Plugging in


The face of the future? Eviation’s nine-seat commuter/Eviation photo

News analysis

Hard though this might be to believe in Alaska – where the single-engine Super Cub aircraft that ended production almost a quarter century ago remains a cherished form of transportation – the world of aviation appears on the cusp of an electric revolution.


Battery-powered aircraft are already certified and flying in Australia. They are the most obvious harbinger of a potential global shift from hydrocarbon economies to electric economies. Eviation, an Israeli company, plans to have a battery-powered, nine-seat commuter aircraft in service by 2021.

All of which has huge implications for the far northwest corner of the United States driven in its territorial days by gold, powered into statehood by oil, and now hoping to prop itself up with natural gas.

It might be time to reconsider the latter option and start thinking electric. When what once seemed improbable – if not impossible – only years earlier is on the verge of becoming a reality, it’s a good idea to pay attention.

Meera Kohler, the chief executive officer and president of Alaska Village Electric Co-operative Inc. (AVEC) saw this coming. Early in the decade, she made a pitch for North Slope electric power plants to turn natural gas into electricity that could then be dispersed around the state, and possibly to the Lower 48, via high-voltage direct current (HVDC) power lines.

Costs for powerline construction are a half to a third of those for pipelines, and the ability to transport direct-current over long distances with little energy loss was long ago demonstrated.

“The Pacific Intertie has been in operation since 1985 and is a 3.0 GW HVDC  line connecting California to Washington State that moves power south in summer and north in winter,” Kohler told the Alaska Legislature in 2013. “Furthermore, in 2010 a 1,300 mile HVDC line was installed in China that moves 6.4 GW of power.”

Kohler hoped to inspire the state, which was then still flush with cash, to electrify rural Alaska, where the cost of energy is astronomically high. But the idea of moving energy over long distances on cables never gained much traction in a state where energy has traditionally moved in pipelines.

“The state has not been willing to embrace the concept,” Kohler said this week. “It has just never risen to the level of getting some serious consideration.”

And since Bill Walker was elected governor in 2014, Alaska has been all about gas. An Alaska natural gas pipeline is Walker’s obsession and the state is now spending about $6 million per month trying to help him prove that Exxon-Mobil, the world’s biggest private oil and gas company, was wrong when it concluded the market won’t support a far north gas project estimated to cost anything from $40 billion to $55 billion.

Walker’s latest scheme is to partner with the Chinese national oil-and-gas giant Sinopec and Chinese banks on a $43 billion pipeline and liquified natural gas terminal that promises the Asian country a long-term supply of natural gas at a low price. 

China, meanwhile, is electrifying everything that moves: cars, trains, trackless trains, and buses.

Dirty air

Plagued by huge poblems with air quality, China is trying to wean itself from the coal it burns in copious quantities. Half the coal burned in the world today is burned in China.

Given that Alaska is globally downwind from all that dirty Chinese air, there is an argument to be made for the 49th state helping China replace some coal with cheap natural gas even if Alaska doesn’t make much off the deal.

But there are those who suspect China’s longterm plan goes beyond just cleaning up its dirty air.

Chinese President Xi has big ambitions,” write analysts at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank. “His vision for an ideal future U.S.-China economic relationship is one in which the United States exports commodities to China while China steadily edges the United States out as the dominant player in global high-tech markets, including clean energy markets. In that scenario, the United States gets the lower end of the value chain and China dominates the higher end, thus winning the best jobs. Chinese leaders know that, globally, the world is already installing more new renewable energy generation capacity than new fossil fuel-based capacity.”

China itself is already a world leader in renewables.

“The world has invested $2.9 trillion in green energy sources since 2004, according to new research, with China leading the way in recent years with its push towards solar power,” CNBC reported earlier this month. 

China pumped $126.6 billion into energy generating renewables in 2017, and it would appear the country has bigger plans for its power than just cleaning up Asia’s air.

While Alaska is studying a gas pipeline to supply China with cheap gas, China is studying  how to build a HVDC power line across Asia to Germany. The  Joint Research Centre for the European Commission last year concluded that “the technology is mature enough for such a project to be built,” but pondered the complications in constructing such a power transmission system across multiple countries.

A suggested northern route would have to cross Kazakhstan, Russia and the Ukraine with several more countries yet to cross to get to Germany. The Ukraine and Russia are not on good terms at the moment.

A southern route would run through Myanmar, India,  Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. India and Pakistan don’t always get along well, and Afghanistan is still in a state of civil war.

