Point of View: Time to prepare for new energy future

Editor’s note: The Homer News offered the District 3 Homer Electric Association Board candidates the opportunity to express their views.

On April 1, Homer Electric Association mailed ballots to around 23,000 member-owners. I’ve been one of those members for around a decade, and I’m not sure how many times I’ve filled out my yearly ballot, but this time I’m on it. I’m running for the board of directors in HEA District 3, which stretches from Nanwalek to Kasilof.

As HEA, we own the smallest and furthest south portion of the Railbelt electricity grid, which reaches all the way to Fairbanks, and serves two thirds of Alaskans. Nearly all of that electricity — 88 percent of our power — comes from just one source: Cook Inlet natural gas. The majority of Cook Inlet natural gas is produced by a single company: Hilcorp.

This dependence leaves us vulnerable. Our electricity ($0.23/kWh on my last bill), is the most expensive on the Railbelt. It is more expensive than any other state apart from Hawaii. Around 35 percent of that (the “cost of power adjustment” on your bill), is fuel costs. Cook Inlet natural gas is more than twice as expensive as gas in the Lower 48, and that price is only going to rise. Geologically speaking, we’re not running out of gas in Cook Inlet. But as we draw down existing fields, the costs of new exploration and construction will drive the price up far beyond what we’ve seen. A state study from last year suggests that by 2030, new gas production would need to sell for nearly double the current price to be economic for the companies to develop. Potential large projects, like the Donlin and Pebble Mine proposals, could draw enough gas to make that happen even sooner.

How can we use less gas? Our new natural gas plants are more efficient than the older ones. Efficiency, in our power plants and our houses, is a key piece of the puzzle. By itself, it’s not enough. Ultimately, we need to break our dependence on expensive fossil fuels. Policies to curb climate change may drive fossil fuel prices even higher than economics will.

For example, the tax regime in British Columbia would add 35 percent to our gas prices if it were happening here. The impacts of climate change hit harder every year, and Alaska is warming at twice the global average rate. Over the next few decades, climate change will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Ethically and economically, we need to be part of the solution.

We must prepare now for our energy future. This future will include more renewables, energy storage and smart systems for moving electricity when and where it is needed. To get there, we need to collaborate with other Railbelt utilities, fix transmission bottlenecks, and eliminate inefficiencies. We need to improve our system to allow low cost renewables to be integrated into the grid, keep rates down, and prepare for the future. Without these improvements, we’ll be stuck with skyrocketing costs and no quick fix. We can’t get there immediately, but if we don’t start now, we can’t get there at all.

Unlike most of the country, we’re lucky enough to own our electricity grid. HEA is a cooperative, and we can decide its priorities. Take five minutes to fill out your ballot when it comes in the mail. Make that decision.

Erin McKittrick lives in Seldovia and is a candidate for the District 3 seat on the Homer Electric Association board of directors.