Oil prices are still low, at least compared with three years ago, but Alaskans are pressing ahead with renewable energy projects to reduce dependence on fuel oil for power generation and, in some cases, space heating.

Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, which operates small utilities in 56 rural villages, has been aggressive in building wind generation and, more recently, linking projects to boilers and hot water loops to use surplus wind power for space heating.

AVEC now has 11 wind projects, operating 34 turbines, that serve 15 villages. Some communities connect with interties, so that one wind project serves two or more communities, according to Forrest Button, AVEC’s manager for project development. The co-op is now investing in more wind capacity: in Bethel in 2018 and St. Mary in 2019, and in 2020 at St. Michael and Stebbins, where one project will serve both villages, Button told Commonwealth North, an Anchorage-based business group, in a briefing on renewable energy.

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The fuel savings in Bethel is estimated at 200,000 gallons per year of diesel, he said. The four communities are among the 56 served by AVEC.

A technological challenge in rural Alaska is that communities are very small. Some are in places with strong winds, such as Gambell and Shaktoolik in western Alaska, which are on coasts. Wind now provides 34 percent of Gambell’s electricity and 36.6 percent of Shaktoolik’s power, Button told the RDC.

Other rural communities are in places with little wind but with local biomass resources, usually wood. Solar power is possible on a small scale in the summer, when days are long, and even during spring when reflection off snow supplements power from the sun as the days lengthen.

Wood is being used to heat schools in Tok and Delta, in eastern Interior Alaska, and at Tanana, west of Fairbanks, villagers harvest drift logs from the Yukon River to fuel boilers that heat local community buildings with hot water loops. Wood is also being used to heat community buildings at Minto, a small village northwest of Fairbanks, and a new wood/hot water system in being installed at Fort Yukon.

“One advantage of wood is that it has created some local jobs,” Dave Messier, rural energy coordinator for Tanana Chiefs Conference, told the Commonwealth North group. Tanana Chiefs is a regional tribal support organization that provides technical support to tribes in Interior Alaska.

Some improvements in villages are relatively small-scale, Messier said. At Huslia, on the Koyukuk River northwest of Fairbanks, installation of efficient LED lighting is saving 8,000 gallons of diesel per year and cutting local electric bills by $30 a month to $40 a month, he said. “That’s enough that people are beginning to notice it,” Messier said.

The small size of power grid in a village presents another problem. Wind generation often exceeds the needs of a small local grid, and utility managers must be careful, typically taking turbines off line when there are strong winds.  A burst of wind can easily upset the system and cause a blackout.   

To deal with this, rural utility managers have gotten creative, for example using surplus wind to heat water for community buildings as a way of using the energy, Button said. AVEC now has five wind projects linked to community hot water systems.  

AVEC and other rural utility operators have also had to adapt turbines and other equipment made by manufacturers who typically serve customers with larger systems, and although experiments with wind power have been underway for many years, it took time, and investment, to adapt the turbines to Arctic conditions.

AVEC, along with Kotzebue Electric Association in northwest Alaska, have been leaders in this, but a major statewide initiative got underway in 2008 when the state Legislature created the Renewable Energy Fund and appropriated $250 million for state-matching grants.

Since then, 75 rural renewable energy projects, mostly in small rural communities, have been built and are now operating, according to the Alaska Energy Authority, which administers the REF grants. Those that are now operating save about 30 million gallons of diesel per year, AEA said. About 20 more projects are in the development phase and will be coming on line in the next few years.

All this has cost money. Since 2008, the state’s Renewable Energy Fund, or REF, which provides grants for qualified projects, has invested $259 million in state funds for these projects, according to Cady Lister, chief economist for the state energy authority.

This was matched by $140 million in required local contributions, Lister said.

The $140 million local share is actually conservative because that is only the required match that AEA tracks. Many communities contributed more, but that is not in AEA’s total. Lister was included in the briefing for Commonwealth North on renewable energy.

The state can no longer fund the REF program but planning and design started on many projects began when there was money, and many, in addition to those now operating, are nearing completion.

Most of the projects constructed in the REF’s early years are wind, because those can be designed and built relatively quickly. Hydro projects, even small and medium-sized which the REF helped, are still capital-intensive compared with wind and take longer to permit. Several of those are now being completed.

One recent hydro project is at King Cove, a coastal community southwest of Anchorage. King Cove brought on its first hydro project, at Delta Creek, 22 years ago, and that has met 50 percent of the city’s power needs, King Cove’s city manager, Gary Hennigh, said in an interview.

Now a second hydro facility began operating last May, at Waterfall Creek, which will increase the percentage of electricity supplied from renewable sources to 75 percent, Hennigh said.

Delta Creek alone has saved King Cove residents about $1,000 a year in their energy costs, he said.

Kodiak and Cordova are other coastal communities where hydro provides big offsets to traditional diesel-generation, in Kodiak’s case by about 90 percent.

One advantage of hydro over other renewable energy forms is that it is dependable as long as there is a steady flow of water, unlike wind or solar, where the power generation drops if the wind stops blowing or clouds block the sun.

Renewable energy developers have long sought ways to store power, so that it can be switched on if, for example, the wind dies down.

Backup diesel generation can be cranked up but that takes a short time, which risks destabilizing a small local grid. Plus, the diesel engines kept on standby are still running and using fuel, although at a reduced rate.

Batteries can provide quick and temporary backup, but batteries are expensive and create handling problems and environmental risks because of chemicals used. Because of these problems there are just a handful of battery backup systems among Alaska’s utilities, mostly in larger communities.

For smaller communities, AVEC is now working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Center for Power and Energy and the U.S. Office of Naval Research new solutions, including “microgrid” technology that could provide quick power backup without the problems presented by batteries.

Gwen Holmann, ACEP’s director, said the current effort is focused on the use of capacitors, which can store power and release it very quickly, even faster than batteries, and can be packaged in ways that avoid most of the problems associated with batteries.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Office of Naval Research is helping fund the research by ACEP. The effort won’t involve new technology as much as new ways of packaging existing off-the-shelf components, Holmann said.

There are many places where fast-response power backup is needed, but the emphasis has always been on reliability and less on economics. “In Alaska, we have to move beyond that. This project is all about making these systems affordable too,” which is a different emphasis,” she said.

AVEC is working with the university on having St. Mary’s be a first test case, with its planned wind project. A field test for a prototype is expected in the next two to three years, Holmann said. “We’re still at the data-gathering stage. The next step would be testing in the lab. What we’re aiming for is a system that a small utility can just plug in,” she said.

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