KOTZEBUE - The electricity supply coming from Kotzebue's wind farm is maxed out because wind, by its very nature, is variable, even in the Arctic blast of Northwest Alaska. Twenty percent of Kotzebue's electricity comes from the 19 wind turbines managed by Kotzebue Electric Association on the outskirts of the village. The other 80% comes from giant diesel generators in the middle of town.
"Kotzebue, though fairly big for remote Alaska, is still a pretty small community. So from a small community standpoint I think they're doing awesome with 20%," said National Renewable Energy Laboratory Engineer Sherry Stout. "It'd be great to see them go higher but I think 20% is pretty great. And again, they're remote. You're not going to get these huge wind turbines that we have in the lower 48 into remote Alaska just from a transportation standpoint."
Transportation and installation costs aside, achieving a higher percentage of renewable energy on wind alone would be difficult for KEA. When the wind dies down, the power demands of the city almost certainly don't. That means the generators need to kick on in order to fill the sudden void. The more power coming from wind means the more power that's not available when the wind suddenly goes away. The diesel generators would need to work harder, or they might not be able to keep up at all.
It's an inefficient process. KEA needs other renewable power sources to effectively get above 20%. They are in the process of installing an Organic Rankine Cycle clean generator, a system that converts heat from diesel exhaust to electricity.
With President Obama's announcement in Kotzebue last week that federal support might be available to communities that develop creative energy solutions, KEA perked up. They're already planning new sustainable systems using solar, heat exchange and batteries. Now they hope the renewed interest in clean energy in Alaska will put their region in position to receive federal help that will drive energy costs down for their customers.