Alaskan Research Explores Benefits Of Renewable Microgrids

New research is detailing how microgrids in Alaska offer an enticing approach for local renewable energy generation by building flexibility into existing electrical grids.

Articles in the recent issue of the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy provide a review of energy technologies and costs for microgrids in Alaska. Researchers at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks conducted the review, and the project received support from the Alaska Energy Authority.

According to the researchers, remote villages in Alaska provide an example of how safeguards can build resilience into a larger electrical grid. These communities rely on microgrids – small, local power stations that operate autonomously.

Unlike the lower 48 states, Alaska’s terrain makes it difficult and cost-prohibitive to establish a large-scale electrical grid, according to the researchers. Instead, microgrids provide permanent, self-sufficient islands of electricity that can produce up to 2 MW of electricity for remote communities. Alaskan microgrids provide electricity for more than 200 communities and generate more than 2 million hours of operating experience annually.

“The integration of renewable resources into microgrids is an active area of research,” notes Erin Whitney, a researcher at ACEP. “Alaskan communities are at the forefront of thinking about integrating sustainable, local, and often renewable, energy into their power generation portfolios.”

Authored by Whitney, one of the articles, “Technology and cost reviews for renewable energy in Alaska: Sharing our experience and know-how,” says as follows:

“Many of the more than 200 remote communities in Alaska are turning to renewable energy to reduce reliance on high-cost imported fuels and to ensure more independent and reliable energy availability based on local sources. Alaska is home to a substantial fraction of the developed microgrids in the world. Incorporating grid-scale levels of renewably sourced generation, such as wind and solar power, has led to an unusual concentration of experience and expertise in the design, development and operation of these hybrid renewables-diesel microgrids.”

The researchers say reducing energy costs is the driving factor for implementing renewable energy in remote grids. According to Whitney, many Alaskan communities are motivated to find local energy solutions to reduce the cost of shipping expensive diesel fuel to power their microgrids.

“Some communities are so remote that they can only get fuel delivered once or twice a year when the ice melts and a barge can move up the river,” Whitney says. “This situation translates into some of the highest energy costs in the nation.”

Whitney explains that oil and local, renewable resources can work in tandem to supply electricity to microgrids. A diesel generator typically provides base power generation, while renewable energy sources reduce the load on the generators and save fuel, lowering energy costs.

Even above the Arctic Circle, where the region is cloaked in darkness for a portion of the year, communities harness seasonal renewable resources by switching between solar power during summer months and wind power during the winter months, the researchers say, adding that during the past decade, Alaska has invested over $250 million to develop and integrate renewable energy projects to power microgrid systems.

Whitney hopes the information compiled in the collection of papers will help educate other communities about the value of integrating microgrid technology into a larger system to build resilience. Furthermore, she hopes that microgrids will become a power source for smaller remote communities around the globe.

“Alaska is its own place,” Whitney said. “We [would love to share our] expertise with microgrids and data from microgrid systems with communities whether they are in the Arctic or not, and we hope to learn from others’ experience, as well.”

Photo courtesy of Chris Pike of ACEP: Wind turbines supply renewable energy to microgrids across Alaska


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