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Boom for remote applications in Alaska

Wind turbines are set to become almost as common as caribou in Alaska's remote, cold-weather communities north of the Arctic Circle. Experience gained from operating wind turbines there so far could also be in hot demand on Mars one day if NASA's plans for energising a life support system for humans on the planet are carried through. The article gives details of several Arctic wind projects and an Alaskan green pricing program, as well as NASA's wind project.

If the current trend continues, wind turbines could become almost as common as caribou in Alaska, a state where the economy is based on the oil and gas industry. A remote off-grid Arctic village in northwest Alaska now boasts ten small wind turbines which it says will become a model for wind power in other similarly remote, cold weather communities. Meantime, a 225 kW turbine has been installed as part of a first-of-a-kind wind-diesel hybrid and heat recovery system-but with no battery storage-by a Native Aleut, or indigenous corporation, on an island in the Bering Sea. Furthermore, the corporation is already considering installing a similar system on another island, while in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, the idea of of offering wind power at a green pricing premium is being seriously considered.

The ten turbines are turning on the tundra near Kotzebue, an Alaska fishing town 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The project brings the community and municipal utility a major step closer to their goal of becoming a model for remote cold-climate wind hybrid installations. Seven of the 15/50 turbines from Atlantic Orient Corporation in Vermont were energised by the Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA) in mid-May. They joined three turbines on-line near the village since May 1997 producing power for the population of 3500 mostly "Inupiat" or Eskimo Indians. Although the town is small, it is the largest Eskimo Arctic community and also the hub for many smaller villages in Northwest Alaska. About 200 of the communities are not connected to the grid. The weather there is severe. Boats can reach the village only during three months of the year and the rest of the time planes or snowmobiles have to be used. In this part of Alaska, a state that is often described as the Last Frontier, temperatures can drop to 40 degrees below freezing, says KEA's Matt Bergan.

Saving money

Villagers have welcomed the project. Their electricity comes mostly from diesel generators at a cost of $0.20/kWh. Subsidies, partly from oil revenues, bring that cost down to a more affordable $0.12/kWh, but with oil revenues in the state declining, such energy subsidies-so crucial to communities dependant upon diesel-are already decreasing and may eventually disappear. Diesel can also only be barged in during the summer months and the town must store the fuel during the winter in massive tanks, many of which are 20 years old and need replacing.

Although installing wind turbines in such a climate is more costly and time consuming-because of the severe weather conditions-the town's electricity bills are expected to ultimately benefit. "When we displace expensive diesel fuel with wind, we save money," says KEA General Manager Brad Reeve, also current president of the United States Utility Wind Interest Group. "This money then stays in the communities, helping to strengthen the local economy and possibly create jobs." A second Vermont company, Northern Power Systems (NPS), is helping KEA with integrating the wind power into the diesel grid. The wind farm is expected to generate more than 7% of the community's electricity. In two to three years, Reeve says he hopes enough wind will be generated to supply all of Kotzebue's power, at least when the wind is blowing.

Reeve also hopes the concept of hybrid village power systems will spread, reducing electricity costs in coastal villages, increasing their electricity independence and creating local jobs. KEA and AOC intend to train local windsmiths who can then provide their skills elsewhere.

Because the project is associated with wind power's national Technology Verification Program, funded by the US Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute, it receives a small grant as well as information sharing and technical support. The turbines provide data on operation in cold temperatures and on integrating wind power into remote, small-grid utility systems.

Over the past year the three original turbines have averaged more than 98% availability. During the February reporting period, the project generated 56 MWh, equivalent to a 38% capacity factor assuming a sustained peak power rating of 66 kW per turbine. The good performance was logged despite a technical problem. KEA found that the lubricant in the turbines can become stiff in very cold weather, preventing start up in lighter winds. Because of this, the gearboxes will probably have to be changed, says KEA. Snow removal is so crucial at the site, about four miles out of town, it is a line item in the budget, says Rana Vilhauer of Global Energy Concepts, a consulting group near Seattle helping to co-ordinate the project. Annual precipitation is only nine inches, but winds are so high that drifts are often many feet deep. Arctic construction techniques also dictate that the towers have been installed on top of pilings, anchored in the ground at a depth below the permafrost.

