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What Alaska can teach the world about renewable energy

I flew into Unalakleet, Alaska, on a late fall day. With about 700 people, Unalakleet is large by rural Alaska standards and serves as a regional hub. The village is located on a sandy spit of land where a clear river meets the turbid water of the Bering Sea. Out the plane window the sun shone bright, glittering off the wind-tossed whitecaps of the sea. To the east, the rolling Nulato Hills, clad in autumn foliage, provided a picturesque backdrop. As the small plane banked for our approach, a row of wind turbines appeared atop a ridge. Installed in 2009 they are among the numerous renewable power installations that have popped up across rural Alaska in the past decade.

In more accessible parts of the planet, renewable energy is often embraced as a tool for reducing the threat of climate change and installed in spite of, rather than due to financial considerations. In Alaska, however, says Piper Foster Wilder, the former deputy director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or REAP, “Economics, not the environment, are driving the shift to renewables.”

That’s not to say remote villages in Alaska aren’t dealing with environmental challenges. Of course they are. In fact, the far north is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Permafrost is melting and as the ground thaws, it causes instability beneath the foundations of buildings and oceans and rivers encroach, eroding shorelines. Coastal villages, once protected for much of the year by shore-fast sea ice, are increasingly exposed to storms and flooding as that ice recedes, even causing some communities to begin moving to safer, inland locations.

Daunting distances between communities

In many remote Alaska villages, the cost of electricity is the highest in the nation, reaching a wallet-emptying $1 per kilowatt-hour in some communities (the national average is 12 cents/kwh). The price is due to the cost of hauling fossil fuels (primarily diesel) by plane or barge to remote areas. As Alaskans know, the western half of Alaska, including Unalakleet, has no highways, no railroad tracks, no power lines. In that big country, the distances between the few scattered communities are daunting. If power can be generated using local renewables, the upfront cost is almost always worth it.

“We are up to 99.7 percent renewable energy,” says Lloyd Shanley, power generation manager at Kodiak Electric Association Inc., which provides electricity to the area around the town of Kodiak (population 6,130) on Kodiak Island off the southwestern coast of the Alaska Peninsula. The primary source of Kodiak Electric’s power is an alpine lake that lies in the mountains above town.

With a little creative engineering, Kodiak Electric ran a penstock from the lake’s steep outflow stream, channeling the water into a turbine system that contributes about 80 percent of the community’s power needs. An additional 20 percent comes from a handful of wind turbines on Pillar Mountain.

“Our conversion to renewables has resulted in no increased cost to consumers in nearly 20 years,” Shanley says, a statistic that few communities, regardless of location, can claim.

“Kodiak should be a template,” says Wilder, but that template needs an asterisk. “The town there benefits from its topography, which allows the very successful use of small-scale hydro and wind. But every community has an abundance of some resource.”

More and more wind turbines

For many villages on Alaska’s long, exposed coast, that resource is wind.

The turbines I saw from my plane window as I descended into Unalakleet have a capacity of up to 600 kilowatts of power, enough to offset the consumption of tens of thousands of gallons of diesel over the course of a year.
Read full article at Alaska Dispatch News