Clean energy has been gaining a foothold in rural Alaska over the past several years, driven by both environmental and economic concerns. Given the right approach and support from the federal government, clean energy has the potential to help address the high cost of electricity in our state while also mitigating some of the impacts of our changing climate.
However, the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered Alaska’s progress on clean energy. Even with some job gains in June, more than 1,300 men and women working in the state’s clean energy sector are still out of a job. Nationally, more than half a million of the 3.3 million Americans working in clean energy at the end of 2019 are in the same boat.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Congress has pumped trillions of dollars in relief funding into the economy, aiming to help small businesses, workers, and countless other organizations overcome the economic challenges they face. However, relief funding for clean energy workers has been noticeably absent.
Fortunately, the days of clean energy and supporting our clean energy workforce being viewed as a partisan issue are mostly behind us. There are multiple bipartisan efforts in Washington that recognize the fact that developing clean energy is about building a truly 21st century economy — one that protects our natural resources as much as possible while making energy more affordable, accessible, and sustainable for our homes and businesses. Alaska’s economic recovery — and our clean energy workers — need support from Congress, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republican, should help advocate for new investments in our energy infrastructure here and in the Lower 48 states.
As the founder and CEO of 60Hertz Microgrids — as well as the former deputy director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project — I have seen firsthand the impact that clean energy development has in rural Alaska communities. In 10 of our remote villages, the cost of electricity exceeds $1 per kilowatt hour, and the average is three to four times the tariff paid by those living in Homer, Anchorage or Fairbanks. Why is this? Dependence on diesel and the high cost to transport the fuel and maintain these power assets. Offsetting a community’s diesel consumption with renewable energy that makes sense in the Arctic, like wind, solar, batteries and hydropower may come with higher costs initially but result in more cost-effective energy generation and maintenance. 60Hertz’s software is illustrating this quantifiably.
Moreover, clean energy startups are critical to our state’s economic recovery. My software company, 60Hertz Microgrids, is a maintenance software for power generation assets at sites from villages to remote commercial and industrial sites. We are one of many Alaska startups exporting know-how born from Alaska’s vast geography, harsh conditions, and operational excellence; our customer base extends from Nepal, to Colombia to sub-Saharan Africa. Other startups in the state are pioneering clean energy solutions. Customers and investors love our “Arctic tough” and “extreme” bona fides.
With Alaska facing a massive state budget deficit that could push us to the brink of economic collapse, funneling support into clean energy startups will help improve our overall economic health and boost local economies when we need it most. Alaska at one point invested more per capita in renewable through our Renewable Energy Fund the than any other state; we stand credibly to speak on renewables in remote places. Our burgeoning start up community is well supported with mentors and funding, given entities like the startup accelerator Launch Alaska, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, and more.
Investors believe in entrepreneurs from Alaska. I’ve raised $1.4 million over the past two years for my company from within and outside of Alaska. Though 40% of people starting companies globally are women, only 2.8% of the startup venture capital invested in 2019 went to a female-only founder, or $6 billion, globally. 60Hertz is proud to be a modest component of this statistic.
As members of Congress hammer out another round of COVID-19 relief funding, the clean energy sector must be a central part of their discussions. We need our clean energy workers to get back on the job so we can continue to build out and secure a cleaner, stronger future for all Alaskans, and all Americans.
Senators Murkowski and Sullivan both understand the importance of clean energy to our state’s economy. They need to work together — and with their colleagues on both sides of the aisle — to help ensure Congress finds a solution that invests in Alaska’s clean energy workforce.
We need a robust plan that works for the unique challenges Alaska faces by promoting further innovation in the clean energy space. Alaska’s clean energy workers cannot wait any longer; now is the time for Congress to seize this opportunity.
Piper Foster Wilder is the founder and CEO of 60Hertz Microgrids, located in Anchorage.