Renewable Energy & Rural Alaska’s Energy Crisis

Center for American Progress Co-Hosts Fascinating Discussion with Alaska’s U.S. Senators, Native Leaders & Federal Officials

The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) co-hosted a half-day, high-level conference on the challenges and opportunities for renewable energy in Alaska earlier today at CAP’s Washington, D.C. offices.

Former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta moderated a discussion with Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich about using rural Alaska as a testing ground for renewable energy projects that could be exported across the globe.

“If we can make these projects pencil out in Alaska, where our costs are higher than anywhere else in the country, we can make them work anywhere, so use us as the demonstration project for so many different renewable energy (projects), whether it’s geothermal, whether it’s our ocean energy resources, with wave, with current, with tidal, with biomass,” explained Senator Lisa Murkowski. Senator Begich echoed “I don’t care if you’re the federal government or the private sector, Alaska is a unique place to test these products.”

High-level officials from the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Energy spoke candidly with longtime former EPA chief Carol Browner about the urgency of the rural energy crisis in Alaska. High gas and oil prices, along with the effects of rapid climate change, are severely impacting rural Native villages. Dollars that would otherwise be used for growth in personal, business, and community-related spending are now being consumed largely by the growing costs of all forms of energy in rural Alaska, which is crippling for both individuals and communities.

“AFN is hoping that the end result of this conference will be a renewed interest in our remote Native villages, and some interest from the federal and state government in helping us transition from old, antiquated energy systems to renewable and affordable energy,“ said AFN President Julie Kitka.

Alaska Native leaders Byron Mallott, Marie Greene, and Ethan Schutt shared examples of renewable energy projects that Alaska Natives are piloting in different regions of Alaska, from small hydropower to wind, biomass, geothermal and other alternative energy technologies. Mallott stressed the urgency of dealing with the rural energy crisis in the next five years, and numerous speakers mentioned a lack of time as the biggest challenge.

Maritime policy expert and scholar Scott Borgerson shared a detailed assessment of Alaska’s strategic advantages as one of the world’s most exciting emerging markets from an investor and entrepreneur’s perspective.

“Capital is fleeing north,” he said, “… and having flourishing communities in (Alaska) is absolutely in our nation’s national security interests, and it has broad strategic geopolitical consequences.”