The Difficulties of Renewable Energy in Alaskan Villages

**I lost most of my formatting while copying and pasting my essay in here. Please excuse the mess. Thank you for reading it, I would appreciate a comment at the end. I did receive an A on this essay.** ©Sonya Andreanoff 2009

 

Many families who live in Alaskan villages might have to make a choice that they shouldn’t have to make. Should they heat their homes or should they feed their children? Jobs are few and far between and, quite often, are seasonal. This makes income sporadic and household budgets difficult to manage. Many families will have to make the difficult choice of moving into a city to seek work, bringing with them the hope that they can finally feed their children.

Cultures are being lost or pushed aside in the desperate search for a way to support the family, and sometimes the entire village might need help. More often than not, these searches end up disastrous. Families could end up homeless or forced to live with relatives. It’s not just the polar bears and arctic ice that are endangered, entire native cultures and their economies are on the endangered list too.

The solution, many believe, is to make each village self-sustainable. The best way to achieve a self-sustainable community is through renewable energy. If the village, or community, could become more self sufficient, this would not only help them with their economy; it would also give them pride in themselves and their accomplishments. In Rob Hopkins’ book, The Transition Handbook, he correctly states that “At the end of the day, oil and gas are finite resources.” (Hopkins, 2008) This means that oil has a beginning and an end, and someday, it will end. Fuel is now, and will continue to be, a costly way for residents to heat their homes. The cost is just part of the story, but it’s a part that needs to be renovated.

Renewable energy is the preferred method of making a village more self-reliant, however it is not always so cut and dry. ‘Renewable energy’ means energy that is produced from clean, naturally replenished resources, with the sources for this energy coming from wind, hydropower, solar, biomass, ocean, and geothermal. Providing this sort of energy in remote village locations can be expensive and logistically challenging. There are a number of difficulties that must first be addressed when deciding to install a renewable energy in a village. So, what are the difficulties of renewable energy in Alaskan villages? An understanding of what renewable energy is, and what the choices are, must first be made. The villages must also consider its location and what resources are available.

Testing and Communication

Once a choice is made, the next step in the process is to start the testing phase so that the results can be used for grant writing. The Alaska Energy Authority, or AEA, has a program to loan an anemometer, data logging equipment, and technical support to villages so they can test the wind levels to see if they have a wind resource. Villages living on or near a river, waterfall, or the ocean will need to test to make sure that what they wish to install will not be detrimental to spawning fish. There are many tests that could, and should, be done so that all needed information is available. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA, 2007) and Fish & Game (Interior, 2003) will need to run their tests also, as the village will need to have the necessary permits to run the equipment.

Once the testing is completed, the grant writing process will begin. The village will want to make sure that they receive sufficient funding to complete the project. The way that grant writing works is that the more remote or far out a village is the more likely it will receive the grant. In a November 3, 2009 interview with Gary Kessinger, former General Manager of the Middle Kuskokwim Electric Cooperative, or MKEC, he said that “part of the problem is that utilities themselves cannot apply for the grants, only village entities and companies like AVEC can apply.” The Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, or AVEC, is a non-profit electric utility that currently serves 53 villages throughout interior and western Alaska.

This is a good time for the village to start having community meetings to discuss all the details of what is going on. All information should be made available and the residents will need to be constantly updated and notified of any changes to the projects status. Expectations will need to be declared and disputes should be handled immediately to save the project from being stalled in the future. There have been several villages in the past that did not take these steps and have paid for it in the long run.

Wind Energy

Wind energy is a favorite amongst the islands and the coastal regions of Alaska. In a November 3, 2009 interview with Katherine Keith, the Wind-Diesel Coordinator for the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, she stated there are already fifteen working wind farms in the state, with fifteen more planned to be operational within the next year. The wind resource in those regions can be quite strong, and sometimes, almost too strong. If the wind gusts too much, it can cause problems with the power fluctuations. This is where wind-diesel generation comes into play. With the wind turbine and a diesel generator connected together, they can counteract the highs and lows that come with a wind source and thus provide a more stable source of energy. The computerized system seamlessly switches between diesel and wind without interruption. (Don Comis, 2006) Before this can be done, of course, the village generators will have to shed their old ways.

