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  • Sarah Burch

Debriefing Decarbonization

Over the summer, AMG’s executive director Peter Asmus spoke to Steve Colt, a principal investigator on the Railbelt grid decarbonization project, on Asmus' radio show. Colt is a research professor of energy and economics at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. AMG is working with ACEP, along with others, on the long-term decarbonization efforts. But, what is Railbelt decarbonization and why is it important?

What is the Railbelt grid?

Alaska’s Railbelt grid is a system that started with the first utility companies in Alaska. Over time, utilities -- many of them cooperatives -- were started out of pure need for electricity and energy throughout Alaska. As these cooperatives grew, they started to bump into each other, and borders were created to distinguish the area each utility covered. The utilities in Alaska mainly operate in stand-alone grids often called “remote microgrids.” The six electric utilities along the Railbelt grid, however, interconnect with each other while maintaining their independence with their own generation sources.

The grid is called the “Railbelt grid'' because it runs along the general route of the Alaska Railroad, though the grid extends slightly farther, running from Fairbanks to Homer. To learn more about the Railbelt grid, you can read AMG board member Gwen Holdmann’s ACEP blog about electricity in Alaska.

Photo by NREL: Renewable Portfolio Standard Assessment for Alaska’s Railbelt

How decarbonization could work.

Why is there an initiative to decarbonize Alaska’s grid in the first place?

A motivating factor for decarbonization efforts in Alaska is that the Railbelt is a large source of carbon dioxide, a main driver of pollution and climate change.

The Railbelt grid operates on 75% natural gas and 10% hydropower, with the remainder powered by coal. From one perspective, Alaska has a relatively clean grid, since natural gas produces less air pollution, especially carbon dioxide, than coal and oil. But natural gas is still not completely a “clean” energy source, and it is not renewable. Because Alaska’s grid has a relatively low percentage of renewables in comparison to its natural gas usage, some argue the grid could be more sustainable than it currently is.

Despite this, Alaska is viewed as a leading force in renewable energy being integrated into microgrids, though this is happening primarily in smaller remote systems such as those serving Cordova. Combined with the goal for a grid that produces less carbon, the Railbelt decarbonization efforts were born.

Now, ACEP and AMG are drafting options for how Alaska could lower carbon emissions from the grid. In the first stage of the decarbonization project, three drafted scenarios are:

Scenario 1

This scenario is built on decentralized, customer-driven decarbonization and the maximum plausible use of distributed energy resources (DERs). DERs are utilized by utilities and/or non-utility actors to create, aggregate, control, and integrate distributed energy resources into the Railbelt Grid as dispatchable and/or controllable loads. This model relies most on independent efforts working together.

Scenario 2

This scenario aims to provide electricity through utility-scale carbon-free energy resources such as hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, biomass, and nuclear. In 2050, no fossil fuel based thermal generation will be considered online, unless necessary to prevent unserved load and zero- or low-carbon fuels will be blended to existing fuel supply networks and/or carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) will be used to remove carbon emissions. It includes utility-scale energy storage including batteries and pumped storage hydro.

Scenario 3

The third scenario for Railbelt decarbonization relies on a large-scale export project that produces sufficient carbon-neutral energy to provide a major portion of the Railbelt electrical needs. Possibilities in this scenario include three ammonia export opportunities that take advantage of Alaska’s position on world shipping routes to export ammonia for Pacific marine transportation and energy production in the Asian markets. A fourth possibility would export electricity via High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) to Canada.

While all three scenarios are very different, we may end up with a blend of some sort.

The group of researchers, led by Colt and Phylicia Cicilio are now drafting a report on the first stage of the project and surveying stakeholders for opinions on the three scenarios. If you are interested in giving input on the study scenarios that could lead to decarbonization, you can take the ACEP survey here

How is AMG Involved?

While Colt and Cicilio are the PI’s on the project, AMG is an important player in the decarbonization efforts. ACEP pulled in AMG Project Lead Brian Rogers due to his previous work on projects with ACEP. While most of the ACEP team is working on the modeling side of decarbonization, Rogers is focused on the policy aspect. As the representative for AMG on the project, Brian is helping to translate academic work into layman's terms, so that researchers and community members alike can understand the process.

You can listen to the full interview with Steve Colt and learn more about the Railbelt Grid on Asmus’ website.


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