Feature Story

Alaska looks to ‘arctic tech' to solve extreme climate challenges and diversify economy

by Amy Cortese

Alaska looks to ‘arctic tech' to solve extreme climate challenges

See what's brewing with Alaska's budding "arctic tech" scene.

On a recent spring evening, a lively crowd gathered at an Anchorage microbrewery for a Demo Day. Under a chandelier made of moose antlers, entrepreneurs pitched their ventures. These included mobile solar generators, self-erecting wind turbines and a distributed energy marketplace.

The startups are at the vanguard of Alaska's budding "arctic tech" scene.  The term has come to describe technology solutions aimed at addressing distinctly Alaskan needs for remote, distributed and sustainable services: think drones, microgrids, and hydroponics.

To get a sense of the challenges, consider Alaska's vast size: it is larger than Venezuela, Texas, California, and Montana combined. Its snowy expanse is dotted with remote villages isolated from the rest of the state, especially in the long winter months, making it hard to deliver vital resources.  Alaska's rural residents, for example, pay five times the national average for energy—and it's mostly dirty diesel.

See also: How big data might curb climate change

Then there's the extreme climate. In Fairbanks, the temperature can swing from-50 Fahrenheit in the winter to 90 degrees in the summer. For tech to work here, it has to be rugged. And the long, dark winter months, especially in the north, make growing food difficult. The state imports 95 percent of its food.

As arctic ice and permafrost are beginning to melt, threatening to release long trapped greenhouse gasses, Alaska finds itself on the front lines of climate change. The state has more coastline than the continental U.S., and dozens of coastal villages face relocation thanks to rising seas.  

To top it all off, Alaska has some pressing economic challenges. The 49th state has long relied oil on for revenue. A slump in oil prices sent the state into a three-year recession it is still climbing out of, highlighting a need to diversify.

A push to diversify

All of these factors are fueling the state's arctic tech push. And Launch Alaska, the two-year old Anchorage-based accelerator at the heart of it all, spies an opportunity.

"We want to change the way we consume energy, food, water and transportation," says Isaac Vanderburg, the managing director of Launch Alaska. "Artic tech is the nexus of those four."

The accelerator's initial focus has been on energy, but upcoming cohorts starting later this year will target food, water and transportation solutions. Vanderburg has cast a wide net. While some of the startups that have gone through the program— such as Aquilo, a Fairbanks-based drone company, and 60 Hertz, and Anchorage-based microgrid maintenance and investment company—are local, others have been recruited from outside of the state. "What we care about is who has the best solutions for intractable problems in food, energy, water and transportation," says Vanderburg, who moved to Alaska a decade ago.

The 2018 cohort that pitched at the Demo Day exemplify the opportunity.

BoxPower makes turnkey solar and hybrid-power systems that come in 20-foot shipping containers and can be assembled in just five hours. Carter Wind Energy's wind turbines are self-erecting and designed for distributed power generation in extreme or isolated environments. Correlate's software help manage energy resources and cut costs, while Omega Grid is developing a blockchain-based, real-time clean energy marketplace.

An arctic sandbox

While they are working on urgent solutions for Alaskans, these startups also see a broader market. And Alaska offers an opportunity to develop and refine solutions in an extreme environment that have applicability in other areas of the world, from remote African villages to areas hit by disaster.

Angelo Campus, the 25-year old founder of Grass Valley, California-based BoxPower, views Alaska as an 'arctic sandbox' for solutions that can help other off-grid and underserved communities. "Here and Puerto Rico are the only places where you can test out challenges for the developing world with U.S. support and infrastructure," says Campus, whose company won the popular vote at the pitch event.

See also: Green energy surges in Latin America

Launch Alaska's Vanderburg agrees. While Alaska with its population of 738,000 might not represent a large market, he says, "Entrepreneurs working in food, water energy and transportation know they can come test their model, get their first revenue in a high cost environment and then scale to other markets."

He points to Omega Grid as one example of the potential for arctic tech and climate-combating solutions. The company's energy marketplace will eventually allow utilities to integrate diverse energy assets, from residential solar to EV charging stations to larger scale generation, and have those assets bid to deliver the most efficient and economical energy at a given moment. Batteries could charge when there is excess wind or solar power, for example, and energy customers could automatically curtail usage when demand and prices are high.

"That's the bleeding edge of innovation in the broad distributed energy space," says Vanderburg. "If they are successful, it will bring about decarbonization of all sorts of things."

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