According to Keith, the top three difficulties with wind-diesel turbines being installed in the villages are logistics, foundation designs, and integration. Logistics problems are an obvious problem because most villages are so remote that they do not have any roads connecting to neighboring villages, much less to the rail-belt area of Alaska. Foundation designs will become better as they are tested and engineers see what works and what doesn’t. They will do geotechnical testing on the land where the wind turbines will be located, so that engineers can design the best possible foundation for them. There are ways to deal with the thawing permafrost in the tundra to keep the ground frozen and thus stabilize the turbines. Most of the systems currently in use have extremely old parts and will not integrate with the new wind turbines on the market. Alaska Energy Authority currently runs programs to help villages upgrade their generation systems to make them easier to integrate with the updated renewable energy systems. (AEA)

The wind turbines themselves have issues with icing on the blades and the components inside the nacelle, which is the housing for the gear box and generator. Keith discussed issues relating to the icing dilemma and explained that it is a current issue that many are still trying to find the answers for. The existing solutions that are currently being used are painting them black to absorb heat from the sun; or coating them with Teflon, which seems to cause the blades to deteriorate faster. Some still hit the blades with a hammer to knock the ice off, which can be hazardous. There has been talk of using heating cables; however it isn’t cost effective, considering the energy that would be required would negate the savings made from using the turbines.

The cost to install any renewable energy can be unsettling, especially for a village that is extremely small in population. Keith noted that the price for installing a Northwind 100 wind turbine could be around one million dollars, depending on the logistics of the location. She was also quick to note that the Integrity 60 kW wind turbines in both Kotzebue and Nome cost around $400,000 for each one installed. Connie Fredenburg, of TDX Power on St. Paul Island in Alaska, pointed out that refurbished equipment can be a useful way to save money and they can be just as trustworthy as new equipment.

Wind-diesel systems are proving to be an excellent choice for many villages in Alaska, but for several villages it has not been as successful. Some have had extended down time due to control system troubles, maintenance issues, and community social problems. Issues with birds may be fixed with bird diverters; however studies are always done to determine if there will be any issues in the first place. (Interior, 2003) The ice, snow, and very cold temperatures can also impact the performance and life of the equipment. Keith states that, overtime, streamlining the process will help to alleviate difficulties and expenses in the future. Villages considering this form of renewable energy might want to contact several agencies to get more information on the testing equipment, the types of turbines available, and on updating their current power generation systems.

Hydropower Energy

If the village does not have a proper wind source, but it does have a water source, such as a river or waterfall, they might choose hydroelectric energy. There are several different types of hydroelectric energy, or hydropower, systems available; however not all are appropriate for Alaska’s freezing waters and salmon runs. Kessinger stated that he looked into hydropower for his facilities and decided that it was not viable due to the initial cost of testing, installation and upkeep. The Kuskokwim River, where MKEC is located, has intense freeze up and thaw cycles, which are well known for their destructive properties during these times. The cost to put in and take out the hydropower system before freeze-up and after break-up would have been a costly and almost impossible ordeal each year. There have been many improvements in the hydroelectric world since then, and there are several villages using hydropower that might disagree with him today. Most villages that use hydropower have road access and can use equipment not available to villages that are not on a road system. Admittedly, any form of energy, renewable or not, comes with its own package of troubles.

According to the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or REAP, there are several types of hydroelectric facilities, all powered by the kinetic energy of flowing water as it moves downstream. (REAP) Impoundment hydroelectric facilities use a dam to store the river water in a reservoir and they control electricity being produced by regulating the flow of water through the penstock. These can have a detrimental effect on salmon runs and can be expensive to install and maintain for even a medium sized village. Diversion facilities channel a portion of the rivers water through a canal or penstock, often without the use of a dam. Basically, when water is flowing and the turbine runner is spinning, the turbine is producing electric power. The electric power must then be stored in batteries and the village electrical system is connected to the batteries. Hydroelectric facilities typically range in size from large to small power plants that provide consumers with electricity and even micro-hydro systems for the individual.

