Expanding renewable energy into remote communities is a team effort

About half of the global Arctic population lives in isolated communities that must generate their own electricity, often from diesel fuel. But it doesn’t have to be that way, as Gwen Holdmann explains to Arctic Deeply’s Hannah Hoag.

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April 28, 2016
The island village of Kivalina, an Alaska Native community of 400 people, can be seen from Air Force One as U.S. President Barack Obama flies to Kotzebue, Alaska, September 2, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Many Arctic communities in North America still rely on diesel fuel to generate the electricity they require for daily life, including lighting and heat. Diesel is reliable, but it produces air pollution and comes with other environmental risks, including local oil spills. It must also be shipped in over long distances, often within a small window of time when the sea ice has melted or an ice road is operational, which can jack up the price.

Many communities in the North are looking for ways to use renewable energy instead. For example, in Kotzebue, Alaska, a combination of wind turbines and batteries are supplying about a third of the town’s average annual electrical demand, replacing about 946,000 litres (250,000 gallons) of diesel each year.

But finding the right combination of technologies, storage and transmission can be challenging. Gwen Holdmann is the director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, a research center within the University of Alaska that focuses on global energy challenges, with an emphasis on the Arctic. ACEP has a power system integration laboratory that allows the researchers to plug in technologies and see how they work in a microgrid that can be set to simulate a specific community's needs. It is one of six organizations that teamed up to expand large-scale renewable energy to the Canadian Arctic.

Holdmann spoke to Arctic Deeply about the energy landscape of the North American Arctic and some of the challenges that come with the transition to renewable energies.

What does power generation look like in most rural Arctic communities in North America?

The Arctic as a whole is a real leader in renewable energy development – almost half of the power is produced from renewable resources, well over double the global average.

But there are two very diverse experiences within the Arctic. About half the population is grid-connected to the larger continent and the other half of the Arctic lives in these isolated areas that are beyond the edge of the grid front. That presents some interesting and different challenges, especially when you are looking at the cost of energy.

A lot of the fuel used to generate electricity is shipped in via very, very long supply lines, often internationally. In Alaska, we're shipping fuel in from Canada. There are very high costs associated with electricity generation and very little control over what those costs are going to be from year to year. From a risk-mitigation standpoint, there’s a real desire to look for ways to reduce reliance on liquid fossil fuels. Can we make these communities more resilient?

What does renewable energy in Alaska look like?

Remote Arctic communities have had very different and diverse experiences. About 70 remote Alaskan communities have grid-scale renewables connected to them. That means that about 10-12 percent are connected to what’s called a microgrid, or an isolated grid.

Both the U.S. and Canada have invested heavily in large hydropower for some of the larger population centers, like Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Juneau. But the further north you get, the less viable year-round hydropower is going to be. Still, almost every community has access to some sort of renewable resource. It comes down to figuring out what the local resource is and then the challenges of connecting these resources in a way that creates the greatest efficiency.

We focus not so much on the individual technologies, but on how you integrate those technologies seamlessly within the overall grid structure.

What are some of the challenges associated with bringing renewable energy to remote arctic communities?

One is long-term operational maintenance and training. It’s really important that the equipment is maintained and people have the skills to do it. The other is to optimize these systems. You can’t just install a whole bunch of solar energy on a limited grid with no place to send the extra power and expect that it is going to work with the existing infrastructure. It’s pretty tricky as you start to push the envelope and get very high contribution levels from these renewables.

When you are adding renewables to an existing microgrid that was built initially to use diesel energy, is it difficult to integrate these systems?

When you have a larger grid system and you generate wind power, hydropower or any kind of power, and there are not enough local users, you can send that power further away. You have a huge network to absorb that power. There is nothing special about those electrons that you are producing.

When you have a very, very tiny electrical grid, where the users are much closer to where the power is generated, somebody has to use it almost immediately.

Is energy storage the sticking point when you are dealing with smaller communities?

Storage is a bit of a holy grail. If we can come up with lower-cost storage solutions that are really robust that will work in these remote areas, that would be wonderful. Storage is a really significant component. One of the largest batteries in the world is located here in Fairbanks, a 27 megawatt system, which basically takes up an entire warehouse.

But it doesn’t just have to be electrical storage. One of the things that we are really looking at in Alaska is this idea of thermal storage. When we have more wind power than there is demand at any one time, you can store that in the form of heat, using distributed heating units in people's homes, or as hot water, which is more common. In Alaska, we use about two-thirds as much energy for heating as we do for electric power.

What are some of the systems you’ve tested at the power system integration laboratory?

One that we recently tested was a small flywheel system. A flywheel is short-term energy storage, but very high-power storage. A battery can take some time to discharge, but a flywheel can discharge energy really quickly. We tested a very high-speed next-generation flywheel in the lab.

Developers of technology are very focused on their widgets, but in the context of these microgrids, you need a lot of additional equipment or you need to figure out how it is going to work within the system.

In this particular case, this flywheel had been used in the past in a lot of different applications, but it had never been used to support one of these islanded grids. We helped come up with the inverter system that would allow you to convert power from AC to DC that would support operations on one of these grids, even if you turned the diesel engine off. But the software for this system had a glitch and when we put it all together in the lab, it caused a complete blackout of the lab.

In the lab, that's not really a big deal, we make them buy us a beer and have a good laugh over it. But the ultimate destination for this particular system was the Raglan mine in northern Quebec. You don’t want to see these kinds of failures occur in a remote mine setting like that, it would really be unacceptable.

The idea is to make sure that, especially when dealing with new tech or strategy associated with integrating technologies, that you have a way to test it in the exact same situation that you would see in that remote community. We can recreate the exact electrical conditions within that grid at full power levels in the lab.

The Alaska Center for Energy and Power is part of a new alliance that will work to bring large-scale renewable energy projects to northern communities in Canada. What will its role be in that project?

We’re largely the technical experts. But one thing to keep in mind is that while Canada and Alaska share similar challenges and resources, we have pretty different institutional structures. That may be why Alaska has developed more renewables than Canada.

The economic and institutional drivers that are different. We have 92 utilities in rural Alaska whereas Canada has quasi-governmental utilities, one for each territory and province. They are more highly subsidized than in Alaska. I'm working on a study to tease out what the major differences are between these markets around the Arctic that create incentives and disincentives for developing renewable energy technology. There are these fundamental underlying factors that are barriers to renewable energy development in Canada. To some degree those need to be addressed before we can move the ball forward. You can't just build pilot projects. A lot of it is policy.

But we have also made a lot of mistakes in Alaska. We have developed a lot of renewable energy systems and, as a result, we have learned a lot. We’ve learned a lot about how not to do things. We have installed a lot of equipment that hasn't worked particularly well in the Arctic. It is not just the temperature. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the air is denser when it is cold. The colder it gets, the heavier the air is. A turbine might fail in the Arctic when it would be fine in a more temperate environment operating at the same wind speed, because the air is more dense. People don’t think about that.

[The alliance] is about not replicating the mistakes made in the past so that the systems built in the future take advantage of the body of knowledge that has been developed. We want to move forward together to make sure that we’re addressing the root causes of these problems.

This piece was originally published on Arctic Deeply