Not only that, the southern route also stretches across 8,600 kilometers (5,300 miles), almost 3,000 kilometers more than the northern route and at least 2,000 kilometers more than a middle route, which winds through Kazakhstan and then heads southwest across the Caspian Sea, Transcaucasia, the Black Sea and into southeast Europe.

One of the advantages of middle route, the JRC said, is that “it avoids Russia and the conflict areas in eastern Ukraine….(but) the route crosses a larger number of countries which requires more consensuses for finding an optimal economic solution to satisfy all the individual requirements. This also implies a larger number of permits and regulations that must be met. The route also crosses two large sea basins where the transmission mode has to be changed from OHL to submarine cable.”


Were Alaska to follow China’s lead and pursue electricity as the energy source of the future, it would now be exploring how to export electricity – not gas – from the North Slope. And it would only have to deal with one foreign country: Canada, America’s friendly neighbor to the south or to the north, depending on where you live.

Power plants on the North Slope would need to string HVDC cable for about 3,600 kilometers (2,240 miles) from Prudhoe Bay to Edmonton, Alberta, via the Dalton and Alaska highways.

The distance puts Alaska within range of the Western Alberta Transmission Line, a HVDC transmission line completed three years ago. It connects Edmonton and Calgary, the two biggest city’s in Alberta.

Canada went to HVDC because of its efficiency. ABB, a Swiss company that is a leader in HVDC, announced in April that it has been able to up voltage and can now carry power for up to 2000 kilometers with a less than 1 percent energy loss.

Canada is planning more HVDC, and in the  Lower 48 there are talks of HVCD “super grids” to move huge amounts of power.

The super-grid idea is an outgrowth of the boom in wind and solar power, both of which have peaks and valleys of production. Being able to efficiently shift power around large geographic areas can flatten those peaks and valleys. Alaska power from North Slope natural gas isn’t renewable, but there is no reason Alaska couldn’t slip some natural-gas generated electricity into such a grid.

Meanwhile, if Alaska wanted to ignore Canada and go straight to the home country, it is only about 2,700 kilometers (1450 miles) from the Port of Valdez to the port at the city of which Alaska is really just a suburb – Seattle.  ABB’s technology is within range of that target.

It seems only a matter of time, and probably not much time, before electricity could be shipped from the North Slope to Seattle over a UHVDC submarine cable that would entirely avoid Canada and any stuffy Canadian regulations.

The Economist magazine in an explainer calls HVCD “the beginning of the supergrid. The prefix ‘super-‘ conveys three of the word’s meanings. One is literal: HVDC lines function as arteries that move large amounts of electricity above and separate from the existing AC grid. The second is superlative: the supergrid has greater geographical extent than the normal grid. The ex-chairman of China’s state grid, Liu Zhenya, has used the label to describe ambitions to build a grid that allows electricity to flow around the whole planet. The third sense, of quality, is more an aspiration than definition: that the supergrid will be better than what we have now, a vision of a perfectly functioning zero-carbon global electrical transmission system.”

It’s not hard to predict HVDC is only going to get better. It is a constantly evolving technology as are most things electric and electronic these days. Look no further than the screen on which you are reading this story. Then think electric airplanes.

“Electric Aircraft Might Become an Industry Standard Sooner than Expected,” Flying magazine headlined last month. “The aviation industry is on the verge of a major shift in propulsion, experts say.”


This shouldn’t be  big surprise. This has been coming for sometime now. Electric cars are now common. Overall, sales of battery-powered motor vehicles remain a fraction of the sales of cars and trucks powered by gas and diesel, but as Business Insider Australia notes, “the growth rates last year were phenomenal.”

China, already a world leader in solar power, is so busy electrifying its automotive industry that Salvatore Babones at Forbes Magazine in March suggested “China Could Be The World’s First All Electric Vehicle Ecosystem.”

“There is an increasingly inescapable sense that an energy transition of enormous proportions is taking place,” S&P Global Platts, a go-to source on energy and commodities trading reported in October. “The number of ‘bans’ announced on Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles is growing, even if governments are placing them relatively far out on the political horizon.

“More and more car manufacturers are taking note and shifting R&D spending into Electric Vehicles (EVs), a move which has profound implications for the development curves, and thus future cost, of EVs versus ICE vehicles.”

That Platt analysis also contained what could be read as an ominous warning for Alaska.

“A peak in oil demand, which has been predicted before 2040 by some oil companies and forecasters implies a concentration on only the cheapest oil production, which remains the Middle East. Higher cost producers will suffer,” it reported.

