Want to See the Future of Energy? Look to Alaska and Hawaii

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Energy markets are weird. Though we talk about renewable energy sources being "competitive" with traditional power plants, the price people pay for electricity varies widely. People in New England pay almost twice as much for electricity as their cousins in Kentucky or Montana. On that spectrum, the strangest places to buy some kilowatt hours are the noncontiguous states Alaska and Hawaii.

Take the town of Gustavus, Alaska, about 50 miles northwest from Juneau. For decades, a generator has been burning thousands of gallons of diesel to generate electricity. Because of the high cost of fuel transport and plant operation, residents of the town were paying several times the national average price of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

But that generator's been switched off now in favor of a microhydroelectric plant, reports the innovative online-only news site the Alaska Dispatch.

At the end of a three-mile road to nowhere, on the southern edge of one of North America's wildest national parks, the sound of a clean, environmentally friendly energy future is drowned out by the noise of a gurgling salmon stream. Just feet to the side of that stream, a hydroelectric turbine for Gustavus Electric Inc. spins in a small metal building not much bigger than a farmland garage.

The operation is the 27-year dream of resident Dick Levitt, who battled regulators and political opponents to get the turbine installed. "Gustavus residents who know the 65-year-old Levitt well contend that if he wasn't such a hard-headed old cuss, their green-leaning community built on an old glacial moraine on the edge of the park would still be getting its power from the aforementioned diesel generator," writes the Dispatch's Craig Medred.

The Gustavus hydro installation isn't just a nice story about a tough "old cuss" getting his way because it highlights the role that far-flung places can play in clean energy innovation. Where electricity and fuel prices are high, new energy technologies are often much more competitive.

Hawaii, for one, has taken on the mantle as a leader in non-fossil energy. Right now, the state relies on imported oil for 90 percent of its energy, but by 2030, it wants to meet 70 percent of its energy needs with clean power. To get there, the state will need to bring on a lot of renewable sources like a 30 megawatt offshore wind farm and drive down energy usage through efficiency.

Alaska hasn't been quite as ambitious, but still has the second strongest renewable energy goal in the country. Sarah Palin's energy plan as governor of the state called for generating 50 percent of the state's energy to from renewable energy by 2025. (Of course, about a quarter of the state's power already came from large hydroelectric dams, which are renewable, but not the innovative kind.)

If both states hit their goals -- which, it must be said, have not been codified into a renewable portfolio standard -- they'll easily surpass states like California that have been more noted for green policies.

Update 4:22 EST: Honolulu Civil Beat reporter Michael Levine was kind enough to write in with a correction. That Hawaii wind farm will be of the conventional onshore variety, not offshore.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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