Small Port, Big Challenges, Extreme Flexibility

From The Front Lines
Building to satisfy current and future public needs and market demands
steve ribuffo

If things go well, I’ll spend the next ten years fielding complaints from Port of Alaska neighbors about construction noise, because our aging facilities need a lot of renovation and replacement.

Depending upon your point of view, Port of Alaska in Anchorage is either a small port, a big port — or a big, small port. It only handles about 5 million tons of fuel and freight annually. But this Municipality of Anchorage-owned and -operated port is Alaska’s primary inbound cargo facility that supports local, statewide, national, and international economic interests. It is one of 18 Department of Defense designated commercial strategic seaports that support U.S. military missions around the world. Its operations are essential for timely disaster response and recovery throughout Southcentral Alaska and across the state. And it handles three-quarters of the fuel used at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the world’s fourth busiest air cargo hub.

Port of Alaska markets and cargo logistics are tricky because its service area is huge — the whole state of Alaska — with a small population (only 733,000 residents) and extreme climate, geography, and seismic conditions. The state is a virtual island: with one, mostly two-lane road through Canada to the Lower 48, and no cross-border rail, pipeline, or electric transmission connections. More than 90% of Alaska inbound freight is delivered by ship or barge. Port of Alaska handles half of all Alaska inbound fuel and freight shipped into the state annually, including three-quarters of non-petroleum cargo (think food and consumer goods) transported into Alaska and consumed statewide. Alaska’s small population cannot economically support more than one major inbound cargo port, so Port of Alaska must maintain the flexibility to meet the state’s diverse cargo needs, from containers to break bulk, dry bulk, liquid bulk, RO/RO, LO/LO, military transport, barge service, and cruise ships.

Anchorage’s small port leaves a big footprint, and any significant operational failure could swiftly kick commerce, national defense and/or disaster recovery failures across the state, nation and around the world.

This outsized impact means Port of Alaska stakeholders must worry about the same sorts of problems that keep big port operators awake at night, but with some extra angst from Alaska’s small-market economics. My bad dreams are about:

  • Infrastructure failures – Our half-century-old docks are one earthquake away from failing due to a combination of age, corrosion, and obsolescence.
  • Power system failures – Outages can arise from equipment or control failures, unreliable fuel supplies, etc. And we’re supposed to shrink our carbon footprint too.
  • Port access failure – We have one gate and lack adequate secondary land access to our yards and facilities.
  • Security breaches (physical and/or cyber) – Physical and cyber worlds increasingly overlap as cyber systems are starting to control everything from business systems to building HVAC, door locks, pipelines, cranes, and autonomous vehicles. Why sneak into a port when you can hack its control systems from anywhere in the world?
  • External supply chain failures – Supply chains break because of everything from weather to accidents, outside port failures … and pandemics.
  • Significant Alaska cargo market shifts – Change is caused by anything from geopolitics and technology, to new competitors/customers and worldwide energy shifts away from traditional hydrocarbon fuels to such “e-fuels” as ammonia, green diesel, sustainable aviation fuel, etc.

My dreams are sweeter lately because recent legislation is directing public monies to help fund infrastructure upgrades that commercial economics cannot by themselves sustain. Port of Alaska’s modernization program is a phased series of public-private projects to replace failing docks and related infrastructure over the next ten years. Our power plan is constructing a port-wide microgrid with battery, renewable generation, and emergency generation systems that will economically improve power reliability and resiliency while also reducing port-related carbon emissions. We are developing a secondary port access road and gate to improve facility access. We are replacing security systems that protect against both physical and cyber intrusion. All these projects emphasize system flexibility and versatility to ensure they can adapt to unexpected events, evolving market shifts, and user needs.

A little extra neighborhood construction noise will be a minor irritation compared to the local, statewide, national, and international problems that will occur if Port of Alaska fails to renovate and replace its critical cargo handling facilities.