“There would be little incentive, for example, to develop the remaining reserves of the North Sea, or to head off further into the Barents and Arctic, a direction still thought inevitable only a few years ago.”

The world is a rapidly changing place. The technological changes taking place in this, the early 21st Century are revolutionary. And because of them, the oil and gas production and export that has largely made the 49th state what it is today appears destined to fade.

If Alaska truly wants to monetize that North Slope gas long-term, maybe it should be taking a look at some ideas outside the box in case that tenuous plan for a gas pipeline fails or the number crunchers (hopefully the Legislature has some) decide the ChinoAlaska deal isn’t good for the 49th state.

Given the state’s history with fisheries, however, the Alaska-perfect deal would seem to be a long-term contract to sell China cheap natural gas so the Chinese could add it to their mix of electric generation selling power at a nice profit to Europe.

Could that happen? Possibly. Connecting the power grids of Asia and Europe doesn’t sound all that difficult. The Europeans estimate the shortest of the HVDC lines from China to Germany would cost $16- to $19-billion. It would cover a distance about twice that from Valdez to Seattle at about half the cost of the 800-mile Alaska gas line and it’s associated LNG plant.

It might now be far more economical to move that gas as electricity and possibly far, far better for the state. Gas-fired power plants on the North Slope would create jobs in Alaska with minimal, new environmental impact. Low-cost energy might help attract some industry to the state. Maybe Alaska could compete with those chilly Scandinavian countries now attractive for computer server farms and bring some tech north.

Oil and gas aren’t going away anytime soon, of course. Oil is something of a magic fluid. It’s hard to imagine getting the weight of batteries down to where they could be used to power a snowmachine, though the weight of batteries has been coming down steadily even as their storage power increases.

And, of course, the suggestion of an all electric aircraft taking flight – let alone hauling mutliple passengers – would have been laughable a decade ago.

There is no doubt that ever-improving batteries are already changing the world as we knew it only a few years ago. Your cell phone is now a fraction of the size it used to be, and it can do things only computers could do a decade ago.

Not to mention its much longer battery life, or the battery-powered everything else’s in your life now: tools, toothbrushs, home phones (if you even still have one), lawnmowers, chainsaws, ATVs.

“It’s inevitable” there will be a shift from a hydrocarbon-powered economy to an electric-powered economy, Kohler said. China is already a major force in helping push the world in that direction, but it is not alone.

Norway has ordered that all new passenger cars and vans sold in 2025 and after be zero-emission vehicles, which generally means electric. About 40 percent of all new cars bought in that country now are electric or hybrids.

India wants to stop the sale of new gas and diesel vehicles by 2030; Britain and France by 2040.

It’s hard to believe those deadlines will be met. It’s equally hard to believe that a steady shift to battery-powered cars, as with most technological shifts, won’t cause economic changes beyond the automotive world.

Gas and diesel-powered engines could well go the way of the steam engine sooner than we think. Don’t forget it wasn’t all that long ago that steam-powered sternwheelers were churning up and down the rivers of Alaska.

“Many a failed sourdough found work along the (Yukon) river cutting the thousands of cords of wood consumed by the voracious rivers queens,” Harry Ritter writes in “Alaska’s History: The People, Land, and Events of the North Country.” “Completion of the Alaska Railroad in 1923 and the later advent of cargo aircraft spelled the end of Alaska’s sternwheeler age.”

The last ship – the Nenana – was built in 1930. She was retired two decades later. Alaska moved on. The world moved on. It will do so again. The trick is in keeping Alaska from getting left behind.






21 replies »

  1. “…a hydrocarbon-powered economy to an electric-powered economy,”

    This is a nonsensical statement. We aren’t capturing electricity from lightning, we are generating it. The contrast would be from a “primarily hydrocarbon-based energy generation (electrical and otherwise) economy” to a “primarily other form of energy generation economy.”

    • What you are saying is true, of course, however from a local pollution point of view, one could be viewed as preferable IMO. Economics will most likely drive success or failure here.

  2. I noticed that Pebble needs a natural gas line from Cook Inlet for their operation. How would that affect the supply for Anchorage and Southcentral? Maybe Pebble is counting on the big pipe from the Slope?

