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GVEA’s biggest customers want more renewables

Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) recently informed member-owners that the cooperative would not be investing in any of eight proposed renewable energy projects. At its monthly board meeting, the decision provoked widespread frustration from GVEA member-owners who have been urging the cooperative for decades to diversify its fuel sources and deploy low-cost renewable energy. What’s changed is that individual member-owners are no longer the only group demanding GVEA produce more clean energy.

Some of GVEA’s largest industrial users and electric consumers in Interior Alaska have made tangible renewable energy commitments.

Pogo-mine owner Northern Star Resources and Fort Knox-mine owner Kinross have both committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 and the Paris Climate goals. Northern Star are considering deploying wind turbines to power their Pogo mine operations and has a corporate strategy to “increase substantially the share of renewable energy” by 2030. Similarly, Kinross is looking to deploy on-site renewables to power its proposed operations near Tetlin and has committed to tangible greenhouse gas reductions across its entire portfolio — which includes Fort Knox — by 2030.

GVEA’s other big electricity consumers, grocers and retailers, have nearly all pledged significant decarbonization.

• Walmart has targeted “net zero” emissions by 2040 and renewables already supply nearly 40% of their electricity needs.

• Kroger/Fred Meyer supports the Paris Agreement and pledges to slash emissions 30% by 2030.

• Home Depot has committed to reducing its emissions by 50% by 2035 and plans to nearly double the number of stores with solar by 2025.

• Lowes is on track to reduce its emissions by 40% by 2030 and recently invested in 350 megawatts of solar and wind.

• Gap/Old Navy is pledging 100% renewable electricity for its stores by 2030.

• Costco recognizes that climate change “will likely cause the greatest disruption to life in human history” and will announce carbon reduction targets in December.

Our military is also massively scaling up renewable energy. As Fort Wainwright considers retiring its 65-year-old coal plant, two replacement options include procuring electricity from GVEA. The DoD is congressionally mandated to procure 25% of its total facility energy use from renewables by 2025. The US Army achieved its 2020 goal for five installations to be net-zero energy consumption and plans for another 25 to be net-zero by 2030. The Army also has a goal to deploy 1 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2025.

These federal and corporate commitments represent a simultaneous economic risk and opportunity for our community. These pledges are considerably more aggressive than GVEA’s laudable but modest 26% carbon reduction goal. Does GVEA have a plan to ensure major users’ renewable energy goals are met?

If GVEA cannot provide the cheaper clean energy our local businesses and military bases need, these entities may not continue to invest locally, or they may develop their own renewable generation independent of GVEA (like Pogo is contemplating). There is a real risk that losing these customers will burden GVEA member-owners with even higher rates and more systemic problems. If GVEA does not provide Fairbanks with low-cost clean energy sooner rather than later, it risks saddling our community with staggering economic loses.

The good news is that there are enormous community benefits to deploying renewables at scale. Many of GVEA’s industrial consumers are beginning to electrify their internal combustion engines and decarbonize their supply chains. If GVEA leads, it can supply the crucially-needed clean electricity for these new loads. As UAF’s Alaska Center for Energy and Power concluded, GVEA “beneficial electrification” can lower energy prices for all of us.

In order to accomplish this transformation, GVEA needs to see itself as the engine of economic development that’s its always been for Interior Alaska.

The even better news is that there has never been a better time to deploy renewables. Over the past decade, Alaska has built dozens of renewable energy projects, reduced bills for thousands of ratepayers, and diversified our energy sources. We have more expertise, cheap money, and technology than we’ve ever had to solve this problem.

Did I mention that renewable energy is now the cheapest energy is the history of humanity and its only getting cheaper?

GVEA must not get left behind as our fellow Alaskans move forward building the clean energy future we need. Homer Electric recently deployed a Tesla battery system and is considering the state’s largest solar array. Chugach Electric recently issued an RFP to bring more renewables online.

Renewable energy is likely unstoppable, but to garner maximum benefits for our community, GVEA must start accelerating deployment today.

Philip Wight is an assistant professor of history and arctic and northern studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he teaches classes on energy history and the history of Alaska.

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