In Alaska, thirty-plus hydroelectric facilities are in operation, with seven more in construction. Every year, new facilities come online and raise that number even higher. Hydropower “is Alaska’s largest source of renewable energy, supplying 24% of the state’s electrical energy.” (REAP) Hydropower is the most likely choice for a village in the southeastern part of Alaska, and for any village on a river or creek. A study would need to be done to see if the salmon population would be affected by the hydropower facility, and also whether there are enough residents in the village to support the expense of building it.

To make hydropower feasible, a power line connecting two or more villages might need to be installed so that the cost can be spread out among those villages. In an area that has no roads between villages, gravel airports that can only accommodate small airplanes, and very limited time-slots for the supply barges; this might seem like a risky venture. Some villages have already taken the risk, and many more are interested. According to REAP, “Many rural communities located on the Yukon and other large rivers are interested in using river current for generating power with low-impact turbines that would act much like an underwater wind turbine.” (REAP) This technology is referred to as river ‘hydrokinetic’ or ‘in-stream’ power. In-stream hydroelectric power is still relatively expensive as compared to other renewable energies; however it may be a viable alternative to costly diesel for many rural Alaskan villages.

“Run-of-the-river” projects use more modest structures to divert a portion of the natural river flow through turbines to make power before returning the water to the river downstream. Although these projects produce less electricity than other hydropower facilities, they maintain water levels downstream for salmon runs. This process makes them ideal for many parts of Alaska and can be the perfect choice for personal hydro systems.

Hydropower technology is a great choice for villages in Alaska and will continue to be implemented around the state. Regardless of which system is used, the village would need to learn how to be energy efficient. Villages all across Alaska are in the need of upgrades to their generator sheds, control systems, and power lines; meanwhile going through the process of installing a renewable energy will push the village to update their system a lot sooner.

Solar Energy

Solar power is another option available to the villages, however since the sun is usually playing ‘hide and seek’ during most of the winter, many villages might choose not to use it. For the most part, solar power has been more of a personal or small residential form of renewable energy. With sun angles being lower in our state and difficulties with snow build-up; solar energy, which uses radiation from the sun, has its own set of challenges in Alaska. Many homes in Alaska are using solar energy for heating hot water and electricity generation successfully.

There are many different ways of harnessing the energy from the sun. Passive solar heating uses building design and construction to reduce the usage of heating fuel. The design might employ windows, thermal mass, and the position of the building itself to act as a solar collector. Active solar heating systems use pumps or fans to circulate heated water or air to where it will be used, such as a hot water tank.

“Despite short winter days, solar water heaters can be used about 9 months out of the year in Alaska, making them one of the most practical applications of solar energy for domestic use.” (REAP) Solar-electric panels, or Photovoltaic (PV), are used to generate electricity from the sun. The term photovoltaic energy is derived from the Greek and can be translated as ‘electrical energy from light’. (Wengenmayr & Bührke, p. 42) These are commonly used to power homes or small communities that are not connected to an electric utility’s power grid. Roland Wengenmayr, in the book Renewable Energy, states that “…compared to wind and hydroelectric power, photovoltaic power conversion is still very much in the background, in spite of considerable government subsidies.” (Wengenmayr & Bührke, p. 35)

Solar electricity generation is an emerging technology that uses concentrated solar power. “They use mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect the solar energy and heat a thermal oil.” (REAP) Thermal energy is then used to produce electricity via a heat exchanger that vaporizes water to drive a steam turbine; however this process is still more expensive than fossil-fuel derived power.

The remote community of Lime Village has a population of less than 30 residents and has a hybrid diesel-PV system to produce electricity for their village. (REAP) BP donated a number of solar PV panels for their system, which currently helps to offset around 5800 gallons of diesel a year, providing a 28% reduction. The system will provide researchers with quality information for future projects. Photovoltaic energy is growing rapidly and can only be expected to become more streamlined and practical the more it is researched and implemented. If a village in Alaska were to implement solar energy, they would need to learn ways to conserve energy. The village would also have to make sure that their diesel generator controls would be updated.

