Rural Alaska’s Alternative Power Solutions
Hybridizing, enhancing, supplanting diesel and wood
The Kodiak Raspberry Island Remote Lodge, which is run on a combination of hydroelectric, solar, and generator power.
Photo courtesy of Birch and Tiffany Robbins
It’s a cloudy, late-summer day on Raspberry Island. The lights are on in the big lodge nestled against the lush green hills of the Kodiak Archipelago. The tide laps softly against the curve of the beach as guests check their email, put the day’s catch in the freezer, or dry their hair after a long, hot shower.
For the past thirty years, the Robbins family has made their home on the remote island. They built the Kodiak Raspberry Island Remote Lodge with locally milled Sitka spruce and host guests “roughing it easy” in a slice of true wilderness.
The stillness is unbroken except by the sound of the wind and water and occasional cry of an eagle. The nearest community is twenty miles away, and there are no roads. There are no power plants or power lines either, but the lodge offers such luxuries as hot showers, a jetted hot tub, and wireless Internet, without the rumble of a generator in the background.
Figuring out how to provide the electricity to run the Robbins’ home, and later the lodge, is a process of constant change, upgrades, and tinkering, says Birch Robbins, who bought the lodge from his parents in 2008 and runs it with his wife, Tiffany.
Robbins grew up on the island and recalls , “We’d run the generator as needed, to run the washer and dryer, freezer, tools, and so on, then shut it down when we were done. We’d rely on kerosene or propane lanterns or 12-volt lights if we needed them and the generator was off.”
When the lodge first opened, it continued to run on generator power according to a rough schedule of daily needs, Robbins says.
“They would typically turn on the generator in the morning, around 7 a.m.,” he explains via email, since the lodge’s telephone rarely works. “Many of the cabins didn’t have light switches, so the lights would simply come on when the generator came on, insinuating that it was time to get up.”
Hybrid Power Systems
In 2004, a hydroelectric system was installed in a nearby creek, and Robbins has also added three solar panels as well as a backup diesel-powered generator, all of which charge a bank of batteries that power the lodge.
A hybrid system of power like this is not at all unusual in rural Alaska as alternative forms of power are gradually enhancing, and supplanting, the diesel-powered generators and traditional wood stoves commonly used in territorial and early statehood days.
One of the reasons for the trend is that the cost of renewables is coming down and the technology is more reliable, says Gwen Holdmann, director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power in Fairbanks.
“As the technology continues to improve and diesel prices continue to stay the same or go up, there’s considerable economic incentive to use renewables,” Holdmann says.
Unlike a generator, which can be hauled just about anywhere, renewable energy is site-specific. Figuring out how much power is needed is also key.
“Having power is one thing,” Holdmann says, “having the quality of power to run equipment or instruments is another. Solar and wind power can be kind of intermittent.”
While experimenting with solar panels, Birch Robbins has found that to be true. The panels produce about 9 amps on a sunny day, compared with the 45-60 amps produced by the lodge’s hydro system. It’s a supplemental source of energy rather than one he can base his activities on. The hydro, however, is another story.
Hydropower is a time-tested source of energy in Alaska, Holdmann says.
“Small hydropower has been used in Alaska for at least one hundred years,” she says. There are small hydro projects all over the state serving small mining camps, homes, even some larger camps. Hydro is a good source of steady baseload power, she notes.
It is the main source of power at the lodge on Raspberry Island.
“One of the biggest advantages of hydro power over generator power is that we have 24-hour electricity,” Robbins says. “Our freezers, refrigerators; everything runs as needed. People who need lights, need to charge their iPhones, rely on a CPAP machine at night—the power is there.
“And of course it’s clean; no emissions, no dirty oil changes, and so on,” he says.
As a bonus, he has configured the system to divert some of the water coming through the hydro system under pressure, filter it, and use it as the water supply for the lodge.
Robbins says their fuel costs have nearly been eliminated, although they did convert the hot tub to run on on-demand diesel. After the conversion, it takes about forty-three gallons of fuel annually, compared to the hundreds of gallons of diesel it used to take to run the generator to make the electricity to run the electric heater to heat the tub.
There are drawbacks to hydropower, however. It requires water, which renders it useless in a drought or severe cold. Filtering debris such as rocks, twigs, and spruce cones is a constant chore. It is also more expensive to set up and install.
“Our existing hydro system is ten times more expensive than our generator,” Robbins says. “Everything out here needs to move out by boat or plane, so hauling a generator out and plugging it into a fuel supply is relatively easy, compared to laying twelve hundred feet of six-foot pipe, hauling nearly five thousand pounds of batteries, inverters, alternators, charge controllers, etc., and hooking them all together to make power.”
Diesel Generators for Backup
Since hydro can’t always handle the electric load, Robbins has tied the backup generator to the computer that runs the hydro, which automatically turns the diesel generator on and off if necessary. He is continuing to tinker with the system and plans to increase the filtering capacity enough to allow him to hook up a second alternator, which Robbins hopes will give him 80 amps of power.