  3. Wiki has a good tutorial on “natural-gas condensates”
    “There are many condensate sources, and each has its own unique gas condensate composition. In general, gas condensate has a specific gravity ranging from 0.5 to 0.8, and is composed of hydrocarbons such as propane, butane, pentane, hexane, etc. Natural gas compounds with more carbon atoms (e.g. pentane, or blends of butane, pentane and other hydrocarbons with additional carbon atoms) exist as liquids at ambient temperatures.[4] Additionally, condensate may contain additional impurities such as:[5][6][7]

    Hydrogen sulfide (H2S)
    Thiols traditionally also called mercaptans (denoted as RSH, where R is an organic group such as methyl, ethyl, etc.)
    Carbon dioxide (CO2)
    Straight-chain alkanes having from 2 to 12 carbon atoms (denoted as C2 to C12)
    Cyclohexane and perhaps other naphthenes
    Aromatics (benzene, toluene, xylenes, and ethylbenzene)”

  4. I believe UAF stills burns 250 tons of Healy coal (A DAY) to get their energy on campus…
    I wonder how that effects Fairbanks air quality during inversions in winter?
    North Slope gas would be a cleaner alternative no matter where the plant is…Fairbanks would be the best location for plant since power lines already run to Anchorage.

    • So, is it more efficient to send gas through pipelines or HVDC power lines to Fairbanks?

      • I’m not sure which is more efficient Chris, but if you got the gas to Fairbanks you could sell it for heat as well as to the power plant.
        It could also get used to fuel vehicles and get transported by truck and rail throughout SC.
        I feel that would be the most lucrative option for an “instate” gas line.

      • The only way Fairbanks would buy the gas is if State subsidized it, otherwise it would be horribly expensive IMO. It might be possible to heat their homes with electric power but then those folks would probably have coal-fired smudge pots on every block to keep their lungs from going through withdrawal and who knows if even the geese might quit coming to Creamer’s Field.
        The perfect place for reconverting that DC might be that clean-coal plant that has never produced a single kw of power and could power the rail grid along with a few aluminum smelters if the price of energy is cheap enough. It’s on the rail system to getting those ingots of aluminum could find their way to a market(could be a problem without those Trump tariffs, though.
        Frankly I can’t think of any more industry that might go for cheap power but we don’t know yet if its going to be cheap. Probably not IMO.

      • Bill,
        Alaska already “subsidizes” the gas industry with nearly a billion dollars in annual “tax credits”…
        Look at the UAF coal plant we just “subsidized” at $245 million or the $100 million Walker wasted on a China line that may never get built.
        Don’t forget the feds “subsidize” the transport of that coal from Healy since the initial money to lay those rails and build that Nenana bridge came from D.C. years ago…
        The state has also subsidized the Railroad in Alaska for years…
        What about the $45 million Walker wasted to study a commuter train to Anc.?
        So Bill, your argument does not hold water.
        AK just can’t seem to get out of the “dark ages” and the “back door” good old boy deals resort back to burning coal that further harms our environment.
        Alaska has been talking about gas lines for 15 years, while a state like PA has built 3 new gas lines in that time. (All lucrative)
        Subsidizing a new project is not the problem…
        Subsidising the right projects seems to be our state governments age old dilemma here in the North.

      • I almost forgot that Steve is a dyed in the wool subsidizer. If you are to be taken seriously, at least get your facts straight. We do not subsidize the oil industry nearly a $billion/year-that’s the entire bill for a number of years. And that argument was that the subsidy would be paid back, in spades. That argument may/may not hold water over the long haul but Legislature bought it. What you are talking about here IMO is a subsidy that just makes no sense. I believe there are many ways to help out Fairbanks without going broke.
        Further, the only money available is PF money and Alaskans would not go along with such a plan for a few Alaskans IMO.
        As far as whether/not a HVDC system might work, my opinion is that the power would have to be pre-sold, in the form of contracts, not unlike how the gas would be sold for a gasline. My guess is that the Canadian system worked to sell power to Tar Sands projects in Alberta, and Alaska just doesn’t have such a project. Nobody to buy the power so no project IMO.

