To achieve the goal of 100 percent renewable energy, we need to develop long-term energy storage while we still have hydrocarbon fuels -- and we need to do this together, all of us.
Subsequent to the climate change meetings in Paris, there have been a number of news articles and commentaries addressing various aspects of energy and covering a variety of topics and points of view: Utilities' reluctance to support independent producers; coal and oil being bad and should be severely limited right now; and the need to arrive at a high percentage of renewable energy production soon.
Striving for clean energy is good, but so far we are attempting to do so without an overall plan and consideration for all the parts of the electrical power system.
To achieve a high percentage of renewable energy, all parties will have to work together to develop a real long-term energy policy. This applies to the state of Alaska and the rest of the nation. By all parties I mean the oil and gas producers, coal producers, environmental groups (all who are for elimination of hydrocarbon fuels and all who want renewable energy), utilities, independent power producers, manufacturers, government agencies, politicians and the engineering societies.
Before we shut off our hydrocarbon fuel supply and cheap electricity, we need to develop long-term energy storage means and mechanisms while we can still afford the development costs. This needs to become the focus of our long-term energy policy. Our power systems need to be looked at as systems, and not just as collection sources tied to the utility. Electrical engineers deal with systems and need to be a part of the team.
I am an electrical engineer and a lifelong Alaskan, and have been an advocate for renewable energy for more than 40 years. It was obvious back then that long-term energy storage would be necessary for the ultimate success of wind, solar and other renewable sources -- storage to capture solar and wind power when they're abundant, and release when needed. Long-term storage, at least 6 months, would be needed to save summer energy for the dark and cold winter.
Kodiak has success with their wind power because of hydropower, a form of long-term energy storage. Kodiak also has flywheel energy storage for the short term to provide stability to the system. Energy storage is the reason for success there.
Copper Valley Electric Association will increase their hydropower generation so that in the summer they will not have to rely upon liquid hydrocarbon fuel. Because the availability of water in the winter is considerably reduced, hydropower is not a winter option, and most of their power will be from hydrocarbon-fueled turbine generators. There is some solar power electrical generation all year long, but not nearly enough to greatly affect the system. Additional energy storage is required to eliminate the need for winter fuel.
Batteries are one electrical energy storage means that has been available for a long time, but are more for short-term applications and are complex and expensive. Not all locations have hydropower, and in Alaska few places can depend on their hydropower in winter. The success of alternate energy in Europe is supported by the energy storage of the hydropower of Norway. Energy storage for Europe and Kodiak is easily solved, but long-term energy storage for remote Alaska, or even the Railbelt, must be something besides hydropower.
A real energy policy for Alaska and for the nation must encourage development of a variety of long-term energy storage methods, advocate upgrade of the utilities to accommodate the distributed resources (from renewable energy), and ensure compatibility of many distributed resources with the existing utility systems. There are actual problems associated with the incorporation of wind and solar power into the electric power system (the utility), which must be worked out before renewable energy has a real chance to succeed. So let's spend hydrocarbon energy to find our freedom from it and let us all work together to find the way.
Robert L. Seitz, PE, is current chair of Alaska Section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
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