Earlier this summer, the Golden Valley Electric Association made headlines for its decision to phase out an older coal plant in favor of an updated energy portfolio that will include new wind power and battery storage. The move will reduce carbon emissions at a crucial time, and will do so in an economical way for the utility's 100,000 interior Alaskan customers. We asked Tristan Glowa, an Alaskan climate organizer with the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, to tell us more about this win for climate.

 A headshot of Tristan Glowa wearing a grey sweater and looking pensive.
Tristan Glowa was born and raised in Alaska and organizes for climate justice with Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition and Fireweed Collective.

OF: First of all, you all had a substantial victory for your work - how are you feeling? How are you celebrating?

TG: It feels really good, and a little surreal. It’s taken several years of dedicated and persistent organizing with the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition to land where we did last night - long enough that it was beginning to feel like we’d never see any meaningful change. So to have this payoff after so long is both really rewarding and disorienting. It’s also bittersweet because the wildfire smoke is as bad as it gets in Fairbanks right now, and it’s a stark reminder that the climate crisis is already spiraling far out of control and even acting urgently will only determine the degree of the damage.

OF: Can you summarize the win for those who don’t know your work?

TG: The cooperative electric utility that powers Fairbanks, Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA), just made a major commitment to break away from their heavy reliance on coal power and towards a clean energy transition. This move is projected to both dramatically slash our greenhouse gas pollution and amazingly it should lower our very high electricity rates at the same time, which is a huge testament to how far renewables have come.

The bulk of our baseload power for the past few decades has come from a group of coal-fired power plants in Healy and Fairbanks, and even as the rest of the world has been phasing out coal, GVEA clung onto it - in part because of a lack of affordable alternatives. One of our working groups within the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition realized that as member owners of a supposedly internally democratic cooperative, we had an avenue to demand a change. So we took on several years of persistent member-owner organizing and advocacy and helped to elect and encourage aligned board members, all with the goal of waking up GVEA to the climate crisis.

That finally happened this last week. GVEA committed to closing down their Healy 2 power plant, which is the largest coal power plant in Alaska. In addition, they committed to purchasing 40 MW of new wind generation, a number larger than any current wind farm in the state, as well as a new battery system to support with load regulation. Balancing out the grid will also take purchasing a good amount of natural gas power from Southcentral as well. Funnily enough, while overall this is a major win, we actually lost on one key point. Our primary target of advocacy was to prevent GVEA from refurbishing Healy 1 to extend its lifespan - an old legal agreement required them to either shut it down or invest in expensive pollution controls by next year. In what came as a total surprise, they realized they could save more money and reduce emissions more by keeping Healy 1 open and shutting down Healy 2 (even if in an ideal world, they closed down both).

OF: What’s the importance of this win from a climate perspective?

TG: It’s great that the Alaska political mainstream is finally (somewhat) awake to the fact that we’re on the frontlines of climate change impacts - the worsening wildfires, coastal erosion, sea ice loss, and all of the implications for communities, ecosystems, and ways of life here are incredibly urgent. But I think because our population is so small, we’re still in denial about our contribution to the problem. Our state economy is still largely built around digging up and selling fossil fuels to heat the atmosphere more. And more to the point, our per-capita emissions are among the highest of anywhere on Earth even excluding the fossil fuels we export.

We have a moral duty to get off of the fossil fuel energy economy as fast as possible, and this step by GVEA is a genuine, tangible decision to move in that direction and we will be able to measure the emissions reduced. I think another very important takeaway here is that we don’t have to choose between clean energy and affordable electric bills anymore - the fact that the low-carbon options are the economic ones is very good news for the climate.

OF: Decisions to close coal plants don’t come out of thin air. How long did it take your group to push for this? What tactics & strategies did you use to get here?

