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.
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.
“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.