In the coldest month of the year, during an unusually snowy winter, in the most frigid state in the country, one town almost ran out of heating fuel in 2012.
The shortage in Nome, Alaska, drew national media coverage for the slow journey of an oil tanker following an ice breaker through the frozen sea, but it also highlighted a persistent portfolio of energy problems in the rural areas of the state. Nome, a 3.5-hour flight west of Fairbanks, might have run low on fuel, but it is far from the only place in Alaska that has a history of relying on high-risk, high-cost, easily disrupted energy schemes.
Modern technology might have a solution — one that exists in other parts of the U.S. for a very different purpose. The concept is called the microgrid, and it involves creating a small-scale, self-sustaining power network that can operate in isolation. The idea received a boost June 16 when the White House announced that the Office of Naval Research was providing $600,000 for research at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, aimed at helping prepare technology for deployment in rural microgrids.
In New Jersey, it would almost certainly be used to provide power to critical buildings such as hospitals in the event of an emergency like a blackout-causing hurricane. It’s there to provide a backup. In the context of rural Alaska, it has the potential to become the norm.
Technically, much of Alaska already operates in a microgrid format. That’s because the state is enormous — more than twice the size of Texas — and sparsely populated, with fewer residents than all but two states. There’s no widespread transmission system, and most towns aren’t connected by roads. So the rural areas largely rely on technology such as local diesel generators, and either bring in the fuel by barge or airplane.
“There are 250-300 remote communities that are not connected to that transmission system and generally also are not connected by road,” said Marc Mueller-Stoffels, director of the Power Systems Integration program at UAF’s Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP).
Compare that to the Midwestern U.S., where a multi-state interconnection system exists to ensure electricity is available 24/7 wherever it’s needed, and a fleet of power plants stand ready to meet peak demand.
The problem with the traditional way of using energy in Alaska is that it relies on a few very narrow pathways to deliver heat to the cold. That means concerns about not only adequacy, but cost. In some places, the price of electricity is above $1 per kilowatt-hour, he said. The national average is 9.81 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“If you rely on receiving your fuel shipments, that puts you at risk in two ways. One is you’re tied to the fluctuations of cost in the world market — and from 2007 to 2009 our utilities saw a 300 percent increase in fuel cost, which is hard to handle,” Mueller-Stoffels said. “The second part is that you’re at the end of a very long supply line.”
That means a lot of opportunities for disruption. Maybe a river floods in a certain way, preventing barges from delivering diesel. Maybe sea ice delays a ship, like in Nome in 2012. Anything like that can drive up prices.
But technology is changing all that. Renewable generators such as wind and solar don’t need fuel — not the kind one can buy off a barge, anyway. And the price of those generators continues to plummet dramatically, bringing them into the realm of affordability for Alaska’s small towns.
That’s the case for energy storage too — as more automakers invest in battery-powered electric cars and research dollars pour in to improve those batteries, storage has become an option for making renewables work. Combined with concepts like efficiency, which reduces energy demand, and demand response, which reduces demand at strategic moments, Mueller-Stoffels said it’s getting easier for isolated towns to keep the lights on without fuel — if even for a limited time.
“We want to get to the point where you can turn your diesel off at times by using energy storage and by using demand response,” he said.
The ACEP programs do a lot for both utilities and people looking to sell to utilities, according to Mueller-Stoffels. The harsh weather conditions — sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall and ice accumulation, for starters — mean some technologies need special adjustments. The variability of renewables means that modeling services become important for the utilities looking to use them. The university’s labs provide a place for testing before products and services are deployed in the field.
“We’re able to help technology developers in getting their products ready for the field, in the harsh conditions and the demand on the technology when you send it out to remote Alaska,” he said. “It’s a combination of severe harsh climate conditions — very different operating conditions compared with the national grid — and even capacity availability, and then just the sheer remoteness and cost of doing business out there.”
So should the rest of rural America be booking flights to Fairbanks to find out how to set up microgrids? While some of the lessons learned in rural Alaska might be useful for setting up microgrids in general, the 24/7 model where an entire town disconnects from a larger grid might not make sense in other places, he said. That’s because most of the rest of the U.S. — even the rural parts — are already hooked up to transition lines and have roads allowing for the delivery of fuel.
“The experience that our utilities have are interesting for lower 48 microgrids in that here we have to provide power in the microgrid 24/7, all year round, where microgrids in the lower 48 are all designed to be these emergency backup systems so far, that only generate … when connecting to the greater grid has an issue," he said. "And at that time, in an emergency operation, you might not be all that concerned about the cost of generation, where here we understand that cost is a major driver."
And Nome, by the way, has worked since 2012 to make it less likely that a delayed fuel shipment could put the town in jeopardy. The town has put in modern wind turbines, and UAF is even looking into the potential to set up a geothermal power station nearby.