impetus behind the work is to reduce cost.

“We’re not just developing renewables for renewables’ sake,” she said.

Alaska’s biggest renewable energy project, which will be one of the tallest dams in the country if it’s built and would get the state to the 50 percent goal, is the Susitna-Watana dam. In the state’s 2014 fiscal year about to end June 30, AEA had a $95 million budget for “very detailed” environmental, engineering and technical work to get the project to FERC licensing, Bell said.

There is $20 million to continue Susitna-Watana study in the 2015 capital budget on Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk now.

With AEA as a catalyst, the Legislature has appropriated $227.5 million since in 251 renewable energy projects large and small across Alaska through the Renewable Energy Fund since its inception in 2008, she said.

The Legislature put $22.8 million towards the fund in the pending capital budget.

Bell called the 50-plus mile long Red Dog mine road and port system in Northwest Alaska a “template” for future resource development. Owned by AIDEA, the transportation infrastructure to the zinc mine is considered by some one the authority’s greatest success story.

“Our department has been working to increase the visibility of our resources as well as the tools that we have from permitting to financing entities like AIDEA that can partner with the private sector, with our banking community,” Bell said.

AIDEA is in the midst of a several years-long environmental impact statement process to ultimately build another industrial road in the region, a 220-mile road from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler mining district.

The authority is finalizing a route and working with local communities to answer key questions about the project, she said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/21/2016 - 2:07pm