Opportunities and challenges in the Railbelt Region differ from those in other parts of Alaska. The Railbelt electrical grid is defined as the service areas of six regulated public utilities that extend from Fairbanks to Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. These utilities are Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA); Chugach Electric Association (CEA); Matanuska Electric Association (MEA); Homer Electric Association (HEA); Anchorage Municipal Light & Power (ML&P); the City of Seward Electric System (SES); and Aurora Energy, LLC as an independent power producing utility. Sixty five percent of Alaskan population lies within the Railbelt region.
The southern portion of the Railbelt: Mat-Su Valley, Anchorage, and the Kenai Peninsula are highly dependent on natural gas as a source of electricity and heat. The northern portion of the Railbelt including Fairbanks and other communities in the Interior relies on petroleum fuels in addition to natural gas, coal and hydroelectric electrical imports from the south. Petroleum fuels provide the majority of energy used for transportation across the entire state.
Nearly all of the thermal generating capacity in the Railbelt is more than 20 years old, and much of it is more than 30 years old. The majority of the generation is predominately combustion turbine generation. There are five utilities to the south of the Alaska Range. GVEA is the sole utility to the north.
A Regional Integrated Resource Plan (RIRP) is being developed to identify and evaluate the best resource mix to insure that least-cost options for electricity and heat are developed in the Railbelt region. The RIRP will be completed in late 2009 and will consider multiple energy options and make a recommendation on specific projects to be developed.
The complete Request for Proposals on the Regional Integrated Resource Plan for the Railbelt Region of Alaska can be found on the Alaska Energy Authority website.
The current generation mix includes a number of existing hydroelectric power plants that are operating in the southern portion of the Railbelt. Two coal-fired power stations (one operational) are positioned within GVEA’s service area at Healy River, near extensive sub-bituminous coal resources available from the Usibelli coal mine.
The Cook Inlet gas basin still yields large quantities of natural gas for power generation and space heating, but known reserves are now falling and dropping field operating pressures are causing concern that the region may not be able to depend on lower Cook Inlet for adequate gas supplies in the future. There are several proposals to construct pipelines that could bring Alaskan North Slope natural gas into the Railbelt. Consideration of these potential fuel sources will be a part of the integrated resource plan for the Railbelt.
A number of future generation projects have also been proposed, among them wind power projects, large-scale and small-scale hydroelectric power projects, Fischer-Tropsch plants, coal-fired power stations, and turbines fired by fuel oil or natural gas turbines.
Future fuel supplies for the Railbelt are diverse. Near-term fuel supplies include natural gas from the Lower Cook Inlet Basin, petroleum fuel supplies from Fairbanks and Kenai Peninsula refineries, and coal resources near Healy and Chuitna. Significant quantities of North Slope natural gas are also available, although there is no pipeline currently available to bring this gas to the Alaska Railbelt. Trucking of LNG from the North Slope is being investigated as an interim opportunity to use North Slope natural gas to reduce the cost of energy to the Fairbanks area. If the large-scale Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline is constructed, then significant quantities of natural gas will become available in Fairbanks. A compendium of known reports, RCA orders, and other data are available on the AEA website.
The Railbelt Electrical Grid Authority Project
AEA recently completed the Railbelt Electrical Grid Authority (REGA) Project, which recommends business structures that will own, operate, maintain, and control generation and transmission assets throughout the Railbelt. The project considered several different energy futures for the Alaska Railbelt, and a regional plan for generation and transmission was part of this study. A summary of the study can be found here.