OPINION: What renewable energy sources will work best for Alaska?

As Alaska tackles the application of renewable energies, here’s some of what I have learned concerning electric vehicle charging station design, application of nuclear microreactors, battery energy storage systems, hydro power and others. I have advocated for long-term energy storage being necessary to ensure success for renewable resources, such as solar and wind. I continue that support even more strongly with all that I have learned in recent months.

Microreactors can be considered as long-term energy storage. Microreactors range in size from 1 MW to 10 MW. In general, they have a specified life of up to 10 years, based on operating at 100% of rating. If solar, wind, storage batteries and other renewable sources are applied effectively; the microreactor’s useful life can be extended out to 40 years. So communities can begin building their renewable resources now, in preparation for when microreactors will be available.

For mines and other large operations, multiple microreactors can be installed to provide a larger base power capacity, such as 40 MW. The amount of renewable energy sources that can be installed to produce power for the facility will determine the extended life of the microreactors on site. Australia has already begun to install solar resources at their mines. So microreactors get my vote as an acceptable long-term energy storage means, which will greatly enhance the formation of Microgrids.

For mines to succeed without constructing power lines or gas lines to provide power to the site, the equipment (fixed and rolling) at the mine must be electric-powered. This will require sizing the facility power system for the charging stations necessary to keep the equipment operating at the proper level to maintain continuous production.

The state of electric vehicles (EV) is a bit more mixed. Political pressure has pushed the production of electric vehicles out of the normal processes that the free market and innovators normally would follow, so there are necessary developments not yet made, technological problems that still need to be overcome, and durability issues which have not been allowed to be addressed and solved by sufficient time and experience.  Charging times at commercial charging stations are not nearly as short as the normal fill time for vehicles at gas stations. There are still issues with EV batteries catching on fire, but we had to overcome gasoline tanks catching on fire with rear-end collisions. EVs would fare much better if allowed to mature at a more natural pace and let gasoline and diesel vehicles continue to operate without restriction to ensure transportation through all conditions, rain or shine, snow and cold, hills or flat. 

Utilities are still reluctant to respond to questions about how long before they have criteria for battery charging stations, or even what the rates might be, as it is not clear when, how many or what size chargers might be installed. The impact on electric utilities could be substantial. There is one immediate solution. If the charging stations are set up in facilities that include built-in energy sources and energy storage sufficient to be self-sustaining (i.e. a microgrid), they can function independent of the utility until the utility finally catches up with their need.

I have been chasing hydrogen since 1980, thinking all that time that at any moment, it would become a viable energy storage method readily available to use in remote Alaska. Such is not the case. In addition to the energy to power the electrolyzers to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen in water, additional power is required to produce deionized water for input to the electrolyzers. Then there is the power needed to pump from the water source to the deionizer, and then the power necessary to compress the hydrogen for storage or for injection into processes to produce ammonia or methanol. When considering hydrogen electrolyzer sites, we must be certain that there is an adequate source of water. The Department of Energy has been focusing on large regional hubs for hydrogen production for insertion into pipelines. I more interested in small-scale hydrogen production that can be used in our remote communities for use as long-term energy storage to get them through the winters.


There is still a lot of planning to do to determine which technologies are most viable and how to incorporate them into the electric power systems as we transition to greener solutions. In the meantime, we must recognize that these technological advances will take years, so we must be sure to have an adequate supply of inexpensive fossil fuel to provide the economy and energy to build for the future.

Robert Seitz, P.E., is an electrical engineer and lifelong Alaskan.

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