Rural Energy Conference Aims To Cut Bush Power Costs

Everyone talks about reducing our dependence on oil, and in rural Alaska some communities are using innovation and technology to do just that. George Hornberger is the general manager of INN Electric Coop that serves Iliamna, Newhalen and Nondalton. His company has achieved something that was unheard of only a few year’s ago.. its weaned off diesel.  Hornberger was attending the Alaska Rural Energy Conference in Anchorage

 “The diesel is strictly standby. We’re 98 point 5 percent hydro power in 2012.”

Hornberger says INN’s facility was built in 1982, so getting to full hydro wasn’t easy.

 “When I started managing the plant in 2009, we were still burning between 35 and 40 thousand gallons of diesel fuel a year to supplement the hydro. In 2012, we got down to 4,956 gallons or so of diesel fuel burnt,  ” he said Monday.

 Hornberger  says hydro and diesel systems can be integrated fairly easily, but hydro poses some unique problems, like frazzle ice:

 “It’s when the river is basically freezing from the bottom up. You have water temperature that is below freezing, microscopic crystals of ice in the water that started adhering to bottom that makes big chunks that float up, and that was a major problem. “

Hornberger credits INN’s board with the foresight to take on the debt to build the hydro facilities in the first place. Harnessing river power is not a new idea, but newer innovations are wresting power from the ocean itself. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission earlier this year approved a wave power project for the city of Yakutat. Bill Staby  is CEO of Resolute Marine Energy, a Boston based company now working on that project. Staby says the wave resource is excellent. And he stresses that wave power is not the same as tidal energy because it’s wind driven.

 “As the wind blows over the surface of the ocean, it essentially induces vibrations, which is what waves really are, as vibrating water particles. The longer the distance that a wave has a chance to work uninterrupted on a water surface, the better the wave resource is likely to be. In Yakutat, those waves are coming from Japan, ” he said. 

 That’s one heck of a renewable resource, but it’s still in the future.

On Monday, The federal Office of Indian Energy and Policy named five Alaska Native villages to a program that strengthens existing renewable energy projects. They will receive up to 250 thousand dollars, along with technical assistance to further community based energy solutions. Roderick Phillip chairs Kongiginak’s is using the funds to buy thermal stoves to store energy from wind turbines:

“We have five wind turbines and we have thermal stoves. The excess energy goes to all the thermal stoves. The thermal stoves heat homes, and when the wind is blowing, people with the thermal stoves turn their oil stoves off, ”  he said,  adding that the savings in fuel costs in January were about $9,000 for the village.

The stoves reliance on waste heat cuts way down on fuel costs, but hasn’t wiped out the need for diesel just yet, but is saving the community thousands of dollars each month.

Julie Estey, with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, says it will be years before diesel power is a thing of the past. So improving diesel generation to increase it’s efficiency now is important to Alaska.

  “When you are looking at fluctuating resources, like wind, solar is another one, it’s hard to integrate that kind of fluctuating power into a small grid. So what normally happens, is a diesel generator has to keep spinning to make sure there is not a brown out or a black out. So the integration, and making sure you can really offset diesel by putting in a wind turbine, those are the integration issues that we are solving right now, ” she said.

 She says, compared with the lower 48, Alaska’s power grid is tiny, and innovations made here by small community projects could one day be exported to remote areas of the world which are looking to solve energy problems of their own.