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  6.  | Feds Pump $9.5M into River Energy Research for Galena

Feds Pump $9.5M into River Energy Research for Galena

Mar 4, 2024 | Energy, News, Science

A research barge at the Tanana River Test Site near Nenana points upstream in 2023. Testing of prototypes at the site helps technology developers create systems that are ready for pilot deployments, like the one being studied for Galena.

Ben Loeffler

The UAF Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) and the nonprofit Sustainable Energy for Galena Alaska (SEGA) recently received a $9.5 million grant from the US Department of Energy they will use to explore whether in-river turbines can provide electricity to the community.

River-run Turbines for Rural Alaska

The project will focus on hydrokinetic technologies, which use energy generated from the natural movement of water.

Galena, off the road system and 270 miles west of Fairbanks, is served by a local microgrid that uses diesel-powered generators. Reliable hydrokinetic turbines could allow the diesel generators to be turned off during ice-free months.

River energy is potentially more stable than wind and solar because the river runs constantly through the summer. It also would require a much smaller energy storage system than solar and wind would.

With no need to build an expensive dam, energy generated by hydrokinetic turbines is potentially less costly for the community. The river, when running, could provide 10 to 100 times more energy than the community needs.

“What is special about this project is that we will work with the community throughout the process,” says ACEP’s Ben Loeffler, the principal investigator of the research project.

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The community’s input will help answer questions such as where turbines should be placed, whether maintenance could be easily managed locally and which technologies would be best.

“Integration of locally managed renewable fuel sources is critical to the energy security of rural and remote microgrid communities like Galena,” says Tim Kalke, the general manager of SEGA.

“The big goal of this project is to see what a community can accomplish with its engagement and decision-making together with funds and technology expertise,” says Loeffler.

ACEP will offer preliminary work to characterize the sites, such as measuring velocities of river currents, mapping the river bottom and working on ways to connect to the grid.

For more than ten years, ACEP has been learning about obstacles to harnessing river energy in Alaska, such as debris, turbidity, turbulence, and effects on fish. The team will use its knowledge to help Galena evaluate the technologies.

“This is an exciting opportunity to better understand the challenges and barriers of harnessing energy from the Yukon River,” notes Kalke. “Successful implementation can also serve as a form of economic development that contributes to the community’s well-being.”

The project may help accelerate the development of hydrokinetic technologies, which are relatively new, compared to solar and wind technologies. In the Southwest village of Igiugig, a ten-year test of a 43-foot-wide turbine in the Kvichak River has been underway since 2019. The developer, Ocean Renewable Power Corporation, also plans to explore tidal power in Cook Inlet.

If the Galena project is successful, the team hopes to scale up and replicate such work among Alaska’s more than ninety communities with microgrids on or near rivers.

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The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

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