Connections and Commitments Pave the Way for Increased Energy Innovation in the Arctic
Heeding the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) call to head "North to the Future of Energy," hundreds of people convened at the ArcticX Summit in Alaska last month to create connections and chart a path forward for energy technology commercialization in the Arctic.
Co-hosted by the Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) and Arctic Energy Office (AEO), this InnovationXLabs series, which began with a number of webinars, culminated with the summit at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage on May 23.
More than 300 participants—roughly half of whom hailed from Alaska—came together on the ancestral land of the Dena'ina people for the information-gathering and networking opportunities afforded by the in-person event.
Attendees included executives and staff from OTT, AEO, and multiple DOE offices and national labs; tribal leaders and staff from Native villages across Alaska; and forward-looking individuals from a cross-section of industries, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations.
Joining the presenters and panelists were keynote speakers Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, DOE Under Secretary for Science and Innovation Dr. Geraldine Richmond, and McKinley Capital Management CEO and Chief Investment Officer Robert Gillam.
"The goal of the ArcticX Summit is to showcase America's leadership in energy innovation and commercialization by shining a light on the unique Alaskan experience. And we are pleased to have a window into different experiences and contexts in the makeup of our attendees today, from investors to entrepreneurs, members of industry and academia, Alaska Natives, and government leaders. A theme of today is seeding new conversations," OTT Principal Deputy Director Marcos Gonzales Harsha said.
"It was so good to see so many Alaskans (and out-of-state folks too) interacting with the DOE office and national lab personnel in Anchorage," said AEO Interim Director George Roe, who is hopeful "those engagements will lead to new and strengthened collaborations as we all pursue a more sustainable future."
First Steps in the Last Frontier
An ideal launching point for exploring the future of energy in the Arctic, the ArcticX Summit also marked some significant "firsts."
In addition to being the first conference DOE has hosted in Alaska since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the first InnovationXLab event to focus on the commercialization opportunities of a place rather than a single emerging energy technology.
"This InnovationXLabs series prompted us to do things differently. Because of the focus on place-based innovation, we are seeing engagement in Alaska that is both broad and deep as a result of ArcticX," said Jared Bierbach, OTT Deputy Chief of Staff and InnovationXLabs Program Manager.
Importantly, the summit provided a platform for announcing a landmark agreement to develop a microgrid that will green the port and shore up the reliability of Alaska's energy supply.
And in keeping with DOE's goal of engaging innovators and creating connections, the conference served as a venue for entrepreneurs and people from across the Far North to pitch their ideas and meet tech transfer and commercialization experts from DOE national labs who have experience in successful partnerships that move ground-breaking technologies forward.
First Regional InnovationXLab Catalyzes Place-Based Partnerships
Co-developed by OTT and the national labs to expand the commercial impact of DOE's substantial investment in the national lab innovation portfolio, InnovationXLab summits facilitate a two-way exchange of information and ideas. They are intentionally orchestrated to catalyze commercialization by connecting entrepreneurs, developers, investors, universities, manufacturers, and end-use customers with innovators and experts from across the national labs and broader DOE Research, Development, Demonstration, and Deployment (RDD&D) complex.
Unique in its technology-agnostic focus on bringing a range of emerging energy technologies to bear to address the unique energy challenges of a specific region, ArcticX's place-based lens yielded deep and meaningful engagements.
One such milestone marked at the summit was a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) and the Port of Alaska to fast-track a high-impact, high-priority microgrid project. The MOU launched a joint evaluation of the potential for renewable energy resources—abundant in Alaska's Upper Cook Inlet—to improve the port's power system.
Dr. Richmond announced the MOU during her keynote speech, framing the project as "part of a major modernization effort" to make the Port of Alaska "more resilient and sustainable" while bolstering the energy security of the neighboring Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The Alaska Beacon highlighted the project's potential to yield far-reaching and multilayered energy security and economic benefits statewide, themes Richmond reinforced in her keynote.
Drawing upon her eye-opening preconference tour of the Arctic regions of Alaska, she spoke about how meaningful it was to visit with Alaskans, learn from them, and experience empirically the power of science to serve a higher purpose and to help people. Seeing the human impacts of innovation through the eyes of Alaskans substantiated the need for DOE to "double down on the commitments to meet the energy needs of the people in the Arctic."
"I saw some of the highest fuel costs in the nation," Richmond said after visiting remote villages in northwest Alaska. Acknowledging the dual role of energy poverty and climate change in undermining the ability of tribal communities and future generations to live and thrive on their land, she said, "Those most affected by climate change are those who can least afford it."
Public- and Private-Sector Players Exchange Ideas
No one understands these challenges and opportunities better than those who live and work in remote rural Alaska. ArcticX presented an opportunity for the DOE team to meet them, listen to their stories, and exchange ideas. In keeping with the primary purpose of InnovationXLabs, in-person engagement proved pivotal to creating connections between regional innovators and DOE and national lab tech transfer experts.
One illustrative example began with a chance meeting at the Dena'ina Center the day before conference.
As the Alaska Just Transitions Summit was wrapping up, DOE staff touring the venue crossed paths with an Alaska Native from Dillingham pursuing his plan to develop a wind farm. He was there for a conference focused on "remembering forward"—looking to Indigenous knowledge and lifeways in seeking solutions for communities transitioning toward healthy, regenerative economies.
To leverage the insights gained from the Just Transition Summit, he knew he needed technical expertise—surveys, data, and technical assistance—to move his project forward. Seizing the opportunity to meet people who could facilitate that, he stayed for ArcticX, where he took the mic during the Energy Justice panel to share why wind energy is important for his village.
That impromptu pitch led to multiple connections with national lab experts and others interested in how they might help advance his wind project.
Local and regional participants who shared feedback saw value in these types of connections and the strong commercialization bent of ArcticX, said OTT Communications Lead Shawn Matson. "It wasn't just people coming together to listen and to talk; they were ready to get down to business and explore partnerships and solutions." And while the challenges of deploying energy technologies in the Arctic were drivers, attendees appreciated the focus on solutions. "It was convening with a purpose and with a direction," Matson said.
Connections Pave Way for Increased Commercialization
The purpose was to create connections that lead to increased commercialization of clean energy technologies in the Arctic. And the direction was North to the Future.
"Sustainable energy, affordable energy is the goal. That's the goal to the future," said Governor Dunleavy. "Alaska will make its mark with regard to hydrogen, geothermal, wind and solar."
With a nod to the strategic value of investing in energy innovation for Alaska and the Arctic, Senator Murkowski said, "We stand to benefit greatly from partnerships and innovation with DOE."
If the positivity conveyed in the keynotes set the tone for the day, they also pointed the way forward.
The energy was good, and the future is bright.