Remote regions of the world such as Alaska, once viewed as disadvantaged due to a lack of conventional grid infrastructure, have proven to be fertile ground for sustainable energy innovation. This innovation flows from challenges associated with providing reliable electricity without the benefit of traditional transmission and distribution systems.
Alaska is home to many paradoxes. It is a region of harsh climate and extreme cold, but it is also a global hotspot for microgrids. Alaska has long been a pioneer in deploying high penetration renewable energy microgrids. These microgrid systems — some in continual operation for close to a century — built the business case for renewable energy integration well before the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, moved in this direction. When measured in terms of installed capacity, Alaska ranks No. 1 in the U.S. as of 2021, with more than 3,500 MW installed, according to Guidehouse Insights.
The majority of citizens, businesses and institutions in Alaska are currently served by some form of microgrid, with some of the largest systems nested into the Railbelt grid, the state’s only major transmission system. Unlike the rest of the U.S., where the majority of microgrids interconnect with a traditional power grid, most microgrids serving communities in Alaska are remote power systems quite similar to microgrids now being deployed throughout Africa, the Asia Pacific and Latin America. The lack of traditional grid infrastructure in Alaska has forced this state to come up with solutions that not only address harsh climatic conditions, but which seek to displace products that once fueled the entire economy. I’m talking about oil, natural gas and other hydrocarbons.
Still, the largest microgrids serving military bases and university campuses on the Railbelt grid rely primarily on natural gas generation. So, they are lagging behind the much smaller community-based systems in terms of reducing carbon emissions operating in more isolated sites. Therefore the Railbelt grid, as well as the continental grid, are now looking for lessons learned in places such as Cordova, which hosts the Isolated Power Systems (IPS) Connect conference the last week of July, and relies upon its own microgrid.
Microgrids in Alaska boast the greatest diversity of renewables than any other state or nation. Wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and soon tidal and river hydrokinetic technologies may all being integrated into microgrids large and small. Solar is perhaps the most surprising, given the myth that this – the most popular of all renewable options – does not work here due to the dark and long winter days without sunlight. The flipside is that in spring and summer, the sun hardly sets. As we fight climate change, all low and non-carbon resources need to be explored.
Most microgrids in Alaska are operated by utilities – more than 100 – each serving a relatively small population. This stands in contrast to the continental U.S., where most microgrids are deployed by the private sector. Cooperative utilities are the predominant model in Alaska, too, again a feature which aligns with much of the world’s utility structures leaning toward non-profit and government entities.
In the final analysis, Alaska has much to teach the rest of the world about energy innovation with systems such as microgrids. Yet Alaska can also learn from Hawaii, Australia, Puerto Rico and many other locations globally rising up to find solutions to the need for affordable, sustainable and resilient energy. The IPS Connect conference sets the stage for international cooperation, needed now more than ever in the face of rising costs for fossil fuels and increased climate risk.
Peter Asmus is Executive Director of the Alaska Microgrid Group. He has more than 30 years of experience reporting on energy trends.
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