Photograph of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. The photo shows a flat valley with the pipeline running from the right background to the left foreground of the image. A road with two cars on it can be seen to the right of the pipeline. Mountains rise on the right in the background.

Energy in Alaska

Simple map of Alaska.

Page snapshot: Introduction to energy in Alaska, including fossil fuels and renewable energy.


Topics covered on this page: Overview; Oil; North Slope; Trans-Alaska PipelineExxon Valdez oil spill; Coal; Geothermal energy; Hydroelectricity; Wind energy; Resources.

Credits: Some of the text of this page comes from "Energy in the western US" by Carlyn S. Buckler and Gary Lewis, chapter 7 in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Western USedited by Mark D. Lucas, Robert M. Ross, and Andrielle N. Swaby (published in 2014 by the Paleontological Research Institution; currently out of print). The book was adapted for the web by Elizabeth J. Hermsen and Jonathan R. Hendricks in 2022. Changes include formatting, revisions, and additions to the text and images. Credits for individual images are given in figure captions.

Updates: Page last updated June 18, 2022.

Image above: Original description (USGS): "Trans-Alaska Pipeline, northern Brooks Range, Alaska. Rocks in the background produce oil on the North Slope." Source: USGS on flickr (public domain).

Overview

Alaska has the lowest population density of any state in the Union, with only a little over one person per square mile. Many people live in rural areas, and, with about 20% of the state covered by glaciers and water, getting energy to the population is challenging. Running electrical lines throughout the state’s 1.72 million square kilometers (663,000 square miles) is not feasible when considering the number of people the lines would serve. Therefore, most people in rural areas use heating oil and/or wood for heat and energy. In isolated communities, electricity is also often generated using petroleum fuels, like diesel.

Alaska Energy Authority’s (AEA) Alternative Energy and Energy Efficiency (AEEE) program manages and funds projects and initiatives totaling $188 million in state and federal funding. Many of these projects seek to lower the cost of power and heat to Alaskan communities while maintaining system safety and reliability.


Photograph of an oil refinery near Fairbanks, Alaska. The photo shows structures of the refinery with trucks parked in a parking lot in the foreground. This refinery was closed in 2014.

Flint Hills North Pole Refinery, North Pole (near Fairbanks), Alaska, 2011. This refinery operated between the 1970s and 2014. Photo by RadioKAOS (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, image resized).

Oil

North Slope

In the late 1960s, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope, and it has proven to be the largest recoverable oil field in the U.S. Source rocks for the oil range from Mississippian to Paleogene in age, with Mesozoic marine coastal deposits being particularly rich. Significant amounts of oil and gas are trapped under the Barrow Arch, a regional belt of metamorphic and igneous rock that forms a cap for the oil reservoir. Production from the North Slope oilfields peaked in the late 1980s and has dwindled since that time. Peak production was more than two million barrels of oil per day in 1988. That number had declined to fewer than 500,000 barrels of oil per day by around 2014 and continues to drop.

Whether or not to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeastern Alaska has been the subject of heated debate for years. As part of the expansion of ANWR in 1980, the 1002 Area, a region on the coast, was set aside for potential future oil extraction. Groups opposed to drilling in ANWR contend that it will irreparably damage the sensitive wilderness in northern Alaska, whereas those in favor of drilling cite its economic benefits and argue that it will have limited effects on the landscape and wildlife.


Map showing a detail of the North Slope of Alaska. The boundaries of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in the northwest and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northeast are shown, along with the 1002 Area in the northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Oil pipelines, including the Trans-Alaska pipeline running south from Prudhoe Bay, are indicated by red lines.

Map of the North Slope, Alaska, showing the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an area in ANWR that is not designated as wilderness and that is subject of heated debate about oil exploration and extraction (1002 Area), and pipelines (red lines), include the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS). Source: Map from the USGS 2002 Petroleum Resource Assessment of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (via Wikimedia Commons).


Graph showing Alaska production of crude oil from the early 1970s to the 2020s. The line graph shows a sharp rise in production from the mid-70s to late-80, followed by a gradual decline toward the present.

Chart showing the production of Alaskan crude oil from 1973 to 2021 in thousands of barrels of crude oil per day. Production peaked in 1988 at more than 2,000,000 barrels per day, but had dropped under 500,000 barrels per day by 2014. The vast majority of Alaskan crude oil is produced on the North Slope. Source: EIA.


Photograph of infrastructure in the Alpine Oil Field, North Slope, Alaska. The photo shows a tall drill rig to the right, what appears to be a three-story rectangular building on the left, and other structures related to oil extraction. The development sits near a beach with water in the foreground.