      • Bill,
        It appears we are at $800 million in annual “tax credits” to oil producers.
        And even though BP, Exxon, and Conoco Phillips do not get the primary “credit”, they may “purchase” them from smaller exploration subsidiaries and benifit from these “subsidized” state gov. HANDOUTS.
        The obvious solution to the gas line is to build it in phases.
        PA did this and many lines are now on their third phase of production.
        Why do you think it is OK for PF to invest in China and Japan, yet you fight domestic investment tooth and nail?
        Do you feel communists are more worthy of our oil revenue savings account than we are?
        Russia is online to finish a gas line to China in 5 years.
        Putin says when this one is completed he will start a second line to China immediately.
        How do you think this effects selling “futures” to the Bank of China?
        Alaska has stalled ever since the Shell “Kulluk” ran aground out in the Beaufort Sea…
        We need a shovel ready project for tommorrow, not 10 years from now.
        Fairbanks is the logical conclusion for the first phase of the gas line.
        The gas could be liguified for ground transport as well from there.
        I do not think a gas line from NS to interior would be a waste of PF , I actually think it would be a wise and prudent investment step for getting the first phase of production under way…
        I am sure the military base would also be a potential customer once the gas was flowing into Fairbanks.
        Show me a study that proves a 500 mile gas line to the interior is a waste of money and I will end this discussion.

      • OK Steve, perhaps you don’t follow State government budgeting but that $800 million is the total amount of tax credits owed, not an annual amount owed (big difference). And you will also notice the bonding proposal is not getting it paid off till 2025.
        No subsidy to Fairbanks like you envision is going to be approved from Alaskans, especially if its to come from PF. A vote of the people would shoot it down bigtime and our Legislature is not about to piss away such money IMO.
        Walker has already shown the only possible gasline that may work is a large diameter line that exports gas somewhere (and that hasn’t sold any gas yet either).
        Keep dreaming, Steve.

      • Bill Ok,
        So we are paying $115 million a year on our $800 million tax credit debt…got it…my mistake there.
        I understand your position on the issue and also see Walker has gotten nowhere selling his “futures” to China…show me the money!
        Russia has a well pumping crude out of the Arctic…a direct shipping line to the Interior of Canada through the Arctic and a gas line almost finished to China.
        Where have we got since Palin started her push for a gas line over a decade ago?
        Back to coal fired plants and smog in Fairbanks…
        19th Century technology still at work in AK.
        Sled dogs on the ground and coal soot in the air under the Northern Lights…
        PHD’s lecture to their students on climate change while the rail cars dump 250 tons of coal into the hoppers each day…
        Can you not see the Irony in this current paradigm.

      • Perhaps you weren’t paying attention Steve, but during the time that Palin was pushing gasline to lower 48 the fracking thing found so much gas in the lower 48 that her gasline made no economic sense. Nobody’s fault, just plain economics.
        Probably economics too as to why any sort of HVDC system from NS to lower 48 would not pencil out, since there is just too much cheap gas available to power AC down there. You, being the subsidizer you are, probably can get behind Trump’s attempted subsidizing of the coal industry to keep those coal miners digging and polluting the air. Heheh!
        As for Fairbanks, we won’t want to fix their air, too much, as I said wouldn’t want them going through withdrawal.

  5. It seems to me if you put the power plants at the gas source and transmit HVDC to remote areas it might work. Alternatively pipe Ngas to Fairbanks. Even better, strip the liquids for Alaska manufacturing.

    • Liquids have for the most part already been stripped and shipped with the oil. Nobody is talking anymore about liquids (why do you suppose that is?).

      • The problem is we don’t have the industrial manufacturing demand even if we did divert the liquids for our own use. I wonder what is the volume of liquids stripped from the raw gas before re-injection now? What components comprise the liquids? What are the most valuable manufactured products from these components? I immediately think of HDPE pipe which is used widely in Alaska.

      • I suspect that information is propriety information by company that wouldn’t be available, in general. Whatever it is it is all mixed in the pipeline and eventually removed in the refining process. I suspect that this information, if it were available, would show large numbers of liquids initially when gas was re-injected and is much less today at least in old fields.
        Those liquids, if they had any value, would have had some interest before now IMO but that may just be that nobody wants to do any manufacturing on the NS.

  6. Craig, your article keeps mentioning the distance from Valdez to Seattle, yet that would involve a pipeline from NS to Valdez to generate power there that appears to be horribly expensive.
    To make sense, me thinks, you need to use distances from NS to Seattle but those distances don’t fit well with your narrative. Oh well.

    • good point, Bill; i probably should have wired in another 750 miles or so to Valdez. but that option was kind of a late night afterthought because it would seem to make a lot more sense to go through Canada. might even be able to sell some of those Canadian mines power on the way south.

      • As I understand the process the expense is in converting the AC to DC and then again back to AC so it’s not likely that this power will be taken off along the way. This is just for transmitting cheap power to another long distance point where its converted back to AC for distributing.
        This most likely is why we don’t see such things like this Canadian system all over the place. Too expensive overall.

Leave a Reply