Alaska’s Wind Power Paradox


Alaska is an energy experiment unfolding. While it exports more oil than any state besides Texas, alternative energy provides 25% of its current energy. Its governor, Sarah Palin, wants the state to get 50% of its energy from renewable or alternative sources by 2025.

The Alaskan experiment, though, shows the perils of relying on wind energy. It also provides a stark reminder of the gap between what’s technologically feasible and what makes for good news copy.

The New York Times visits Alaska to report on the state’s alt energy ambitions, likely moved by a report a month ago that Gov. Palin wants to increase alt-energy usage. They find there are a number of natural opportunities for wind, ocean, and geothermal energy sources. The need to tap these resources is urgent, as electricity to rural parts of the state costs five to 10 times what it costs the rest of the country.

Yet, for the promised savings wind power is supposed to provide, residents in the rural town of Toksook Bay still pay through the nose for power. A resident there says he pays $371.14 a month in electric bills for his house and $713.12 for his small business. And that’s with wind turbines and state subsidies. The wind turbines will take 17 years to pay for themselves. The turbines will only last 3 to 8 more years after that.

Therein lies the problem with alternative energy. In a perfect situation to test the vitality of wind power, it comes up short. The turbines still need to be supplemented with diesel fuel. Residents aren’t getting cheap energy. (On the plus side, they might get some new jobs, when they build new turbines.)

Palin will spend $300 million over five years on her 670,000 residents to provide alternative energy solutions. If this state, with its ideal environment, and generous investment can’t get wind and geothermal figured out, then we wonder who will.

We want to see the experiment in Alaska succeed. But as in the rest of the country, Alaska will need some time and innovation before its grand experiment can pay off.