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Microgrids in Alaska Could Lead to Energy Resilience and Independence from Non-renewable Sources

28 December 2017

Wind turbines supply renewable energy to microgrids across Alaska. Source: Chris Pike, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, University of Alaska FairbanksWind turbines supply renewable energy to microgrids across Alaska. Source: Chris Pike, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, University of Alaska Fairbanks

The electrical grid in the United States is huge and made up of interconnected systems that are incredibly dependent on each other. If one section fails or is sabotaged, millions of U.S. citizens could be left without power. A remote village in Alaska could be an example of how safeguards could build resilience into a larger electrical grid. These communities rely on microgrids — small, local power stations that operate autonomously.

"The integration of renewable resources into microgrids is an active area of research," Erin Whitney, a researcher at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, University of Alaska Fairbanks said. "Alaskan communities are at the forefront of thinking about integrating sustainable, local, and often renewable, energy into their power generation portfolios."

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

Reducing energy costs is a major factor behind the push to implement renewable energy in remote grids. According to Whitney, there are many Alaskan communities motivated to find local energy solutions in order 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 said. "This situation translates into some of the highest energy costs in the nation."

Whitney says that oil and local renewable resources can work in tandem to supply electricity to microgrids. A diesel generator typically provides base power generation, and renewable energy sources reduce the load on the generator as well as saving fuel, which lowers overall energy costs.

The Arctic Circle is a region that is cloaked in darkness for part of the year. Despite this, communities still manage to harness seasonal renewable resources by switching from solar power in the summer months, and wind power during the winter months.

In the last 10 years, Alaska has invested over $250 million to develop and integrate renewable energy projects in order to power their microgrid systems.

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

"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."

The paper on this research was published in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy.

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