Biomass Energy

“Biomass is a collective term for renewable energy made from the organic material of recently deceased plants or animals. Sources of bioenergy are called ‘biomass’ and include agricultural and forestry residues, municipal wastes, industrial wastes, and terrestrial and aquatic crops grown solely for energy purposes.” (REAP) In more basic terms, they can use wood, fish oil, organic matter or trash as fuel to make energy. In 2008, the City of Craig installed a ‘sawmill waste-fired’ boiler to heat several buildings including the schools. (AEA) There are several wood-fired boilers installed around the state, with 15 more under development.

Biodiesel is another example of biomass fuel that is really starting to spark interest in the state. Biodiesel is an engine fuel manufactured from renewable sources, such as vegetable oils, recycled cooking greases or oils, or animal fats rather than from fossil petroleum. (AEA) The AEA estimates that 13 million gallons of fish waste is dumped into the sea each year in the form of unprocessed fish waste. They are partnering with fish processor UniSea Inc. to test the use of fish oil diesel blends in electric power generation in a 2.2 MW generator. At this point, all processing of the fish oil into biodiesel is outsourced to a commercial facility in Hawaii. It is hoped that Alaska can use the data to create a similar facility, if the results show that it could be a viable endeavor.

Alaskans produce approximately 650,000 tons of garbage annually throughout the state. (REAP) Several installations use waster paper and other similar waste products to fuel power plants or to mix with coal. Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks uses densified paper from the Fairbanks landfill to co-burn with coal, which provides up to 1.5% of the base’s heat and power. (AEA) This technology can be used in villages around the state and would help reduce the amount of waste in the landfills. Some larger landfills can also produce methane gas that can be used to produce electricity; however this is not a feasible venture for the smaller villages of Alaska.

There are disadvantages to using a biodiesel fuel in remote areas, such as the need to heat the oil because the ‘cloud point’ is around 34 ̊̊ F, which is near the freezing point of water. On the other hand, it is a common practice to warm the diesel before using it to make the fuel more efficient. Another disadvantage might be that biodiesel contains 6% less energy per gallon than #2 diesels, though decreases in engine output are rarely observed. On the brighter side, “jobs and relatively low cost renewable fuel could be provided to remote Alaskan communities that have an existing fish processing industry by starting up modular biodiesel production facilities.” (AEA, 2009)

Geothermal Energy

Ernst Huenges, in the book Renewable Energy, correctly proclaims that “…geothermal energy is still an exotic source.” (Wengenmayr & Bührke, p. 54) Geothermal energy uses the heat of the earth to gather direct heat or electricity production. Direct heat geothermal uses low to moderate temperature water to heat structures, grow plants in greenhouses and in industrial processes such as drying food or fish farming. (REAP) Water is pumped directly into the facilities they are warming. They have been growing plants using this process for many years at Pilgrim Hot Springs near Nome, Alaska. (AEA) Producing Electricity from geothermal uses high temperature resources to convert heat into power. In her February 2008 speech entitled Alaska Forum on the Environment, United States Senator Lisa Murkowski declared “…we passed a specific initiative to get geothermal moving by utilizing ‘hot rock mining’ everywhere, not just at hot springs.” (Murkowski, 2008)

There are three types of geothermal electric generators in use today. The first one is the dry steam power plants that use the steam that comes from geysers or fumaroles to turn turbines and create electricity. The second type is the flash steam power plants that require geothermal fluids in excess of 360 ̊̊ F, which they pump into a tank that is at a very low pressure, causing the fluids to vaporize instantly. This is the most common type of geothermal power plant. The third type of generator is the binary-cycle power plants which generate electricity by pumping hot water into a heat exchanger where a fluid with a lower boiling point than water is stored. The hot water causes the other fluid to vaporize and the steam turns a turbine, thus generating electricity. It is a relatively new technology but is likely to increase in the future since most geothermal resources in the world are low-to-moderate heat. (REAP)

