By Robert Shields
I’m going to tell you what I think we need to do to clean up our air, lower the cost of energy, provide additional resources for education and security, lower crime, stimulate the economy, get money to invest in our crumbling infrastructure, and lower taxes. In this political, social, economic and environmental climate, it is also the one thing that will best ensure our survival in the event of a long-term (1 year+) supply disruption. Move our energy infrastructure beyond petroleum-immediately! If not sooner.
If you’re still reading this, because some won’t, I can explain. Holding firm to the belief that coal is clean, natural gas is reliable for the Interior, and it is perfectly acceptable to expect these are the primary energy sources we will depend on for the next 100 years, some people just won’t care to keep reading the liberal ideas of a “crazy environmentalist” as Don Young so fondly calls us- so thanks for sticking with me. As the Arctic is changing twice as fast as the rest of the planet, because of human industrial activities, our current energy infrastructure is vulnerable because heating oil, natural gas, and propane are brought in. You might think, we have locally sourced coal, which is true, but because we rely on it, the cost of energy is so outrageously high, that it’s a major barrier to business. Including agri-businesses, which could help with our 95% food imports. After 1 week without food, the labor-intensive coal energy infrastructure will go unmanned, and like the rest of the systems, we rely upon on-fail us when we need it the most.
I can explain, in general, the process that would naturally occur. Potentially over the next 5- years without the political allegiance to the petroleum interest that only benefit a few at the cost of many. What I won’t do is explain the economics. Why? Mainly, the economics of petroleum are skewed by federal incentives (tax dollars). If the current incentives for renewable energy and petroleum were both removed, the “free” market would gravitate towards renewable energy, virtually overnight. Additionally, raw economic thinking (efficient allocation of resources for maximum gain) doesn’t support the concept of “externalities” which are the value placed on social and environmental costs and or benefits resulting from a given investment. These attributes are used intermediately, however, usually only to sell something else. The cost of doing business in the real world on a living dynamic planet largely goes unaccounted for on a company, or government, financial ledger, while the impacts to people, animals, and the general health of the planet are very real.
Simply put, first we go solar. Solar electric on every building and space that is viable. This simple and cheap (price dropped 75% in the last five years) technology is the core of resilience as it has no moving parts and can last 50 years or more. Follow that with solar thermal which can provide 60% of annual hot water needs or 50% of a buildings heating costs. This will energize building owners to take tighter control of their energy budget, recognizing clearly that additional conservation measures are money in the bank. Furthermore, money freed up by onsite generation can be reinvested into conservation that improves the bottom line.
Getting directly to the point. The renewable energy source that can replace coal in Fairbanks is pelletized biofuels. For natural gas, heating oil, and propane it’s anaerobic digestion. Both can be harvested from the same sources of biomatter used to provide on-demand reliability and manage peak demands with rapid spin up. Distributed standby generation can provide back-up and reduce power outages, replacing large centralized plants that have a larger impact on air quality. Pelletized biofuels can be derived from processed sewage, cardboard and waste paper that has been soaked to remove containments, and locally harvested woody biomass and grass clipping. The most viable source and a core element of climate resilience is the local production of industrial hemp. Together, these form a sustainable stream of feedstock for locally generated portable fuel. Utilizing technology that can scale up to feed the hopper at the UAF pellet power plant, or scaled down to provide for remote cabin locations. There are other sources to consider but these are a good first couple of steps that will define the rest.
Natural disasters (or social upheaval) don’t make appointments and often arrive without notice. As difficult as it may be to prepare for them, it’s far harder to respond. Make today count.