Drill rig and other structures in the Alpine Oil Field, North Slope, Alaska, 2013. Photo titled "Part of the Alpine Oil Field. North Slope, Alaska" by Paxson Woelbr (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).


Aerial photograph of Northstar Island, a man-made island in the Beaufort Sea that supports oil extraction equipment. The photo shows a rectangular island with a drill rig and other equipment on it. The island is surrounded by sea ice covered in a thin layer of snow.

Northstar Island, a man-made island in the Beaufort Sea near Prudhoe Bay, built in 2000 for oil extraction. The snow surrounding the island is not on land, but is on sea ice in the Beaufort Sea. Photo from December 2014. Source: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on flickr (public domain).


Photograph of an oil well head (essentially, a cap) in the permafrost near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The cap is a small black and orange circular structure. The surrounding ground is green with a clear polygonal pattern, which is made by the ice wedges of the permafrost.

The head of an oil well that was drilled through the permafrost within one mile of ANWR. Source: USGS (public domain).


Trans-Alaska pipeline

After significant negotiations with the native populations of Alaska, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was finished in 1977, running from the Prudhoe Bay some 800 miles south to Valdez, Alaska, on Prince William Sound. The construction of this pipeline supported the boom in oil extraction in the state in the late twentieth century.

The Trans-Alaska pipeline is currently facing several problems that threaten its integrity. One of these is declining oil production on the North Slope, leading to declining oil transport through the pipeline, which is turn causes maintenance issues (like build-up of ice and wax in the pipeline).

Another problem is melting permafrost, an issue that is being accelerated by climate change. Permafrost melt can cause the pipeline to bend or buckle as the thawing ground shifts. If the bending causes the pipeline to break, oil will spill. Thermosiphons (devices that keep the ground frozen) and other supports are being installed to keep the pipeline in place.


Photograph of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, an oil pipeline that traverses Alaska from north to south. The photo shows a pipeline cutting through a hilly landscape with conifers and other vegetation. Mountains rise in the background.

Trans-Alaska pipeline, 2005. The vertical structures placed at regular intervals on either side of the pipeline are thermosiphons, structures that dissipate heat to keep the ground frozen. Photo by Luca Galuzzi (www.galuzzi.it, via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license).


Photograph of the Trans-Alaska pipeline traversing the Denali fault. The photo shows a section of the pipeline supported by horizontal sliders that allow the pipeline to move when the ground shifts.

Trans-Alaska pipeline crossing the Denali fault, 2002. This portion of the pipeline is on sliders that allow it to move without rupturing. Photo by USGS (via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).


Exxon Valdez oil spill

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on March 24, 1989. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters until the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 (read more about the Deepwater Horizon spill on Earth Science of the South-central U.S.: Energy in the Coast Plain). The spill began when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker collided with a reef in Prince William Sound off the southern coast of Alaska. Nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil were spilled, affecting over 1000 miles of coastline; tens of thousands of animals were killed by the oil, including around 250,000 birds and more than 3,000 marine mammals (sea otters, seals, and whales). Exxon eventually paid nearly four billion dollars as a result of the spill, which included money for cleaning up the oil and restoring the environment, restitution, and penalties.

While populations of some organisms recovered within a few years following the spill, others were affected for a much longer time. Sea otter numbers, for example, did not fully rebound until more than two decades following the spill. For some animals, the effects of oil exposure were delayed. Several years following the spill, oil still contaminating the water caused the herring and salmon populations to crash, resulting in large economic losses for the commercial fishing industry. The effects of the spill are still felt in the region today, particularly on herring, which have not recovered their former numbers.


2-panel image showing photographs of animals affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Panel 1: A sea otter with oil in its fur. Panel 2: An dead bird that was oiled laying on grass that is black with oil.

Animals affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska. Left: A sea otter covered in oil (June 1989). Right: An oiled woodbird in oil-covered vegetation, Bay of Isles, Knight Island (September 1989). Left photo (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill-ACE6) and right photo (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - 0628) by ARLIS Reference on flickr (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, images cropped).


Photograph of the arms and legs of a man who is bending over on a rocky beach. The man is wearing rubber boots. His hands are hanging down, one with the palm facing the camera, the other holding a rock. The fingers of the open hand are stained black with oil. The rock is white, contrasting with the shiny black rocks that have been coated with oil on the beach.

Oiled rocks on Green Island, Prince William Sound, following the Exxon Valdez spill, July 4, 1989. A person holds up a clean rock to show the contrast with the oiled rocks on the beach. Photo (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - 0040) from ARLIS Reference on flickr (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, image cropped).