An Economist article claimed “far more promising is geothermal energy, since Alaska lies on the ‘ring of fire’, a string of volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Ocean.” (The Economist, 2007) There are many opportunities for geothermal development in the state, with over one hundred and thirty volcanoes and volcanic fields that are active and well over a hundred sites that have thermal springs and wells. The USGS identified four major regions that warranted further study for geothermal potential. These regions are the Interior Hot Springs, the Southeast Hot Springs, the Wrangell Mountains, and the Ring of Fire volcanoes. (REAP) Any villages living within these regions have a good chance at developing geothermal energy for their community; nevertheless extensive studies might first need to be done if they have not already been completed by another entity.

Ocean or Tidal Energy

The ocean is a deep well of potential renewable energy, yet development of ocean energy generation technologies are still in the demonstration stage. Alaska has 44,000 miles of coastline and some of the largest tidal ranges in the world, giving the state almost limitless ocean energy potential. There are two different types of energy that come from the ocean; wave and tidal. Kai-Uwe Graw explains, in the book Renewable Energy, that the “…major portion of the energy which is stored in ocean waves is transported by so-called gravity waves. They are initiated by the wind and their motion is governed almost entirely by gravitation.” (Wengenmayr & Bührke, p. 76) Wave energy is harnessed from the rise and fall of ocean waves. There are currently several sites undergoing studies to see if they have the potential needed to support a renewable energy project.

Tidal energy is a concentrated form of the gravitational energy exerted by the moon and, also, the sun. This energy can be converted into electricity in two different ways. Dams that force water through turbines at high and low tidal stages are most common and extract more energy. Underwater turbines that are activated by tidal flows are still in the development stages, with Ireland opening the first large facility in 2008. These are similar to the ‘in-stream’ versions that are currently installed in the Yukon River town of Ruby, which has been working successfully. (REAP)

Harnessing this vast energy could be problematic, considering that the state has very remote shorelines and western Alaska often has violent storms. Upkeep and maintenance would be expensive and equipment might be hard to transport. Murkowski remarked that “…we took steps in an effort I led to expand aid to capturing energy from the ocean, including funding of up to six national ocean research centers to advance tidal, current and wave energy projects.” (Murkowski, 2008) Any villages that are near sites that have shown potential could tap into that energy for their village which would create jobs and community stability.

Before Installing

Due to the fact that many generators and their sheds were built approximately twenty years ago, many of these systems will have to be replaced. According to Keith, updated systems are a key component to correctly integrate with any new technology. This step should be done well ahead of any renewable energy installation, while keeping in mind what sort of energy system is being installed. For instance, if the village has chosen wind-diesel energy, the control system to smoothly switch between wind and diesel generation will need to be installed. The community should make sure that their technician will be properly schooled on how all of the new equipment will work ahead of time. The AEA, along with other organizations, have programs for upgrading the systems and for training of the technicians.

The logistics required to gather all of the equipment needed at the right time can be extremely challenging. For wind turbines, this may require that a crane be shipped out in advance by barge. The project managers will need to be planning all equipment deliveries so that everything is out there at the time that they are needed. This can be quite the challenge if the river has a late thawing of the ice, or break-up, and the crane ends up at its destination late.

Another essential step that needs to be addressed is foundations. In many parts of Alaska, ground thawing in areas with tundra and permafrost can be very tricky. As Keith pointed out, a geotec test will be done by drilling a hole in the ground and taking a sample to a geologist who will look at it and tell the engineers how to build the foundation. If the ground needs to be kept frozen to keep a wind turbine more stable, then geothermal holes can be drilled, which could be an additional expense. Foundations are important to stabilize wind turbines, and they are likewise important for solar and hydropower installations.

