Telling the story of Alaska’s electrification

By Philip Wight

When I was first asked to contribute a chapter detailing the electrification of Alaska for UA Press’ forthcoming book Alaska’s Energy Innovators: How Communities are Responding to the Climate Crisis, my mind raced through all of the remarkable stories that could be told. As an energy and environmental historian at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, much of my research has focused on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) and its and historical influence in Alaska and beyond. While conducting this research I kept finding fascinating and remarkable stories of Alaska’s electrification—like a 1965 map of all of Alaska’s generation infrastructure and a wild plan by Alaska’s rural electric cooperatives to electrify the pump stations on TAPS in 1972. During this same period, research scientists and energy experts have increasingly emphasized the finding that beneficial electrification with renewable energy is an indispensable path towards decarbonizing our economy. This book provided me the opportunity to offer a narrative of Alaska’s electrical history and contemplate possibilities of electric futures.

Alaska’s electrification is a meaty and complex story – one that could easily fill an entire book. Sitting down to distill the many stories I have found into a concise book chapter was a challenge, but also helped me realize the big picture of our electric past. As an historical overview and introduction to the book, my chapter provides foundational context for the preceding stories from Alaskans on the leading edge of energy integration and innovation. It sets the stage for understanding how these individuals are offering world-class solutions and carrying on the best legacies of the scrappy and pragmatic Alaskans who carried the torch of electricity across the state.

Readers will find many interesting stories of energy innovation from these early years of Alaska’s electrical build-out, like how Juneau used hydroelectricity to became one of the nation’s first electrified cities (including all mining operations) a mere decade after Edison built Manhattan’s Pearl Street Station in 1882. Or how in 1904, the Northern Commercial Company built a wood-fired combined heat and power plant in Fairbanks that burned roughly 8,500 cords of wood per year to supply heat and electricity to a small core area of downtown, and earned early residents of Fairbanks the nickname: “those steam-heated pioneers”.

Image of steamy boiler room from combined heat and power plant, downtown Fairbanks, 1912
Source: University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives
Northern Commercial Company combined heat and power plant, downtown Fairbanks, 1912
Nighttime winter view of Cordova, Alaska in 1912
Source: Wikipedia Commons
“A Winter Night,” Cordova, terminus of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, 1912













Although mining and other extractive industries like commercial fishing were first to catalyze power production in Alaska, colossal Federal investments and defense infrastructure projects drove mass electrification in the territory and ultimately created the pre-conditions for statehood. For example, readers will learn how the Railbelt grid – the state’s largest electric distribution network – has historical ties to fueling President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, a group of United States Navy battleships that completed a journey around the globe between 1907-1909. 

This chapter also explores the complex relationship Alaska power generation and distribution has with the oil and gas industry, both historically and today. The discovery of Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1977, ushered Alaska into a new chapter where state revenues and home economics became precariously reliant on fluctuating oil prices. Policymakers endeavored to blunt the high costs of the oil crises by researching and investigating a wide variety of energy efficiency and generation technologies, though often with limited success.

Despite spending hundreds of millions on dams that were never realized, Alaska’s greatest energy accomplishment during this period was turning petrodollars into low-cost hydropower throughout the state with five hydroelectric facilities built in the 1980s. These five plants—Bradley Lake (Homer), Solomon Gulch (Valdez), Swan Lake (Ketchikan), Terror Lake (Kodiak), Tyee Lake (Wrangell and Petersburg)— collectively displace 40 million gallons of diesel fuel annually, or over a billion gallons since 1991. I argue that constructing these renewable powerplants is perhaps the second most intelligent decision in the history of the State of Alaska, next to the creation of Alaska’s $77 billion Permanent Fund.

Alaska, with its very diverse geographic, political, and cultural landscapes, did not follow a linear or uniform pattern of electrification. Bringing power to Alaska’s communities required tremendous ingenuity, adaptability, and pragmatism. In the big picture, I contend that four themes have dominated the state’s history of electrification:  Americanization, bootstrap innovation, public power, and fuel diversification. I tackle each of these – and much more – in more detail in Alaska’s Energy Innovators. Here is a high level discussion of each of these themes.  



The process of Americanization clearly structured the nature of Alaskan electrification. Americanization constitutes a multitude of powerful forces that came with the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867. Russian mercantilism was quickly replaced by the assertive capitalism of a United States entering the Second Industrial Revolution. Tens of thousands of Americans, many of them recent immigrants from Europe and Asia, swarmed into the territory in the first decade, with hundreds of thousands following with the Klondike Gold rush. American industrial capitalism brought steamships, railroads, and eventually the new technology of electrification. Early gold miners, fish processors, and timber interests built the first hydroelectric facilities throughout the Southeastern part of Alaska. In 1893, Alaska Electric Light and Power incorporated to provide hydroelectricity on a for-profit basis and the for-profit corporation continues to provide power to the Juneau region today.

This form of capitalism also prioritized resource extraction—of furs, salmon, gold, copper, timber, oil, gas, and critical minerals. Resource extraction required significant energy inputs, shaping electrification and patterns of settlement.

