What rural Alaska can teach the world about renewable energy

In remote communities, the reason behind renewables and a microgrid might surprise you

I flew into Unalakleet, Alaska, on a late fall day. With about 700 people, Unalakleet is large by rural Alaska standards and serves as a regional hub. The village is located on a sandy spit of land where a clear river meets the turbid water of the Bering Sea. Out the plane window the sun shone bright, glittering off the wind-tossed whitecaps of the sea. To the east, the rolling Nulato Hills, clad in autumn foliage. Foliage which provided a picturesque backdrop. As the small plane banked for our approach, a row of wind turbines appeared atop a ridge. Installed in 2009 they are among the numerous renewable power installations. Installations that have popped up across rural Alaska in the past decade.

Microgrids in Alaska feature_alaska_renewables_main1-760x378In more accessible parts of the planet, renewable energy is often embraced as a tool for reducing the threat of climate change and installed in spite of, rather than due to financial considerations. In Alaska, however, says Piper Foster Wilder, deputy director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or REAP, “Economics, not the environment, are driving the shift to renewables.”

That’s not to say these remote villages in Alaska aren’t dealing with environmental challenges. Of course they are. In fact, the far north is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Permafrost is melting and as the ground thaws, it causes instability beneath the foundations of buildings and oceans and rivers encroach, eroding shorelines. Coastal villages, once protected for much of the year by shore-fast sea ice, are increasingly exposed to storms and flooding as that ice recedes, even causing some communities to begin moving to safer, inland locations.

Therefore, in that big country, the distances between the few scattered communities are daunting. If power can be generated using local renewables, the up-front cost is almost always worth it.

But, in many remote Alaskan villages, the cost of electricity is the highest in the nation. That’s  reaching a wallet-emptying US$1 per kilowatt-hour in some communities (the national average is US$0.12/kWh). The price is due to the cost of hauling fossil fuels (primarily diesel) by plane or barge to these remote areas. For example, the western half of Alaska, where Unalakleet lies. It has no highways. Also, no railroad tracks, no power lines. In that big country, the distances between the few scattered communities are daunting. In conclusion, if power can be generated using local renewables, go for it. Why, because the up-front cost is almost always worth it.

“We are up to 99.7 percent renewable energy,” says Lloyd Shanley, power generation manager at Kodiak Electric Association, Inc.   Kodiak  provides electricity to the area around the town of Kodiak (population 6,400). All consequently  on Kodiak Island. That’s located off the southwestern coast of the Alaska Peninsula. The primary source of KEA’s power is an alpine lake. One that lies in the mountains above town. With a little creative engineering, KEA ran a penstock from the lake’s steep outflow stream. Thereby channeling the water into a turbine system is easier. That’s because it’s a system that contributes about 80 percent of the community’s power needs. An additional 20 percent comes from a handful of wind turbines. All on the ridges around town.

“Kodiak should be a template,” says Wilder, but that template needs an asterisk. “The town there benefits from its topography. That which allows the very successful use of small-scale hydro and wind. But every community has an abundance of some resource.”

For many villages on Alaska’s long, exposed coast, that resource is wind.

The turbines I saw from my plane window as I descended into Unalakleet have a capacity of up to 600 kilowatts of power. That’s enough to offset the consumption of tens of thousands of gallons of diesel over the course of a year. Across Alaska, similar projects are popping up. A map of renewable power projects on the REAP website shows wind turbine icons up and down the state’s coast. Also located in Gambell, Savoonga, Nome, Wales, Emmonak, Chevak and more than a dozen other villages. Villages as a result that have embraced wind-generated power. Indeed wind turbines surrounding Alaska’s villages are so common as to no longer be remarkable. What is remarkable is that these small, remote, economically challenged communities have successfully integrated renewable energy into their existing, diesel-based power grids. That’s with more success than just about anywhere else in the world. Remarkable indeed, and also a lesson to be applied elsewhere.

Every community, whether it’s an Arctic village or a small town in Bangladesh, is unique, and there are no formulaic solutions. 

Some 1.2 billion people on the planet do not currently have access to electricity. So there’s a lot of people that can learn from Alaska.

Microgrids, not large-scale power generation. It seems that will be the most effective way to provide electricity to those still unconnected. That came from Wilder. Because microgrids are essentially small power grids. Small grids customized for single communities. In the case of rural Alaska, existing generator-based grids were modified.

Modified to include renewables. However, developing a microgrid from scratch. Consequently, that makes the inclusion of renewable power sources easier.

Large, centralized systems that rely on enormous power plants. Whereas microgrids provide power to small geographic areas. Ideally, their power sources, like the wind blowing across the hills of Unalakleet or Kodiak’s alpine lake, take advantage of locally abundant renewables.

Often, when people envision expanding the use of renewables to communities in need, they think of expansive solar farms, rows of wind turbines and large-scale hydro projects, but as Wilder points out, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. While she emphasizes efficiency first, other decisions depend on the community.

“The first thing we address in a community is efficiency,” she says. “Then we work on the power grid and last consider the best sources of power.” That allows the integration of renewables. So therefore to take into account the resources and challenges. In each of the grids community.

So therefore every community, whether it’s an Arctic village or a small town in Bangladesh. Again because each community is unique. That means more importantly, there are no formulaic solutions. So whether turbines spinning in the cold wind of Alaska’s coast. Or the precipitous streams of Kodiak.  Because electric generation and delivery systems work best when they are adapted to the communities they serve.

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Written by greenlivingguy

The Green Living Guy, Seth Leitman is a green living expert, celebrity and Editor of the McGraw-Hill, TAB Green Guru Guides. Seth is also an Author, Radio Host, Reporter, Writer and a Environmental Consultant on green living. The Green Living Guy writes about green living, green lighting, the green guru guides and more. Seth's books range from: # Build Your Own Electric Vehicle by Bob Brant and Seth Leitman (2nd and 3rd editions) # Build Your Own Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle by Seth Leitman # Build Your Own Electric Motorcycle by Carl Vogel # Green Lighting by Seth Leitman, Brian Clark Howard and Bill Brinsky # Solar Power For Your Home by David Findley # Renewable Energies For Your Home by Russel Gehrke # Do-it-Yourself Home Energy Audits by David Findley # Build Your Own Small Wind Power System by Brian Clark Howard and Kevin Shea # and more green living books to follow.