Islands of Power
Putting renewable energy sources in place
Renewable energy projects, especially solar, operate at scales of much larger magnitude in the Lower 48 than in Alaska. But size isn’t everything, and there has been a strong uptick in the development of renewable energy projects in the Alaska since 2008.
“What makes Alaska’s brand of renewable energy projects particularly interesting and unique is that they are all operating within islanded electrical grids, most of which are very small,” explains Katie Conway, government relations, outreach, and efficiency manager for the Alaska Energy Authority. The Alaska Energy Authority works to reduce the costs of energy through projects, programs, and initiatives that identify and implement energy solutions unique to the state’s communities.
“Alaska is now recognized as a world leader in the development, installation, and operation of small, integrated microgrids, as well as for the innovation, collaboration, and tenacious persistence behind them,” Conway says.
The significant increase in renewable energy projects in the state is largely due to the Renewable Energy Fund (REF) grant program, which has seen eight rounds of funding over the last ten years.
“The state has invested nearly $260 million in renewable energy projects… through the REF, which was leveraged or matched by hundreds of millions of federal and private dollars that, combined, jumpstarted a renewable energy industry in Alaska. More than seventy REF-related renewable energy projects are now operational throughout the state,” Conway says.
In many ways, high energy costs in Alaska establish a landscape for energy innovation, notes Chris Rose, founder and executive director of Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), which played a key role in the creation of REF and the Emerging Energy Technology Fund.
“Senator [Lisa] Murkowski is saying the same thing that many of us are, which is that Alaska is a natural laboratory for energy innovation, and in part it’s because we have very high energy prices that allow for experimentation with new technology, even though many of these technologies are quite mature,” Rose says. “The experimentation is really in integrating them onto a diesel grid.”
Solar in Hughes
The Hughes Village project, a joint effort between the Hughes Tribal Council, the City of Hughes, and Tanana Chiefs Conference, is doing exactly that in order to reduce the isolated community’s 100 percent reliance on imported diesel fuel.
“Due to the remote location of the Alaska Native Village of Hughes, Alaska, the community relies upon air and boat transit for every non-harvested commodity they have; the costs of this transportation frames their dependence on fossil fuels,” the project website states.
The village originally considered tapping into wind resources, as it is one of only a few Interior communities with the potential to do so. However, a wind study revealed that transmission of electricity from a wind farm to the village could costs millions of dollars.
Instead, a solar project was initiated in 2016 and is on schedule to install a 100 to 150 kilowatt (kW) solar photovoltaic (PV) array in conjunction with a lithium ion battery bank on the village’s electrical distribution system.
“The system is based off of some similar systems which are in place using lead-acid batteries and solar PV panels and a diesel generator on islands off of the coast of New England,” says Dave Pelunis-Messier, the rural energy coordinator for the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Though the original goal was to offset “at least 30 percent of annual diesel consumption” of the village with the integrated system, expectations have been reeled in to about 25 percent, Pelunis-Messier says.
“We determined that the 30 percent was a little ambitious, and it’s more likely, through the modeling that we’ve done, that they use roughly 40,000 gallons of diesel a year and this will save them 10,000 gallons of diesel a year,” he says.
Further funding was procured through the Community Development Block Grant to upgrade the village to a three-phase system after realizing that the in-place, single-phase electrical distribution system (comparable to a residential line branching from a main power line to an urbanite’s home) was going to present a balancing issue for the integrated system. The unexpected hiccup has led to funders extending the project’s deadline by another year. Nonetheless, Pelunis-Messier says the team is still working hard to have everything turned on by next summer.
“On an industrial scale, you typically want to put in three-phase pumps. The pumps work less hard and it's more balanced,” Pelunis-Messier says. “So that is going to help spread the load in the community out across all three phases, and it’s going to make it much easier to integrate solar and battery into the community.”
In June, as the solar panels and racking landed on the beach after a roughly 800-mile barge ride, the final touches were being put on the three-phase system in the village.
The integrated system has been mostly funded through a $623,900 grant from the Department of Energy, and, when in place, will be a giant step forward for the community as it strives to hit its goal of 60 percent renewable energy by 2025.
Range of Renewable Projects
It is the “island” nature of many of the renewable energy projects in the 49th State that pose challenges to communities wanting to tap into intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar.