Energy storage is considered another key issue to properly installing and integrating the new system. Many people believe that the toxic chemical nature of some types of batteries used for storing the energy make them a very poor choice for the environment. They often wonder where the batteries go when they are not usable anymore; however some batteries are able to be reconditioned, according to Keith. There are two types of batteries currently in use in Alaska, the lead acid and the NiCad. The life of the battery will depend on its use and the environment that it is kept in. These batteries require periodic replacement, or reconditioning, which can be expensive.

After Installation

The villages’ choice for a renewable energy will be a lifelong battle to maintain and repair. The high cost for shipping and installation of equipment for repairs can mean downtime for the system. Maintenance and repairs will be left solely to the village or its operating entity, both in management and funding. The village will have many connections within several organizations which will help them answer questions and acquire resources as needed. There could be a long waiting period for the assistance of qualified technicians to go out to the village and complete work. Sometimes just negotiating the arrival of equipment and technicians can seem overwhelming.

Nature can have an extremely damaging affect on most equipment related to renewable energy. Icing on the blades of the turbines, strong wind gusts, and snow on the solar panels are all just a few of the situations that may occur. Some systems have seen extended downtime due to failing equipment, control system glitches, and community social problems. It’s a good idea to have back up plans and community involvement. Regular meetings can help to deter a lot of problems before they escalate into major disasters. Teaching energy conservation is an outstanding way to develop energy reserves and to help save money for the residents.

Wales, in northwestern Alaska, is a sad example of what can happen to a great idea. The village of around one hundred and fifty residents has a wind-diesel farm that was installed in 2000. They have had nothing but difficulties with the system and the village has had even more difficulties working out their community issues. The system has been only in partial operation and is a good example of why planning, training, and community infrastructure are essential. There are better examples to promote renewable energy in Alaska, such as the island of Kodiak. Keith stated that Kodiak, as of November 2009, was running completely on wind and hydropower. This is a major accomplishment that has long been coming and deserves being noted by many who have scoffed that it cannot be possible.

Employment is always an issue that the general public questions whenever talks of renewable energy hit the floor. Keith stated that, “depending on the choice of system made, one can expect jobs to be created in the planning, installation, and maintenance processes.” In the village, the existing power plant operator will likely be trained in the operations of the equipment. The community might also want to train another person in the system so that the operator can leave to do his traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing. If a system such as biomass is chosen, more jobs will be made available within the village. Jobs such as engineers, project managers, and grant writers will be available within the industry and in the more populated regions.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that our environment is warming up, no matter which position you take on it politically. Diesel prices will not likely be going down and the carbon footprint is of importance too. Diesel usage can be an addictive pattern that many are reluctant to let go of. Rob Hopkins, in his book The Transition Handbook, comments that advice can come “…as community-scale strategies for energy descent.” (Hopkins, 2008) This can be taken to mean that the community can choose to change as a whole by setting out a plan, and implementing it, to relieve their addiction to fossil fuels. Albert Einstein once said “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” (Albert Einstein Quotes)

The choices that a family makes while living in a village in Alaska will not be based on whether or not the air is warmer, but rather on whether or not they can afford to live in that community any longer. If the village can reduce the cost of energy and possibly create more jobs, then the family may not have to make that tough choice. Despite the high cost, environmental difficulties, and community adversity; renewable energy is the way to reduce the decline of the native community, their culture, and its family units therein. There are many obstacles in making the choice to obtain a renewable energy but, in the overall picture, they are worth it. In Jenn Wagaman’s article Bringing Alternative Energy to Life, Victoria Chang accurately declares, “The key is not to think about how we can find alternatives to continue to live the same way, but rather to examine the resources that are available to use and think about how we can use those to enrich, enliven and support the community.” (Wagaman, 2009)

Written by: Sonya Andreanoff
November 2009

Wind Power
Kodiak, AK – The Pillar Mountain Wind farm consists of three GE 1.5-MW turbines. An old WWI trail leading up the mountain had to be rerouted to allow passage of vehicles as long as 170-ft transporting components. (photo: http://www.windpowerengineering.com/construction/alaska-sees-its-first-utility-scale-wind-turbine/)

*References not included in this posting due to space issues, but are available upon request*

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