Alaska’s clean energy innovations have national and global implications for how America responds to climate change and natural disasters.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski delivered that message firsthand Sunday to U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, who was in greater Fairbanks to see research facilities and talk with scientists on the forefront of discovering and deploying solutions to real-world problems.
“We know in Alaska that we have been pioneering for a long time. But I don’t think that is well understood outside of the state,” Murkowski said about Granholm’s visit to the Interior research centers and later to Chena Hot Springs, home to Alaska’s first geothermal power plant.
Congressional hearings and PowerPoints, Murkowski said, cannot show fully the ingenuity of Alaskans that include deploying sustainable solutions in remote communities and responding to extreme weather events.
The energy secretary said she welcomed the visit and emphasized the federal government’s interest in partnering with Alaska’s “energy pioneers” to apply knowledge and know-how to national and global issues on energy and climate science.
Granholm said she was interested in the opportunities for partnerships with Alaska Native communities. “Indigenous communities have been finding solutions for centuries,” she said. “We can learn from experience here.”
Cold Climate Housing Research Center
Granholm earlier visited the Cold Climate Housing Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where guests donned heavy orange parkas and hard hats for a one-of-a-kind walk-through that revealed a mammoth tusk, bison bones and undulations in rock formations that resembled hieroglyphics.
At UAF, Granholm received a primer on cutting-edge clean energy building technologies that emphasized efficiencies, sustainable design and clean technology. The center recently partnered with the National Renewable Energy Lab, a federally funded agency.
The center's mission is to advance green building science, but its hands-on roles include working with tribal communities to respond to coastal erosion, flooding and other impacts from climate change.
Scientists and engineers noted that they partner with Alaska Native community leaders to learn about practices for building and warming homes that date back for hundreds and thousands of years.
Murkowski also discussed energy challenges in rural communities, where costs for electricity are much higher than urban areas. She noted on social media Sunday that 200 rural villages in Alaska are off the grid and must rely on “expensive diesel generation that is barged in or flown in once or twice a year.”
But work at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center is helping to change that. “Because Alaska has every type of renewable, from hydropower to wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, dozens of those remote villages are adding renewables to their micro-grids to help cut costs and emissions,” she said.
Permafrost Tunnel Research
Granholm also toured the Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The frozen tunnel is a natural research laboratory excavated in the 1960s. Researchers study geology, ice science and building techniques specific to cold-weather environments.
Researchers at the tunnel showed visitors ancient ice formations and discussed the importance of understanding safe construction that is resilient and sustainable in extreme weather events that include climate change.
In the afternoon, Granholm received a warm greeting at the annual Renewable Energy Fair at Chena Hot Springs Resort. Despite a downpour that emptied outdoor booths promoting alternative energy and organic produce, among other exhibits, an indoor gathering led by proprietor Bernie Karl featured Granholm, Murkowski and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who touted his subscription as a young adult to Mother Earth Magazine for prompting him to “think outside the box.”
With the high cost of electricity in Alaska, Dunleavy said his administration “really believes in the renewable potential of this state,” in areas that include solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy. “There is the potential for rural Alaska to finally take care of itself and to have a [sustainable] economy,” he said.
Granholm told the crowd at Chena Hot Springs that she comes with a “sense of deep humility” for what Alaskans are doing in areas to mitigate climate change.
“You in Alaska have been warming faster than any other state. You see it with the permafrost thaw and the lower salmon runs,” she said. “You ... also have the solutions and that means a lot to help us get there.”
Murkowski echoed that message: “Our geography, our climate, and our people have made Alaska a world leader in innovation.”