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Inletkeeper talks renewable energy bills, ways to advocate locally

Hunter Morrison

2024 is the year of energy for the Alaska legislature. That’s according to a presentation given at Cook Inletkeeper’s Community Action Studio in Soldotna Thursday [02/15]. Organizers highlighted the need for renewable energy efforts locally, citing the decades-long natural gas shortage in Cook Inlet.

“That’s why we care about energy, it’s all interconnected and I think it’s a big part of our advocacy to be interested in this legislation that affects all of us,” said Josie Oliva, the nonprofit’s energy organizer. “It will impact us all directly every single day, whatever direction they choose.”

Hilcorp, Cook Inlet’s primary producer of natural gas, says it cannot guarantee future gas contracts with utilities. Homer Electric Association, the Kenai Peninsula’s main electric utility, has a contract with the gas producer that will expire this spring. While some lawmakers are looking for ways to increase Cook Inlet gas production, Oliva says this presents an opportunity to consider local renewable energy alternatives instead.

“It also gives an opportunity, while these bills are in the legislature, to make an impact and a change so maybe we’re not relying heavily on the natural gas production to give us a supply of power,” she said.

The group first discussed a bill that would allow Alaskans to purchase shares of community-owned solar farms not located on their property. Those with shares of the farms would benefit from the excess electricity generated, which would be sold back to utility companies. The bill would also require utility companies to have a community energy program that offers its members subscriptions for renewable energy.

According to meeting organizers, HEA unsuccessfully attempted to implement a community energy program in the past. Ben Boettger, Inletkeeper’s energy policy analyst, says HEA currently gets 84% of its energy from natural gas.

“If HEA builds its own solar farm and makes it big, it doesn't need the complicated subscription mechanism to finance it, and all the members get the benefits instead of just the subscribers," he said. "Would HEA have less incentive to build its own solar farms if the members who really want solar are all subscribing to these other farms?”

The group also discussed a bill related to renewable portfolio standards, or RPS. The bill would require Alaska utility companies to meet a 25% renewable energy goal by the end of 2027. The goal would then increase to 55% by the end of 2030, and 80% by the end of 2040.

The renewable standard could include energy from wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal and tidal outlets. If signed into law, the RPS would be enforced with a fine for every megawatt hour below the standard. Companies wouldn’t be able to pay those fines by raising rates for customers, but could pay them off by investing in renewables or energy efficient projects for members.

As supply is expected to decrease, Boettger says demand for natural gas will stay relatively consistent through the year 2040. He says natural gas costs are also expected to increase.

“We don’t really need this more expensive gas," Boettger said. "To reduce gas demand, we need a plan, and we need to fill the gap with the equivalent of renewable energy.”

Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman has expressed opposition to the bill. Oliva says supporters of the bill should tell their lawmakers, but also vote for pro-renewable energy HEA board candidates in this spring’s election.

“I would say your utility elections are probably one of the most important elections you can be a part of that are not political, because you are still choosing a representative in your community to discuss prices, to discuss where you’re getting your energy, to discuss various costs," Oliva said. "We need people who are going to be advocates for our needs.” 

As of now, HEA has not commented on the bill. According to Inletkeeper, other utility companies in the state have expressed support for the bill.

Editor’s note: Josie Oliva is a volunteer DJ and office assistant at KDLL.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL
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