Aerial photograph of Kachemak Bay on the Gulf of Alaska showing an oil slick (shiny streaks) on the water as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Oil slick on the water of Kachemak Bay, Gulf of Alaska, July 19, 1989. Photo (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - 0058) from ARLIS Reference on flickr (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, images cropped).


3-panel image showing people cleaning up rocks covered with oil on Alaska's coastline as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Panel 1: Two people kneeling on rocks and scrubbing them by hand. Both people are wearing yellow rubber overalls. Panel 2: A man wearing a black hardhat, black raincoat, and orange waterproof pants cleaning rocks with a sprayer. Panel 3: Man wearing a hardhat, a respirator, a raincoat, and waterproof pants and shoes cleaning rocks with a sprayer. In the background, other men stand around wearing white hardhats.
Cleanup of beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Left: Workers scrubbing rocks by hand, LaTouche Island, June or July 1989. Center and right: Workers spraying an oil dispersant (Corexit) on rocks, Smith Island, August and September 1989. Left photo (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - 0726), center photo (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - 0776), and right photo (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - 0787) from ARLIS Reference on flickr (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, images cropped).

Graphic showing species recovery in the first 25 years following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The graphic shows that while many species were recovered or recovering by 2014, a few were not. Species not covered included herring (a type of ocean fish), Pigeon guillemots (a type of seabird), and the killer whale pod AT1. Two species of murrelets (a type of bird) had an unknown status.

Timeline for recovery of various species following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This graphic only covers the first 25 years following the spill. Source: NOAA.

Coal

Alaska has significant coal reserves in just one active mine, near Healy. The coal was deposited in terrestrial environments under a much warmer and wetter Miocene climate.


Photograph of a dragline in the Usibelli Coal Mine, Healy, Alaska. The photo shows a machine that looks similar to a crane with a bucket suspended off the end that is used to dig coal.

Geothermal energy

Alaska has many volcanic and geothermal features and is a prime region for development of geothermal energy resources. To date, not much geothermal energy has been brought online. Chena Hot Springs was the first geothermal plant in the state, and Pilgrim Hot Springs (near Nome) has been explored for its geothermal capacity. Geothermal holds the promise to bring cleaner, less costly electricity to some remote communities that now rely on fossil fuels.


Photograph of a thermal pool at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. The photo shows a pool of water surrounded by rocks. Steam hangs on the top of the pool. A hill covered with trees and snow rises in the background.

Thermal pool at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. Photo by Craig Talbert (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Hydroelectricity

Alaska has numerous dams that provide hydroelectric power, which is not only a clean source of energy, but is also an important source of electrical power in a state were transport of fuels and construction of long-distance transmission lines is challenging. Most hydroelectric projects are located in the south-central and southeastern parts of the state.

As in the Pacific Northwest, anadromous salmon (salmon that live in the ocean but spawn in freshwater) inhabit Alaska's rivers. Because these salmon swim many miles upstream from the ocean to spawn, dams are barriers that can prevent them from reaching their spawning grounds. Alaska's anadromous fish populations have experienced less decline overall than salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest due to the presence of dams. Nevertheless, salmon in some rivers are affected. One of these is the Eklutna River. The Lower Eklutna Dam, which was built in 1929 and provided power until 1955, was removed in 2017 to 2018 in part of a process to restore the Eklutna River and allow salmon populations to rebound. The Upper Eklutna Dam still provides hydropower and water for Anchorage, Alaska.

Hydroelectric power will likely be expanded in Alaska in the future. Fortunately, in at least some cases, dams can be built on stretches of river that are unreachable by salmon, and, thus, will not present a barrier to spawning.


Photograph of Eklunta Lake, a reservoir near Anchorage, Alaska. The photo shows an elongated lake surrounded by hills covered with green vegetation. Clouds hang low over the landscape.

Eklutna Lake, a reservoir created by the Upper Eklutna Dam, Eklutna River, Alaska, 2017. This lake provides drinking water and hydroelectric power, and very little of the water is released downstream. Photo "Eklutna Lake" by Luke Jones (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).


Photograph of the Eklunta Power Plant near Palmer, Alaska. The photo shows a concrete building with metal scaffolding on top to which power lines run. A hill covered with trees rises behind the plant.

Wind energy

Some commercial development of wind energy has occurred in Alaska. In isolated communities, generation of power from wind may be used as a complement to diesel-generated power rather than as a stand-alone resource.


Photograph of wind turbines on Kodiak, Alaska. The photo shows three large white wind turbines on top of a snow-dusted hill. A cluster of buildings are grouped at the base of the hill, near a shoreline.

Wind turbines owned by the Kodiak Electric Association, 2011. These turbines complement diesel power and hydroelectricity. Photo "Coast Guard Kodiak" by James Brooks (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).