March 31, 2012

Alaska: Renewable energy fund closer to extension

Renewable energy entrepreneurs could see the popular Renewable Energy Grant Fund continue for five more $50 million-dollar years. A bill extending the fund passed House Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Established in 2007, the fund has received $500 million to allocate to renewable energy projects around the state. The fund is administered by the Alaska Energy Authority.

The bill would extend the fund for another five years. The law would sunset on June 30, 2018. An allocation of $50 million would go to the fund annually. The House Energy Committee changed the original version of the bill, which extended the fund by a full decade.

A change to the fiscal note of the bill switches funding for administration of the energy fund from general fund allocations to cash from the energy fund itself. Each of the last two fiscal years, $2 million was allocated for fund administration.

“This has been an effective program. We don’t want to get too many bureaucrats thinking they’re comfortable getting fed and watered there in perpetuity,” Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said he has heard of a lag time in processing projects. “I get the impression that AEA is not staffed up to turn around a number of grants from an ever-increasing number of clients,” Edgmon said.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, had a similar concern.

After a one-time allocation of $100 million, the fund has received $25 million annually. Gara asked AEA Executive Director Sara Fisher-Goad if her agency was staffed to manage $50 million a year.

“Staffing is good right now,” Fisher-Goad said. The agency hired new technical project managers, accounts and evaluation staff, she said.

Fisher-Goad admitted the program’s slow start. Since then, AEA has tracked project completion. The agency administered 70 projects in fiscal year 2011, Fisher-Goad said. Any delays, she said, were not due to staffing.

“No one has ever been shy about calling me and letting me know there’s been an issue with the grant,” Fisher-Goad said.

The program’s popularity has grown by adding at least one legislator as a fan.

“I have been an opponent of this program since it started,” Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, said. “I had real doubts.”

The success of the fund changed his mind, he said.

“I’m a supporter of it now and hope that it goes on and continues to do the good things it has done,” Doogan said.

The bill is supported by Reps. Bill Thomas, R-Haines; Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell; Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage; Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak; Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham; Bob Herron, D-Bethel; Bob Miller, D-Fairbanks; Pete Peterson, D-Anchorage; Les Gara, D–Anchorage and Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage.

SB 185 is the Senate version of the bill. It was referred to Senate Finance Committee and has not had a hearing. That bill calls for a decade-long extension.

The committee substitute to House Bill 250 and its accompanying updated fiscal note passed House Finance, its final referred committee before reaching the House floor.


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