More turbines are on the way. KEA is to install two AOC units near the town of Wales, some 200 miles southwest of Kotzebue on the tip of the Seward Peninsula, just across the Bering Strait from Russia. Wind monitoring is also ongoing near Deering on Kotzebue Sound.

Wind on Mars

In an unlikely twist to an unusual tale, the next turbine to be installed by KEA, probably next year, could prove once and for all that Alaska is not the "last frontier" for generating electricity from the wind. The turbine will be a North Wind 100, a new cold-weather turbine made by NPS, one of which is already installed in Vermont, says the company's Lawrence Mott. The surprising aspect is that part of the money for NPS's expertise, and for its involvement with KEA, comes from NASA, the US space administration agency. It wants to find out how feasible wind power might be for human life support systems on the planet Mars. More support is coming from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

It is apparently not a space joke. A human "life support" station might be built first at the South Pole, which NASA believes would most closely mimic conditions on Mars. NPS has already had some NASA and National Science Foundation funding for developing a project in Antarctica and has also been working directly with NREL to assess the practicality of operating large-scale renewable systems in the continent.

Using wind turbines on Mars has not been ruled out, unlike the use of photovoltaics, which would definitely not work because of the dust storms. The idea sounds preposterous. "But hey, if ten years from now NASA wants to come in and fine tune the technology to what they can use on Mars, who are we to complain?" asks Mott. And who knows, perhaps one day Kotzebue windsmiths will be in hot demand on Mars.

Holy Russian water

On a more terrestrial note, in March a Russian orthodox priest sprinkled holy water on a new Vestas V27 turbine and blessed it in front of a crowd of some 200 gathered for the ceremony on St Paul Island, one of the Pribilofs in the Bering Sea. The turbine is part of a privately funded wind-diesel project in the island fishing community. Tanadgusix Corp, or TDX Corp, run by Aleutian natives, built the $1 million project, which includes a 300 kW diesel generator, to power a small industrial complex, shops, and an airport off the island's main grid. The plant is also heating water that is piped directly to the complex, says Mott. NPS helped with the community project.

The high penetration project is unusual in that it has no active storage, but instead relies upon wind power that usually exceeds the primary load requirement-when there is too much, it is used to heat water in a 6000 gallon tank. Money is saved on battery storage and on diesel as the engine is run as seldom as possible. St Paul's winds are strong and steady for the system to run in "wind only" mode for most of the time. TDX also wanted reliable utility grade power for the complex, known as POSS Camp. Some 700 people live on the island year round, a population which is swelled by part time seasonal jobs in the crab industry. A 1 MW diesel plant powers the island's grid.

"We believe this to be the most environmentally and technologically advanced power system ever built," says TDX's Ron Philemonoff. "We financed and built this facility to demonstrate wind energy's commercial viability and to lower our utility costs." He also says TDX hopes to market such systems throughout western Alaska and eventually in other cold areas. The company is most immediately looking at the potential on nearby St George Island. A similar effort is also under way on Unalaska Island, one of the only slightly less remote Aleutian Islands, or somewhere in the area between the island and Naknek, at the base of Alaska Peninsula in the far south-west. A study by the state Division of Energy was to be completed sometime in June.

Green pricing

In Anchorage, customer interest in clean energy is such that a green pricing program to give people the option of buying wind power is being considered. Customers of Chugach Electric Association simply seem to want green power, says the local utility's Phil Steyer. Meteorological data is already being collected in Arctic Valley and near Portage. Chugach has also hired a biologist to study any impact on migratory birds, especially at the Portage site.

The utility, which serves 69,000 customers, most of them residential, is finding out if those who have said they want green power will actually buy it. Steyer says the utility is considering installing three 660 kW wind turbines at one of the sites, although he also stresses that the project is far from being certain-and that it might never go ahead.

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