The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) has conducted a study that advocates for the establishment of a coal-fired power plant in Southcentral Alaska. This initiative is aimed at providing electricity for the region’s Railbelt, amid growing concerns over the impending shortage of natural gas from Cook Inlet, which currently serves as the primary source of heat and power for the area. State lawmakers have been exploring options to mitigate this looming energy crisis, including the potential for large-scale natural gas imports, expected to commence by 2030. However, this would likely lead to a significant increase in consumer costs.

The UAF’s feasibility study proposes the construction of the power plant near the debated West Susitna Access Road, close to known coal deposits. It further suggests equipping the facility with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, enabling the underground storage of carbon dioxide emissions. According to the study, a biomass-coal power plant integrated with CCS could offer Southcentral Alaska affordable, reliable, and clean energy, ensuring long-term energy security.

Additionally, UAF has received an $11 million federal grant to investigate whether coal power with CCS can be deemed environmentally friendly, pending a $2.2 million state funding approval by the legislature.

Contrastingly, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has released a report suggesting a different direction for Southcentral Alaska’s energy strategy. It identifies renewable energy sources as the most cost-effective solution, recommending that 75% of the Railbelt’s power be generated from renewables by 2040.

The UAF study estimates the total expense of constructing and operating a 300-megawatt coal power plant with CCS over 30 years to be approximately $6.1 billion. However, federal subsidies could potentially reduce these costs. The proposed Mat-Su plant is expected to commence operations within six to eight years following the initiation of design work.

The Mat-Su Borough Assembly recently passed a resolution supporting the development of the coal power plant and associated infrastructure. However, the resolution was amended to omit any reference to CCS, reflecting a preference not to limit the project’s scope to this technology.

The UAF study also highlights the existing use of coal-fired plants in Alaska’s Interior and at the university, noting that such a plant with CCS could provide more affordable power than natural gas, aided by federal tax credits for carbon storage projects.

Governor Mike Dunleavy has previously proposed legislation to monetize carbon sequestration, although it has yet to pass. The UAF study suggests utilizing depleted natural gas reservoirs in Cook Inlet for storing emissions from the coal plant. Critics of CCS argue that the technology is costly, relatively untested, and that investments should instead prioritize renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

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