This is how the system ultimately works: The energy from the hydro, all 48 volt, charges four large batteries. Inverters convert the battery power to AC, and during peak usage times, such as mornings when the toaster, hair dryers, dishwasher, coffee pots, and electric heaters are in use, the batteries drain slowly. During quiet times, such as at night, the batteries fill back up. The generator kicks in to fill any gaps.
The biggest drawbacks to using a diesel generator are the fuel costs as well as the noise and smell of exhaust, although newer generators are quieter and less polluting than earlier models, Robbins says.
And while renewable energy makes sense for some remote locations, generators will likely always be necessary, if only for backup power. Different fuel options, such as natural gas or propane, may become more accessible in the future, Holdmann says, but diesel fuel likely will always have a place in the power array.
“There’s a really good reason why diesel fuel is so popular,” she says. “There’s a lot of densely stored energy, a lot of BTUs in a barrel of fuel. It’s a compact way to move energy to a location and then use it on site.”
Shipping out the barrels in which the fuel comes is another wrinkle, and one of the reasons many older resource exploration sites and communities in Alaska have sprouted plots of abandoned, rusting barrels. That happens less often today.
“I think people are becoming a lot more aware of the environmental conditions,” Holdmann says. “That’s not quite as accepted today as it was fifty years ago.”
Art Nash Jr., energy specialist for the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, shows a commercially produced Kelly Kettle, used to boil water quickly in a camp setting, as well as homemade fire logs and a 2x6 “stove.”
Urban Innovations for Remote Power
Innovative ways to create power aren’t just for rural areas.
Art Nash Jr., energy specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension, was trying to find a shortcut through a neighborhood behind the Sears store in Fairbanks a few months ago, when he saw what he thought was a parabolic hot water heater on the roof of a house.
It was. Nash stopped, knocked on the door, and introduced himself.
Nash is fascinated by the tinkerers he comes across in his search for alternative ways to produce energy in remote places. He has met people who have made rocket stoves out of stovepipe; a one-time-use “stove” made out of pieces of 2x6 lumber and aluminum; someone who makes homemade fire logs out of cardboard; and a man who has created a mobile renewable energy cart that can harness solar, wind, and hydropower.
Nash explains how his fascination came about: “My grandpa used to take this and that and twist it this way and come up with one of them.”
Nash teams up with Dave Pelunis-Messier of Tanana Chiefs Conference giving workshops on remote energy projects. The first thing he does is to ask the audience to think through what they need energy for and when they need it. What kind of fuel do they plan to use? How will they get it there? And, how much will it cost?
Energy efficiency is important in rural Alaska. For instance, if you keep two 60-watt light bulbs on continuously for a year in Fairbanks, the energy cost will tally about $230. Try that in a village off the road system and the cost will more than quadruple.
Instead of electricity, a DC windmill could power a 12-volt freezer. Propane can be used to run a refrigerator, a stove, or an on-demand hot water heater.
“In general, if you get a generator, the BTUs you’re burning are giving you about 30 percent efficiency, up to about 40 percent,” Nash says. “Burning fuel to make electricity isn’t very efficient.”
If all you need to do is heat water for tea, commercial and handmade rocket stoves are a convenient way to boil water using readily available biomass such as twigs and small branches, he says.
Sometimes, the simplest of designs makes the most sense. Nash tells the story of Larry Dunn, a teacher in western Alaska who got tired of watching the kids carry bulky propane grills on campouts, when all they needed was a small fire to heat water or warm a pot of soup.
He took a piece of 2x6 lumber, cut it into about eight-inch lengths, and fashioned the wood into a hollow chimney on a sturdy base with a small hole on one side. He wrapped it in tinfoil, stuffed the inside with paper, lit it on fire, and found he had a portable stove, more than enough to boil water. When the cooking was done, all that was left was the foil, which was then wadded up and packed out.
Wind turbines are popping up all over Alaska, including large wind farms such as Fire Island in Anchorage and Eva Creek in Healy, but small-scale turbines can produce enough energy for a household, provided there’s wind. Even then, measures must be taken to keep from overloading the circuits on excessively windy days and storing energy for calm days.
Even a passive solar heater, if designed correctly, can provide enough heat to warm a room. Nash points to one “squirrel heater” design by Lakota Enterprises that collects heat and directs it into the ground under a cabin where it radiates up into the building.
For more complex needs, Dayne Ellanna has it covered. Ellanna and his students in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College’s Process Technology Program built a cart that can take solar, wind, or hydro energy and store it in a bank of batteries. The cart is portable—it has a trailer hitch and can be towed to a site by a four-wheeler. He made sure it has good clearance for rugged trails and the batteries and instruments are well-padded and well-insulated.
At the end of the season, Ellanna says, the cart can be towed back to town and hooked up to a house circuit, where it could supply enough energy to run the lights or a 2,000-watt heater.
Nash is constantly amazed by what Alaskans come up with, but he’s not surprised.
Tinkerers abound in Alaska, where the focus is more on what will work than on preconceived notions of what should work.
“You’ve got guys up here who you can give them an arc welder and a paper clip and ask them to make either an ashtray or a carburetor, and they can do it,” he says.
Julie Stricker is a writer living near Fairbanks.