Legislator Vows to Kill Renewable Energy Bill

Northern Journal
    Even before Alaska’s annual legislative session gets into high gear, debate over a prominent renewable energy bill is intensifying, with a state senator vowing to block it in committee and an advocacy group hiring a lobbyist to push it forward.
    Environmental organizations and green power producers have been pushing lawmakers for the past two years to pass what’s known as a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS.
    The policy would set deadlines for Alaska’s electric utilities to generate a certain amount of their power from renewable sources — 80% by 2040, with fines for noncompliance, in the current drafts of the legislation.
    Support for the bills cuts across party lines, with a Democratic sponsor in the Senate and a Republican sponsor in the House; Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed his own version in 2022.
    Boosters say the legislation would give clear guidance to the state’s electric utilities to start shifting to wind and solar power amid a shortage of the locally produced natural gas that currently powers their plants.
    Advocacy groups fear the utilities will otherwise sign long-term contracts for imported supplies of liquefied natural gas, which they say could result in substantial price increases for consumers and displace wind and solar projects.
    “The region could be frozen out of the ability to transition,” said Chris Rose, executive director of Renewable Energy Alaska Project and a key backer of the legislation.
    At a public forum last week hosted by an oil and gas-aligned trade group, Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman said he plans to block the bill from advancing from the labor and commerce committee that he chairs.
    “I can tell you that there is an RPS in my committee, a bill, and that bill is going nowhere,” Bjorkman told attendees of the Resource Development Council’s breakfast meeting. “Because what our energy community needs is not mandates. We need a certainty that cheap, clean, reliable energy is going to move to the front.”
    In a follow-up interview by phone from Juneau, Bjorkman said he’s been hearing local oil and gas producers use the threat of an RPS bill as “an excuse not to drill and produce,” citing the risk that wind and solar developments could crowd out demand for their products.
    “And I’ve tried to be clear with folks that any kind of bill like that, that has mandates, fines and other things, I have no interest in passing,” he said. “Oil and gas producers should not be afraid of some kind of renewable portfolio standard passing and using that excuse as a reason not to explore and produce.”
    Bjorkman said he thinks that the mandates and fines included in the draft legislation could drive up rates for consumers. Instead, he said, he’d like to pass legislation that would remove what developers of renewable projects describe as obstacles to their developments — through policies to reduce the rates that utilities charge for transmitting  electricity across their power lines and to change the stringent rules that renewable projects must comply with to receive approval from utility regulators.
    Those ideas are also expected to get consideration in Juneau this year, as the House and Senate consider an array of energy-related proposals from lawmakers and Dunleavy that are aimed at holding costs down.
    “We have to make the playing field more level,” Bjorkman said. “But too many folks are looking for a guarantee that we’re going to somehow outlaw the other guy. And that’s not what I’m interested in — I want the cheapest generation possible.”
    Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have analyzed the draft targets and found that meeting the RPS legislation’s deadlines should not meaningfully raise prices for consumers because of the falling cost of renewable power.
    But there’s reason for skepticism that Alaska’s urban utilities will reach those target dates without mandates from the Legislature, said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Löki Gale Tobin, the sponsor of the Senate’s RPS bill.
    “Private and consumer-based industries are going to push back when they see things that create a space where they will have to do things differently or be innovative rapidly,” Tobin said, referencing the fact that Alaska’s urban utilities are cooperatively owned. “History has not proven that these entities are going to make the right decision every time, and my hope is to create a framework and the guardrails so that we can push them and nudge them in the right direction.”
    Tobin stressed that her proposed bill allows utilities to be exempted from fines for their first year of noncompliance with the renewable generation deadlines. And she said lawmakers can always revisit the targets if they prove to be unreachable.
    Tobin and Wasilla Republican Rep. Jesse Sumner, the sponsor of the House RPS bill, both said they expect to have to make some concessions to get the support needed from their colleagues to pass the legislation.

“There probably will have to be some amendments,” Sumner said.

One anticipated area of debate is whether the legislation should allow non-traditional power sources to count toward the targets — technologies like commercially unproven micro-nuclear reactors or coal plants that capture carbon emissions and deposit them underground.
    Tobin said she has a good relationship with Bjorkman — both senators belong to their chamber’s majority caucus — and that he reminds her that “the oil and gas industry has to be a player in this conversation.”
    “I appreciate what Sen. Bjorkman is attempting to do,” she said. “I will continue to push him and text him snarky comments about me believing in a successful future planet that his children can inherit that is not covered in smog and devastated by wildfires.”
    Tobin will have help from newly hired advocates pushing the RPS legislation in the coming months.
    Renewable Energy Alaska Project, which has long supported the idea of an RPS, has hired a new lobbyist, Miles Baker, to help guide the policy through the Capitol this year, said Rose, the executive director.
    Baker has launched a new lobbying business after years working as an aide to Dunleavy, Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and state university leaders.
    That history should give him credibility with some of the legislative Republicans who are skeptical of the RPS bill, according to Rose. But “the urgency is a bigger reason why we hired help,” Rose added, citing his fears about utility approval of long-term natural gas import contracts if legislation doesn’t pass this year.
    Rose spoke from Juneau, where he, too, is lobbying lawmakers on the legislation. A renewable energy developer, Ranger Power, is also actively advocating for the RPS policy and is considering hiring its own lobbying firm, said Patrick Flynn, a representative for the company.
Nathaniel Herz welcomes tips at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (907) 793-0312. This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from Herz.

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