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Making wind power pencil out in far-flung Alaska villages

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
A wind power project under construction in Kwigillingok, a village in western Alaska.
Courtesy Intelligent Energy Systems
A wind power project under construction in Kwigillingok, a village in western Alaska.
Courtesy Intelligent Energy Systems
A wind power project under construction in Kwigillingok, a village in western Alaska.
Courtesy Intelligent Energy Systems
Construction workers discussing plans for a wind power project in Kwigillingok, a village in western Alaska.
Courtesy Intelligent Energy Systems
A wind power project under construction in Kwigillingok, a village in western Alaska.
Courtesy Intelligent Energy Systems
A wind power project under construction in Kwigillingok, a village in western Alaska.
Courtesy Intelligent Energy Systems
A wind power project under construction in Kwigillingok, a village in western Alaska.
Courtesy Intelligent Energy Systems

As wind turbines grace the skylines of more and more communities around the globe, some Alaskans are starting to look seriously at what the future for wind power looks like in the northernmost state. For many Alaskans, solutions to the high and rising cost of energy can't come soon enough - be it by wind, tide, geothermal or otherwise.

Bruce Wright is a senior scientist for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. He recently released a paper outlining a few ways Alaskan communities and leaders can streamline the air power potential in rural Alaska. More than 120 of Alaska's small communities operate on independent micro-grids, Write reported, using fewer than 200 kilowatts at peak capacity.

The sophisticated equipment needed to offset diesel costs in these communities is complex and expensive, Wright said, making the risk of investment and potential blackouts a marked downside.

Hybrid systems best

Making these upgrades may also put a community at risk of losing power cost equalization funds -- a state subsidy to local diesel utilities. Other issues crop up, such as utility customers going off the grid in favor of their own systems, or the uncertainty of the wind itself.

"The variability in wind, the associated integration problems and the need to lower energy costs in remote communities beg for a better use of fickle wind-energy resources," Wright said.

He backs hybrid systems with energy storage, which, he said, offer greater stability and a higher volume of renewable energy.

"Such storage can be in several forms including hot water and electrical storage," Wright said. "In Alaska, some hybrid systems using wind and hydro along with diesel are seeing great success -- such as on Kodiak Island."

Electric Energy Storage (EES) systems are relatively young in the wind energy realm, Wright said, but can make a difference in reliability and cost effectiveness. Those two factors are a big deal to small Alaska   communities.

Kokhanok is one of Alaska's micro-grid communities. The village of 200 uses two reconditioned turbines that can produce 90 kilowatts each, and utilizes battery banks to store energy. "The integration of these various system components is still ongoing," Wright said, "and not yet perfected."

An effort to generate better engineering for such systems is one of the first improvements Alaska needs to make in order to reach reduce diesel consumption, Wright said.

Batteries not only option

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of these systems, there are a lot of important choices to make - and they all add up. For example the batteries, used to store excess energy during times of high production, are expensive to purchase and ship. While lead-acid batteries are cheaper up front, lithium batteries last longer.

But batteries aren't the only option for an efficient hybrid system, Wright said.

"Another solution is to use the wind energy in real-time to help offset the primary energy use in most Alaska villages, that of space heating," Wright reports. "The Alaska Energy Authority has determined that about 55 percent of the energy used in Alaska villages is for heating homes and buildings. Using wind energy for space heating and heating domestic hot water can reduce integration and efficiency challenges associated with hybrid electrical systems and storage, especially in high-penetration systems."

High-penetration systems are those able to offset a high diesel energy costs.

Wright offers a number of ways to absorb this energy into homes and community buildings, such as heating insulated floors or concrete slabs with hot water or resistance coils. Heated floors are a good pick for cold climate homes, he said.

"The mass acts like a heat storage device that can release its stored heat to the building even when the wind turbine is not producing energy," Wright said. "High electrical integration and storage costs can be avoided by direct conversion to heat and thermal mass instead of just electricity for the grid."

Collaborate with Russia?

Government facilities in King Salmon and Cold Bay use wind to power thermal hybrid systems. Both locations have a consistent wind resource, Wright said, and operate efficiently between the electric utility, wind generation and thermal storage.

"In the typical Alaska village, ...  the electric utility must continue to supply energy regardless of wind speed and wind energy contribution," Wright said. "Here, the wind generator(s) run in constant parallel with the utility, which serves to reduce the electric load at the facility."

Lastly, Wright proposes that Alaska pursue collaboration with other countries developing their wind power - namely Russia.

Russia has a staggering 100,000 villages. The Russian National Electric Utility deemed 17 of its 89 regions particularly suited for wind power. One particular village, Nikoskoye in the Kamchatka region, operates successfully on a diesel-wind hybrid system, offsetting as much as 40 percent of diesel fuel costs.

Programs like that one were the focus of a Russia-U.S. energy collaboration in the late 90s.

"The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) supplied technical assistance to the project and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), provided funding for the equipment and supplies," Wright said. "It may be time to re-establish a US-Russia wind energy program."

This article first appeared The Bristol Bay Times. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch@reportalaska.com.