This was not a mythical “free market” capitalism—the federal government was constantly trying to monitor, regulate, and steer Alaska’s development. Perhaps the most significant impact the federal government had in shaping Alaskan electrification was the role of the US military. From Utqiagvik to Attu and Ketchikan, the U.S. Department of Defense built hundreds of installations, many of which were effectively self-contained cities hungry for energy. As late as the 1970s, the US military procured and consumed a third of the state’s electricity (and a far larger share of its petroleum).

Water spilling from the Swan Lake hydroelectric facility near Ketchikan after a record rainfall in 2020
Source: Pacific Pile & Marine
Water spilling from the Swan Lake hydroelectric facility near Ketchikan after a record rainfall in 2020

Bootstrap Innovation

Bootstrap innovation has characterized Alaska’s long and winding electrical journey. Often with limited resources, far from urban centers, and requiring heat and light to thrive in the far north, Alaskans figured out creative new ways to produce, transport, and consume electricity. This spirit of innovation also applied to regulatory and financial affairs, as new funding models had to be created to secure financing for non-standard projects. While the federal government played an outsized role, Alaskans did not wait for permission or someone else to lead the electrification of the state. Alaskans created power from nearly any engine or any source they could find. Old caterpillar tractor engines from mining or World War II powered entire towns for decades. Some of this old infrastructure still serves as backup generation today. 

Ever irreverent, Alaskans did not blindly follow the Lower 48, but questioned established experts, and found new ways to use electricity more efficiently. In rural electrification, innovators “completely revolutionized” existing diesel powerhouses by utilizing variable speed drives in radiator fans, installing marine manifolds, using extra heat for adjacent community buildings, and in general increasing efficiency. Alaskans are incorporating hydrokinetic, geothermal, wind, solar, batteries, and heat pumps to cut costs and carbon.


Public Power 

Public power has come to define the electrification of Alaska. While investor-owned utilities provide power to most Americans, Alaska is one of a handful of rural states where rural electric cooperatives (RECs) and municipal utilities have supplied most residents. Due to Alaska’s remoteness, for-profit companies only offered electric service in limited locations (Juneau being the most prominent example).

Born out of the New Deal, Alaska’s electric cooperatives were created between 1940 and the late 1960s to electrify “rural” Alaska and grew to supply power to most Alaskans. Electric cooperatives were not wholly “public” in the way that municipal utilities or large federal agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority were (technically RECs are private, not-for-profit corporations), but rather constituted a middle way between investor-owned utilities and full public ownership. These organizations quickly became the most important utilities in the State and have driven Alaskan electrification since their creation. By the mid-1980s, only 6% of the state’s generation came from for-profit utilities.

Alaska’s experience with public power, despite its manifold benefits, accentuates several complicated ironies. Here’s just one of them: Alaska exemplifies anti-federal politics, yet has relied extensively on the federal government to construct key elements of its energy system.


Fuel Diversification

Alaskans have long been focused on diversifying their energy sources and historically have focused on reducing or replacing their most expensive and versatile fuel—petroleum. Since at least the 1950s, if not earlier, State leaders have been focused on reducing costs by implementing renewable energy sources, namely hydroelectric. State leaders looked to Nordic nations like Norway and eventually Iceland for inspiration. This trend accelerated with the 1970s oil crises, and peaked again in the late 2000s with record oil prices. 

While Alaska is known as an oil and petrostate, in the realm of electricity production, Alaska has pursued a policy of “depetrolization”—or reducing reliance on diesel. Depetrolization was primarily an economic motivation, not an environmental movement. While many other polities around the world, and especially in Europe and industrialized north, have been focused on decarbonization over the past two decades, this concept does a poor job of explaining the dynamics of Alaskan electrification. Despite its mixed reaction to the environmental movement, Alaska was an oil state that had a surprising social agreement to cut diesel-power as much as possible from its electricity system.


What comes next?

Examining Alaska’s history through the lens of electrification provides a completely different perspective of the often-invisible infrastructure we all take for granted today. Electricity is integral to modern life and essential for participation in the global economy, but reliable and easy access to electricity happened over the course of a few short generations, or in some cases less. There are Elders and residents in Alaska today with living memory of the electrification of their village, with the very last village electrified as late as the 1980s. Electricity not only became a staple of modernity in Alaska since the 1890s, but since then has grown into a ubiquitous and indispensable system that nearly all Alaskans embraced to improve their lives.

Alaskans today continue to face major energy challenges and recurrent crises. Yet they demonstrate—much as they have for their 130-year history of electrification—the power of innovation and persistence. This duality of trouble and tenacity has long defined Alaska’s energy history. Thorny challenges have made Alaskans a global pioneer in integrating renewables into microgrids. Since 1980, Alaska has cut its reliance on diesel fuel by over 40 million gallons of diesel fuel per year while growing its economy. Yet many Alaskans are still precariously reliant on expensive diesel and declining local methane gas supplies. Looking back at this history allows us to better understand challenges and opportunities in the power industry today. 

The challenges of the 21st Century—climate disruption, energy security, decarbonization—will push Alaskans to pursue ever-greater renewable and low-carbon energy development. Fortunately, the state is rich in renewable resources. Most enduring of all resources is not hydropower, biomass, wind, geothermal or solar, but rather the human element: Alaskans with a wrench in their hand who refuse to believe it can’t be done.


This post is part of a monthly series to promote a forthcoming book from UA Press entitled Alaska’s Energy Innovators: How Communities are Responding to the Climate Crisis.