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Wind Energy Dynamics


The fluid resource that flows above the 49th state—its wind—is fast becoming among Alaska’s cache of valuable natural resources, with a variety of private and public projects in the works. With its economy historically built on the heavy industrial sectors—oil and gas, mining, timber harvest—Alaska is poised to join the global renewable energy wave, looking to the successes of northern countries like Denmark and others as example.

To add teeth to the state’s intent to become a long-term wind-energy player, the Alaska Energy Authority developed a wind energy program. The program’s vision statement highlights its critical interest in using wind-energy to benefit utilities and ratepayers, specifically. Among program goals is to shift the public’s mindset from seeing a wind turbine as a stand-alone component, to instead considering a turbine as an integrated energy source that is part of a larger power generation and distribution system for a community. A critical step in the evaluation of any energy program is the common-sense check to verify that wind energy, when integrated with the existing power infrastructure, is a good fit—and the most cost-effective solution.

Wind energy projects are most simply categorized in three groups: first, large-scale wind power generation; second, small wind energy efforts of the consumer-grade scale; and, third, utility-scale wind-diesel hybrid systems. Efforts are afoot in Alaska in each of the three arenas, fueled by both public and private commercial funding.

What It Takes

When asked if Alaska has what it takes to become a major wind player on the global front, Rich Stromberg, Wind Program manager for the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA), says, “The simple answer is ‘Yes,’ we have that. The more complex answer is that there are still challenges.”

Those challenges include that some of the best wind resource in Alaska is also in areas that are remote—the Aleutians, the lower Y-K Delta. Compared to traditional design-build construction in populated or developed areas, the cost is not surprisingly higher to mobilize construction equipment and crews for isolated areas. Building on the soil conditions is difficult, he says, such as with permafrost. Finally, the project must be economically feasible at the end of the day.

On the positive side, rural and remote villages and towns in Alaska are long familiar with the challenges of developing a reliable energy source and appear open to considering innovative solutions like wind energy as an alternative, he says. “Most of the communities are interested in getting a new type of energy,” Stromberg says. “The benefit is that they have had to live with diesel power and they know the benefits and costs…they are best suited to weigh the options of what wind will bring.”

When asked if Alaska has a supportive environment for renewable energy, AEA spokesman Karsten Rodvik responds with a “resounding ‘Yes,’” and points to the Legislature and state’s support of renewable energy through programs like the Renewable Energy Fund and the Emerging Energy Technology Fund.

The intent of the “Alaska Energy Authority is to reduce the cost of energy in Alaska,” he says. “We have a number of very significant programs that deal with this big picture in both rural and urban Alaska.” Research and support of integrated wind energy projects is among those efforts. As background, he refers to the increased interest by rural communities to improve their energy platforms. “The vast majority of Alaska is off the grid. The many villages with which we deal have independent power systems,” he says. Some “90 percent of rural Alaska is powered by diesel. There are communities that have encountered some difficulties in recent years with the escalating cost of diesel.” That, and other factors, has led to increased interest in creative energy solutions, like wind.

As example of the state’s interest in promoting innovative development of energy solutions, Rodvik highlights the Renewable Energy Fund—a program with several years of success funding renewable energy projects across the state of Alaska.

“In 2008, the Alaska State legislature established the Renewable Energy Fund,” he says. “That placed Alaska at or near the forefront of the 50 states in terms of funding for renewable energy. AEA administers this program, soliciting the applications…then after a thorough evaluation process, we go back to the Legislature…with our recommendations for projects to be funded. As of June 2012, the Legislature has funded 208 renewable energy projects across Alaska in both rural and Railbelt areas of the state,” he says. “And $202 million has been appropriated.”

Integrating Solutions

With a state as geographically large and diverse as Alaska, there is no single solution for integrating wind energy into the local energy landscape, says Stromberg. The intent of the AEA’s wind effort is to assist communities and utility companies in evaluating what they have now, and to determine how wind energy could improve or streamline the operation and save cost.