TG: While the decision is ultimately thanks to some far-sighted leadership in our current board and management, I firmly believe it wouldn’t have been possible without over 5 years of dedicated member-owner advocacy pushing the Overton window. Our membership started trying to find ways to transition our energy system when we came together in late 2015 and pretty quickly realized that we had unique power as member-owners of GVEA to demand change. We started packing annual members meetings with ordinary Fairbanksans testifying about the urgency of climate action, and then pretty soon the monthly board meetings as well. Like most electric coops, before we got involved, things were pretty sleepy in terms of community involvement, so an influx of dozens of people calling for climate action helped to shake things up pretty significantly. And we were persistent for year after year, meeting after meeting. You could watch the conversation shift over time: the annual meeting presentations started highlighting clean energy projects more prominently, the pro-renewable board members got more confident in their positions, the conservative members had to at least pay lip service to climate action.

Another big avenue for change within a coop like Golden Valley was the board elections - probably the primary democratic mechanism for the utility. They run pretty much just like local office elections, with candidates running to represent the ratepayers of districts (admittedly privileging property owners over renters which is problematic). We’ve both formally and informally weighed in on these to make sure we have a Board that shares our vision, and thankfully we ended up with a firmly pro-renewable majority on the board just last year for the first time. With turnout typically under 20% and absurdly small margins of victory, every little effort in these elections is an opportunity to sway the entire direction of the utility.

OF: Changing infrastructure at electric utilities does impact workers. How can utilities ease this transition for workers and local communities?

TG: A decision like this definitely does mean change for workers. Shutting down Healy 2 will mean reassignments, layoffs, and career changes for some of GVEA’s workers, and will undoubtedly have ripple effects for Usibelli Coal Mine and the broader community of Healy. This shift away from coal and the job losses associated with it are the inevitable realities of the changing energy market.

Interior Alaska has been something of a holdout for the coal industry. In much of the Lower 48, natural gas and renewables have outcompeted coal, leading to mass closures of coal power plants and the mines feeding them. Because of how far renewables have come, this trend has finally reached Alaska now too, and it’s important for Interior residents to realize that it’s not just a matter of one power plant; this is a long-term transition that we have to plan for.

In the short term, FCAC is planning to stay focused on holding the GVEA Board and Management accountable to following through on their plans for this energy strategy in a way that is respectful and supportive of their staff in Healy. It will be important for them to be proactive with offering internal reassignments where possible as well as resources for job retraining and support structures for those who don’t stay on. We plan to hold the utility accountable to proactively listening to the needs of their workers and Healy residents in this transition.

Longer term, this is a transition that Healy community leaders need to be anticipating and attempting to address. There are federal funds to help coal communities in transition with alternative economic development, for instance, with plenty more likely to come if Congress passes their proposed Reconciliation package this year. We can do our best to make Denali Borough officials aware of those resources and it will be important for them to take those opportunities seriously.

It’s important not to just look at this from the negative side of things, though. While some coal jobs will be lost, there will be plenty of new job and business opportunities as well – putting up 40 new megawatts of wind in a handful of years will be no small project and will require a lot of labor. Preparing the workforce by working with the local unions and apprenticeship programs now to be ready for a renewable energy system in the future means that we can ensure that our community members will be the first to benefit from these new opportunities.

OF: Understanding that it’s hard to name everyone, what groups and people helped push this energy transition?

TG: I credit first and foremost the members of the FCAC Renewable Energy Working Group - I work as a staff member to help coordinate and support FCAC overall, but we’re fundamentally a volunteer-led organization and it amazes me every day to see the persistence of ordinary Fairbanksans in demanding the action we need. Some really great leaders on the Board of GVEA like Tom DeLong, Dave Messier, and Gary Newman should be applauded for steering the utility in a really good direction. And really, the entire movement for climate action and a Just Transition in Alaska have helped shift the conversation – there are similar groups doing good work to push for change at other utilities along the Railbelt too, like AKPIRG, the Alaska Center, Cook Inletkeeper, and others. That inspiration and strategy-sharing between communities does a lot to keep the momentum up!

To join Tristan and other citizen climate organizers and advocates around Alaska, sign up with Alaska Climate Alliance, a statewide collaborative network. Fairbanks area folks can also join up with the Fairbanks Climate Action Network.
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