On the frozen tundra on the western shore of Kuskokwim Bay in the sparely inhabited country more than 450 miles west of Alaska’s throbbing urban core, the energy future of the planet might well be taking shape.
Here in a small, predominately Alaska Native village where people still live in significant part off the land there could be the foreshadowing of the radical shift from petroleum energy to electric energy some futurists see looming on the horizon.
“After years of hype and false starts, the shift to clean power has begun to accelerate at a pace that has taken the most experienced experts by surprise,” Financial Times reporter Pilita Clark observed in May. “Even leaders in the oil and gas sector have been forced to confront an existential question: will the 21st century be the last one for fossil fuels?”
Bloomberg New Energy Finance earlier this year predicted that “electric cars will outsell fossil-fuel powered vehicles within two decades as battery prices plunge, turning the global auto industry upside down and signaling economic turmoil for oil-exporting countries.”
On the edge of the now freezing Bering Sea, in a place with few roads, the tiny community of Kongiginak is working its way toward that electrified future. The village might never go fully fossil-fuel free. Snowmachines and boats powered by outboard motors are tools for modern-day survival in rural Alaska that have yet to be electrified and might never be.
Batteries remain simply too heavy to be practical in those applications, but for much of everyday life in Kong, as the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta refer to this village, today’s batteries can be useful for power, and they are but the newest way the community of some 450 people stores the power coming from five wind turbines spinning above the tundra.
Energy storage is one of the key hurdles to expansion of renewables. Gas or diesel fuel is easy to store. You pump it into storage tanks, and take it out as you need it for power.
Electricity presents more of a problem. Norway has one solution. It has led a European revolution in what is called “pumped hydro.” The idea is as simple as moving water uphill.
All it takes is two reservoirs.
When water is running from an upper reservoir to a lower reservoir and power demand is high, the electricity produced by turbines in the flow is shipped direct to consumers. But when the consumer demand is low, or when wind or solar power comes online to provide more electrical energy, surplus power is used to pump water back to the upper reservoir where it can be held to later generate power.
Kong, unfortunately, has no mountains nearby in which to build reservoirs to store water. But it does have months of cold weather, which led to another energy storage idea: thermal stoves.
Historically, more than three-quarters of the fuel consumed in Kong is used to produce heat for homes and electricity. Dennis Meiners of Principal Intelligent Energy Systems in Anchorage got together with the Chaninik Wind Group seven years ago to try to do something to change that.
Enter Kong’s mini-wind farm, its smart microgrid, and those thermal stoves, which are nothing but fancy heat sinks into which a lot of surplus heat can be pumped and later released slowly to heat homes.
“It’s a heat storage battery,” said Meiners. “We needed some source of storage.”
The technology isn’t exactly new, he added. The electrical industry has been using ceramic bricks in thermal collectors to store heat for years. But the idea of wiring the technology into a microgrid and hooking it to windpower to help a community store and use surplus power is innovative.
A long process
“Here’s the thing,” Meiners said, “the systems were hallucinated 15 years ago.”
Getting the funding to run the experiment and then getting it to work has not been easy. Kong is one of four villages involved in the Chaninik Wind Group that have since 2009 been awarded close to $15 million in state and federal funding to cover their experiments with sustainability.
Meiners conceded the Kong project isn’t yet economical, but said “the frontier of what is achievable has changed.”
He gives a lot of credit to Roderick Phillip of Kong, the vice-chairman of Chaninik and the general manager of the Kongiganak Power Company.
“He’s a Yup’ik (Eskimo) James Bond,” Meiners said.
The project in Kong has cut village fuel consumption almost in half, and the once 65 cents per kilowatt-hour (KWH) price of electricity is rapidly falling as a result. With lithium batteries expected to come online to help store even more wind energy and upgrades in lighting arriving to reduce demand for diesel generated powers, Meiners is predicting the village might be able to get costs down to 10 cents per KWH.
And at those prices, Meiners expects a lot could change. He sees electric all-terrain vehicles popping up in Kong. There’s no reason not, he said, given that most of the ATV use there “is to go around the village.”
Polaris, a Minnesota company which started with the manufacturer of snowmobiles and has become a leader in ATV development, unveiled an electric ATV in 2010. Sales were slow. The vehicles were heavy and the costs higher than gas-powered ATVs.
But prices have been getting more competitive and with the introduction of lighter weight lithium-ion batteries this year Polaris is billing the Ranger EV Li-Ion as “the epitome of clean, quiet, efficient power with unmatched range.”
The advantage of an electric ATV in Kong, Meiners said, is much the same at the thermal stove. It can be charged with power at off-peak hours when electric demand is low and the windmills are pumping out power that needs some place to go.
Converting from petrochemicals to renewables is not simple, he admitted, but technology is racing forward on two fronts, production and consumption. Wind and water turbines, along with solar cells, are getting ever more efficient at producing electricity.
At the same time, LED light bulbs and ever improving electrical appliances of all types are significantly reducing energy consumption.
“Renewable and storage is going to beat diesel,” he said.
Tip of the iceberg?
What is happening now in Kong is at the leading of technology that could have a significant impact that reaches far beyond rural Alaska.
“In the coming years, utility companies may face an existential challenge from smaller and more decentralized energy systems known as microgrids,” writes David G. Victor at the Brookings Institute. “Microgrids first emerged decades ago, driven by customers, such as the U.S. military, that prized reliability above all else and that did not mind paying more for it: military bases have to keep functioning even if the bulk power grid fails. Early adopters also included remote communities, such as in Alaska, that are far from the conventional grid.
“But now, microgrids are spreading to other places, such as university campuses and hospitals, where they generate reliable power and are often designed to save money by using waste energy to heat and cool buildings.
“New technologies, such as fuel cells and battery storage systems (to store extra power produced by renewables), along with more sophisticated software, have led to even smaller systems called “nanogrids,” which Walmart and other megastores have begun to adopt. And picogrids may be next. As more and more people rely less on the traditional grid for power (while still interconnecting with it to help ensure reliability), policymakers and companies will need to create new regulatory systems and business models.”
And those changes are coming even if the theory behind the latest Goodenough battery turns out to be wrong.
John Goodenough at the University of Texas, Austin – recognized as one of the inventors of the lithium-ion battery – this spring announced a team there has developed a battery that will store five-times the energy of present lithium-ions.
The new battery uses lithium glass and is controversial. Many scientists are skeptical of the reported Texas discovery.
“If you could accomplish what this paper claims, it would rewrite the way we think about chemistry,” Dan Steingert, a professor of mechanical engineering at Princeton, told NPR in May.
But even if the new Goodenough battery turns out to be a bust, there are others in the works. Announcements of battery improvements come almost weekly.
The world is clearly charging and recharging toward the future with a remote Alaska village that lives close to the land clearly in the mix.