“It would be nice to have a cookie-cutter approach to all these communities,” says Stromberg. “But each community, their size, layout of the community...and wind regime, is all different.” While the inputs may differ radically between sites, the process for evaluating potential solutions is similar, with a structured approach to the conceptual design approach. That process includes considering the existing system, what aspects of the current system require replacement to be compatible with wind, “so you get the best total project,” says Stromberg. “Our feasibility stage….that’s gotten a lot more detailed on all these factors, so we have a good idea of what the costs are and the challenges when it comes time for construction.”

Wind Corridors

With key wind corridors scattered across the state, the economics of other available resources also plays a role in the prevalence of wind energy development. For example, while wind energy has been a long-standing effort in towns like Kotzebue, wind energy has been slower to take off in regions like Southeast, where, given the availability of water, the focus has been on hydropower.

“Because of the pervasive availability of hydroelectric, that has been the focus,” says Stromberg. As a result, less data about wind energy potential is available for that region. However, communities including Ketchikan, Kake and Haines have indicated some interest, and started to collect data. As with the hybrid approach seen with other integrated systems around the state, “wind would work well with a lot of these hydro projects,” he says.

Also, factors like a community’s transportation infrastructure can make a difference in the development of alternative energy. Stromberg points to Kodiak’s Pillar Mountain project, where wind energy will provide a portion of the community’s power needs. “There is a very high penetration of renewables on that system,” Stromberg says. “Kodiak is big enough….and shipping in and out is frequent enough that it is cheaper to get economies of scale in a community of that size,” he says.

Small Systems Offset Energy Costs

Not all wind projects are of the large-scale, commercial wind-farm generation style. Wind is being used every day in Alaska by lodges, airlines, agriculture and residents as an alternative means to offset power costs and outages. Among the leaders answering the call for technical design, installation and support is Standard Steel Inc., dba Nikiski-based Alaskan Wind Industries, a renewable energy specialty contractor offering turnkey operations for wind turbines in the 5kW and 50kW range. The company’s service spans the full project cycle, from structural steel erection, welding services, tower climbing maintenance to wind turbine installations.

The company’s financial team assists clients in finding funds and incentives to offset the cost of installing renewable energy solutions.

Recent projects have included a 30-foot wind turbine for Alaska Airlines adjacent to the Nome Terminal in 2011 and installation of a 6kW wind-diesel hybrid system at Bear Lake Lodge outside Port Moller.

Wind-Diesel Hybrid

The wind-diesel hybrid concept captures a holistic, integrated approach to energy delivery by combining two forms of available power: traditional diesel fuel and renewable wind energy. The Alaska Wind-Diesel Applications Center (WiDAC) was developed by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska, the Alaska Energy Authority, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to support deployment of cost-effective wind-diesel technologies to streamline the cost of energy delivery to Alaska’s rural towns and villages.

The center focuses on three goals: first, independent analysis and testing; second, technical support; and third, workforce development and education. In the analysis realm, the center focuses on closing the technology gaps in the wind-diesel application and also on Alaska-specific solutions to rural energy needs. Regarding technical support, the center provides Alaska towns and villages with direct information necessary to understand and design a system to address specific local needs. Finally, the center coordinates with the state and private industry to train the engineers and technicians who will work in the wind energy field.

The center accomplished an important milestone in June toward its goal of providing independent analysis and testing, with the commissioning of a new test bed—perhaps the only one of its kind in the nation, says Jason Meyer, program manager for Emerging Energy Technology at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

Various research engineers and equipment manufacturers helped commission the system, which simulates a grid in rural Alaska in small-scale. The test bed will help researchers evaluate various solutions and integrations to help Alaska towns and villages develop new energy solutions.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Meyers. “It’s not necessarily just for wind. You could simulate solar systems…any of these intermittent power sources feeding into a rural grid scenario. That’s the big, latest news.”

Toward the center’s goal of developing additional workforce opportunities and training, its Alaska Wind for Schools Program, formed in partnership with the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, is designed to pique students’ curiosity about innovations in energy technology by “bringing in schools on the Railbelt and rural Alaska and getting them excited about wind and wind energy technology,” says Meyers. R

Nicole A. Bonham Colby writes from Ketchikan.

This article first appeared in the August 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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