“Unlike larger grids, in these small, isolated systems, it is not possible to import and export power to balance the supply and demand of electrons,” Conway says. “These small, isolated electrical utilities need to be able to provide the exact amount of power that is demanded at any given time, which, in small systems, means the integration of intermittent renewables [such as wind or solar] must be managed very carefully.”
The Hughes Village solar project is just one of a number of community-sized renewable energy projects underway in the state.
“If it was installed today, I think it would probably be the largest. But by the time ours turns on, it will not be the largest,” Pelunis-Messier says, noting that Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA), Homer Electric Association (HEA), and Chugach Electric Association are all developing 500 kW projects.
The GVEA solar project, a 563 kW solar PV system, is set to be online by October, confirmed project manager Nathan Minnema. The installed price will be about $1.90/watt.
“GVEA is actively working on revising its renewable energy and emission goals. Right now GVEA’s goal is 20 percent renewable power, which is 20 percent of our peak load, which is accomplished through Eva Creek Wind, Bradley Hydro, GVEA’s SNAP program, and smaller wind IPPs [Independent Power Producers],” Minnema writes.
Though further away from completion, the Chugach Community Solar Project is on track to install an approximately 500 kW project. The project is under review by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska (RCA), which has until December to issue a final order.
“Subscriptions will become available after RCA approval. Financing options have been initiated, but no commitments have been made until RCA approval is issued,” Chugach Electric spokesperson Julie Hasquet says. “Members can choose to pay a little extra and receive renewable energy at their home or business. This is a proactive way to reduce the family or business carbon footprint.”
The sustainability resolution passed by the Chugach Board of Directors in early 2017 is part of the association’s commitment to “long-term, sustainable energy resources.”
Even larger than the GVEA and Chugach projects is one being considered by HEA, which is reviewing the possibility of installing a 975 kW capacity solar system. However, the HEA project ground to a halt after the cooperative’s eight directors were split in March on a vote to award a contract for its construction. An unfilled seat, which could eventually offer a tie-breaking vote, was filled in May.
“The problem with Alaska is we’re so far north, the space required really stretches out,” HEA Director of Power, Fuels, and Dispatch Larry Jorgensen explained last year. “The sun is so low on the horizon, you’ve got to space [the panels] quite a ways apart… It does make for an efficiency use factor.”
At the meeting, where all directors supported the move for increased renewable energy, some of them were concerned with what they saw as a lack of a clear financial structure. The association’s goal is to reach 18 percent renewable power by 2022. At this point, its renewable power comes from Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Plant, which provides about 10 percent of the community’s energy needs.
“Like the communities in which they’re deployed, the size of renewable energy projects in Alaska is wide ranging. On the smaller end of the spectrum are projects on the order of 10 kilowatts such as those in Eagle (population 86) and Perryville (population 113). At the other end of the spectrum are large, multi-megawatt projects like Snettisham hydro in Juneau and Bradley Lake hydro in the Railbelt. In the middle are numerous projects on the order of 100s of kilowatts all over the state, in communities of all sizes,” Conway says.
In fact, the Alaska has more microgrids than anywhere else in the nation, he says.
“Our small communities are innovators in the development and maintenance of small integrated power systems. Even with declining grant funding, Alaska communities are seeking ways to generate energy that is clean and affordable,” Conway says. “Once a community has affordable energy, the opportunities that become available for community sustainability are endless. Food production is an example. The Arctic growing season can be expanded with affordable heat and electricity supplying a greenhouse.”
However, the state’s renewable energy projects don’t stop with power production. Because upwards of 80 percent of some rural Alaska community energy costs go toward heat, there is a strong incentive to bring local, more cost-effective, and often renewable energy online as an alternative to the high cost diesel conventionally used for space heat in buildings, Conway notes.
“These alternatives include biomass, recovered heat from diesel power generation piped directly into buildings, air source and ground source heat pumps, and geothermal energy. All of these types of projects can range in size from residential scale to large industrial users like fish processing facilities or water treatment plants,” she says.
Because necessity is the mother of invention, there should be no surprise that isolated, rural communities, supported by REAP, the Alaska Energy Authority, and other groups are finding ways to better integrate renewable resources into their power grids, weaning themselves off the high costs associated with transporting fossil fuels.
Though Alaska projects will likely never compete with major solar plants in the Lower 48—such as the Solar Star project and the Topaz Solar Farm, both in California—they don’t need to. The state’s unique environment offers other opportunities to harness the power of renewable resources to bring power and heat to its communities.
Isaac Stone Simonelli is a freelance journalist and former managing editor for the Phuket Gazette.