Deputy secretary praises state energy research, pledges more partnerships
Alaska companies and communities aiming to implement new energy technologies or just improve their energy efficiency could see more resources coming their way, according to one U.S. Department of Energy leader.
Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said during an Aug. 28 press briefing in Anchorage that he wants the department to expand its current footprint in the state and provide more help to Alaskans working with energy technologies.
That help could come in the form of additional technical assistance for remote communities that need help complying with the state’s Power Cost Equalization program, for example; additional funding for local energy infrastructure projects; or more cooperative research between the University of Alaska and DOE’s 17 national laboratories; Brouillette said he hopes it all can happen.
He spoke alongside Sen. Lisa Murkowski at Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s “Fab Lab” at the end of a five-day trip. Brouillette toured North Slope oil operations and visited Western Alaska villages working to integrate renewable energy technologies into their communities among other meetings.
He said he wants to expand the department’s footprint in the state because the applied research done here has implications worldwide.
“The lessons that I learn here are very practical and sometimes we lose sight of that. We spend a lot of money at the Department of Energy on some fantastic science, and it’s very important that we do so, but it’s also important that we take the time to come to places like this one to see the actual application of these scientific lessons and that’s what’s so exciting for us,” Brouillette said, adding that Alaska regularly leads the country in energy technology innovation.
According to DOE budget documents, the department spent $9.7 million on Alaska programs in federal fiscal year 2018 and has a $16.2 million budget for grants, projects and other work in the state for the current, 2019 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Much of the bump in DOE funding to Alaska was for fossil energy research and development. Last winter, the Department of Energy partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey, BP and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. to drill a test well in the Prudhoe Bay oil field for natural gas hydrate research.
It was the start of a multi-year endeavor with the ultimate goal of better understanding the viability of commercial gas hydrate production.
The department’s funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects has increased slightly in recent years, but generally been in the $2.3 million per year range.
While it’s a tiny fraction of DOE’s overall budget of more than $37 billion, Brouillette said the department’s work — combined with what other organizations do — on energy efficiency improvements in Alaska is crucial.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent arm of the Department of Energy, on May 23 approved a first-of-its-kind, 10-year operational license for a RiverGen in-river power generation system in the Southwestern Alaska village of Igiugig.
“We count on that technology; we count on that research; we count on those efforts not only for Alaska, but for the rest of the country,” Brouillette said. “Our energy efficiency program at DOE is very much looking to Alaska to solve some of the problems that we face in other parts of the country.”
To that end, Murkowski said she is committed to finding ways to replace $750,000 of state funding for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center that Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy vetoed from the state capital budget as a means of reducing the state’s ongoing budget deficits.
Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
She stressed that the benefits of the research and building designs developed at the Fairbanks-based center stretch well beyond Alaska.
“The work that Cold Climate Housing has been doing is not only important to us in Alaska; this is the facility in the Arctic,” Murkowski said.
“Other Arctic nations are looking to what Cold Climate Housing is doing and saying, ‘We want to share your good ideas. We want to use some of your designs because we struggle with the same issues.’”
The Cold Climate Housing Research Center is widely known for developing what are believed to be the most energy efficient northern latitude homes in the world.
CCHRC founder and CEO Jack Hébert said based on prior conversations with Murkowski that she is investigating whether the center could partner with the Energy Department's national laboratories partly as a means to secure funding.
"She's just doing what she can do. She believes in us and we certainly appreciate her for that," he said.
However, Hébert said getting federal funding is made more difficult by the fact that the state has cut off its support. He added that the center is also looking a private sources of funding, such as nonprofit foundations.
"It's tough, but we'll make our way," he said.
Both Murkowski and Brouillette noted that while the center’s work is focused on northern home design, the same construction methods can be used to keep the heat out in warmer climes.
Murkowski also said she is working on legislation to allow Department of Energy grants to be more easily passed through quasi-state agencies, such as the Alaska Energy Authority, to local governments and Tribes for renewable energy and efficiency projects.
Additionally, Murkowski has long been working to pass an omnibus national energy policy reform package. Such legislation passed both the House and Senate in 2016, but ultimately died on conference committee negotiations.
Republican Senate Energy and Natural Resources spokeswoman Tonya Parish wrote in an email that the committee has held several hearings on energy reform legislation, advancing 22 bills to the Senate floor in July.
The committee is expected to hold another bill markup soon, “with continued focus on energy-related matters that can be combined into a bipartisan package,” Parish wrote.
The pair visited the Kuskokwim Bay communities of Kwigillingok and Kongiganak. “Kwig” and “Kong” leaders, along with officials from other nearby villages for years have been working to not only to integrate wind power into their primarily diesel-supported power grids, but also have been trying new ways to maximize the amount of wind energy they can use through hi-tech battery storage and in-home electric thermal storage units, among others.
Murkowski said the work has allowed the communities to get off of diesel-generated power upwards of 30 percent of the time.
“When you’re paying $6 a gallon for your home heating fuel every percent that you can get off diesel is money ahead,” she said.
Brouillette commented that he was further surprised by the interest residents of Kwig have in hydrogen energy technology.
“To see that interest in such a small community (with a population of about 300), again speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the Alaskan people,” he said. “If we were able to assist smaller communities like Kwig all throughout Alaska, given the amount of water resources here — that would be a tremendous opportunity.
He added that while wind and solar energy projects are helping to immediately reduce energy costs in rural Alaska, the opportunities that could be afforded by economic hydrogen energy “represents a future that none of us today can even imagine.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].