In Juneau, going green focuses on energy consumption

With its electricity grid already almost entirely renewable, the push for clean energy in Juneau is less about production and more about consumption.

President Joe Biden campaigned on a pledge to “build back better” by investing in alternative energy infrastructure projects and the US Department of Energy announced on February 11 that it was offering $100 million in funding for clean energy research and development.

But Juneau’s power grid is already almost entirely renewable, according to Alaska Electric Light and Power vice president and director of energy services Alec Mesdag. In a recent interview, Mesdag said energy consumption levels haven’t changed much in recent years, even though consumers are buying more electric cars and other electrical-only devices.

There are several reasons for this, Mesdag said, but one of them is that new and improved technologies are able to do the same or better than previous devices with less power consumption.

“Load-side technologies are absolutely critical to our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector,” Mesdag said, referring to devices and things that use electricity.

He gave the example of air-source heat pumps. Heat pumps are more efficient at generating heat than some other types of home heating, he said. So when consumers install a heat pump or replace an old refrigerator with an energy-efficient one, it frees up energy for other uses.

But one of the biggest obstacles to getting a heat pump is the cost of installation, which can range from $4,000 to $5,000, according to Steve Behnke, president of Alaska Heat Smart, an organization nonprofit based in Juneau that works to promote the use of heat pumps.

There are programs to help homeowners make energy-efficient renovations, Behnke said, but most of them come from the local level. Alaska Heat Smart is funded in part by the City and Borough of Juneau and in conjunction with a number of public and private entities, including AEL&P; Mesdag is the vice-president of the group.

Alaska Heat Smart tries to reduce the cost of installing the heat pump by buying in bulk. The group hopes to bring together 150 owners to agree on the installation of heat pumps and negotiate a better price with the installers. The program had received around 140 applications since its launch in December.

Behnke said Heat Smart and other groups hoped to see federal programs fund home energy upgrades, but it was too early to tell. Federal funding for energy upgrades exists, he said, but was quite limited under the Trump administration.

“We hope to be there when the federal programs come up,” he said. “We hope to have all the pieces in place.”

One of Biden’s campaign proposals is the creation of so-called “green banks,” or financial institutions that provide loans for clean energy projects, Behnke said, and that was something he hoped for. see it come true. Alaska Heat Smart had partnered locally with the True North Federal Credit Union for low-interest personal loans for heat pump installations, but Behnke said the program was limited and called it a “project pilot”.

Federal money is often earmarked for states which then allocate the money, Behnke said. But whether it comes from the state or the federal government, he said he hopes the programs will be flexible enough to cover home energy upgrades. However, it will likely take more than a year before the money is actually available, he said.

For now, AEL&P is able to generate the electricity Juneau needs, but that could change in the future, Mesdag said, depending on demand. If the company were to look to build another source of power generation, it would likely be another hydro facility, he said. The weather and steep terrain in Southeast Alaska make resources such as wind or solar power either unusable or too expensive, Mesdag said.

Currently, there are no plans to build an additional power generation source, Mesdag said, but if AEL&P were to supply power to the dock proposed by Norwegian Cruise Line, then another source would be needed.

Other parts of the state and country are considering converting their power grids, Mesdag said, but in Juneau the issue is different.

“(Other areas) are really talking about replacing resources, in Juneau we’re talking about how to bring in more renewable resources.”

Contact journalist Peter Segall at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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