The Eklutna Battery

If Alaska was Switzerland, the natural equivalent of a giant, rechargeable battery able to provide renewable power for the state’s largest city forever would likely be up and running in the Chugach Mountains above Eklutna by now.

Switzerland switched on its most powerful “green battery” in the Linthal Valley four years ago. Even before that project was complete, Norway saw the potential to combine wind, solar and hydropower into contained, rechargeable systems and began trying to position itself to become the green battery for all of Europe.

The workings of these systems that have come to be called green-batteries are fundamentally simple: Renewable energy that would otherwise go to waste is used to pump water uphill where it is stored for future use as hydropower.

If wind turbines or solar panels are producing more power than can be used in the moment, the extra energy is shifted to pumps that move water from lower elevation reservoirs to higher elevation reservoirs. If water is spinning through hydro turbines when electric demand is low, as often happens, the excess power is shunted away to pump water back uphill and store it.

The stored water can later be used to boost electric supply whenever demand rises.

This is how the $2.2 billion Linthal facility in the Swiss Alps works. Operating at a cycle efficiency of 80 percent, it is capable of day-in and day-out meeting the peak power demands of 1 million Swiss homes, according to GE Reports, the website for the company that designed the project’s four pump turbines that turn variable-speed motor generators for producing electricity.

That’s about four-times as many homes as are found in Alaska, according to the U.S. Census. 

So what have Alaskans been doing while the Swiss have been investing in and building electric-generating systems to create forever power?

Studying the $5.2 billion phantom of the Susitna Hydro-electric Project first proposed in 1960s only to be shelved in the 1980s due to high environmental and economic costs before being resurrected and killed again in recent years for the same reasons.

And planning and planning and planning for a now $40 to $50 billion natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to tidewater, a nearly 50-year-old idea. 

The big gas hope of the moment is that the government of communist China will be the entity finally willing to fund the line and fuel the liquified-natural-gas (LNG) obsession of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker to help guarantee itself a supply of Pacific Rim fuel. In the process, the hope is an Alaska-state run company can make some money running a pipeline, and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Anchorage might be guaranteed a supply of economically priced gas.

Outside the box

But there would appear to be options to gas in a world increasingly powered by the technological changes driving  a boom in renewable energy. The Financial Times last year warned of the “disruptive impact of green energy on companies — and entire industries — around the world.”

Solar, wind and hydro power are all expanding so rapidly to challenge gas, oil and coal as global energy sources that the world is changing. “Solar leads the charge in another record year for renewables,” the International Energy Agency headlined in its report on 2017, global energy growth.

“By 2022, global renewable electricity generation is expected to grow by over one-third to over 8,000 terrawatts per hour, equal to the total power consumption of China, India and Germany combined,” the report said.

Growth in renewable power is only expected to continue and accelerate as market competition steadily drives down prices for solar panels, and wind and water turbines. Alaska faces a solar handicap – it’s dark in the winter when power demand is at its peak – but Anchorage is uniquely positioned to harness wind and water to create ones of those so-called green batteries in the Chugach Mountains north of the city.

“It’s a no brainer,” said engineer Kerry Williams of Eagle River, who sees a market-driven, global shift to electricity that Alaska would be wise to join sooner rather than later, largely for the costs savings tomorrow and more to come in the future.


The thinker

Williams is an old Alaskan – both in years, 66, and time in-country, 61. He moved to Palmer with his parents in 1957 when Alaska was still a territory. He knew Alaska before oil (BO). This was then:

Population: 229,000,  a statewide number representing about 57 percent of the 402,000 people who today inhabit the Anchorage Metropolitan Statistical Area, or what the state prefers to call the Anchorage/Mat-Su Economic Region. 

Gross Domestic Product: About $1 billion, or about a sixth of today’s $47.5 billion after correcting for inflation.

Williams knows oil, too. He left Palmer to attend Boston University but came back to work on the TransAlaska Pipeline System that built the pipe from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Valdez on the shores of ice-free Prince William Sound and transformed the 49th state.

The crude-oil pipeline brought Alaska a new and robust economic future, and oil remains the state’s present. But Williams is pretty well convinced electricity is the state’s future. Alaska, he argues, is destined to get dragged along by a global energy shift.

Sales of electrical vehicles are surging, he notes. They in turn drive up the demand for electricity. Electricity companies looking for clean energy increasingly turn to renewables.

Demand drives steady technological improvements in solar, wind and hydro generating equipment along with improvements and growth in electric-powered products: cars, buses, tools, lighting, computers and a whole lot more.

An electric-powered snowmachine isn’t coming any time soon, but electric-powered all-terrain vehicles are already here. For most uses, they are no match for their gasoline-fueled competition, but everything electric is rapidly evolving.

Norway – the oil-rich Arctic country to which Alaska likes to compare itself – is at the forefront of a European shift to electricity. It has already harnessed its bountiful supplies of renewable energy to produce enough economical electricity to make it Europe’s per capita leader in electric cars.

“Last year, EVs constituted nearly 40% of the nation’s newly registered passenger cars,” writes Paul Hockenos at The Guardian. “And the Norwegian experiment shows every sign of accelerating.

“Earlier this year, Norway opened the world’s largest fast-charging station, which can charge up to 28 vehicles in about half an hour. The country, joined by Europe’s No 2 in electromobility, the Netherlands, intends to phase out all fossil fuel-powered automobiles by 2025.”

That sounds sort of crazy – 2025 is less than a decade away – but there is a trend here and market forces once set in motion cannot be denied.

With the demand for electric cars steady and growing, electric cars are only going to get better and better. And as that happens, they will become ever more popular and create ever more impetus for a shift from petrochemical-powered transportation to electric-powered transportation.

“We really don’t have a choice in this,” said Williams, a man who thinks about this stuff a good bit. A member of the Prometheus Society, he is blessed with or suffers from (take your pick) an over-active brain.

Another member of the society described him this way in 1999:

“When you think of Kerry Williams, think John Denver. Kerry is similar in appearance, voice and manners. I think of Kerry as the archetypical young Harvest faculty member….Kerry would be a husky 6-feet with a ponytail and brown or green eyes. He’s 48, but you would NEVER know it.”

Excuse Williams the Harvard reference. That was someone else’s observation not his.

Just consider him some old Alaskan with an over-active brain sitting in his super-insulated, energy-efficient Eagle River home looking at the surrounding mountains thinking about how Alaska could be as energy smart as some mountain-rich country when he reads a story retired state wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott has written about Eklutna River salmon.

The plan

Strangely enough, Williams said, his plan for “pumped-hydro,” which is what drives Linthal in Switzerland and has the Norwegians talking about all kinds of opportunities to turn their country into a green battery for mainland Euro consumers, started with the salmon.

“It was the issue which started my investigation into turning Eklutna hydro into a pumped hydro energy storage complex. Because excessive water from Eklutna Lake is being used for hydroelectric power, the lake has not naturally drained for years.

“Doing the first stage of a conversion—swapping the turbine generators for reversible flow turbine/pumps—would enable us to keep Eklutna Lake filled and allow salmon to return. It would enhance the entire (Chugach) State Park by returning that lake to its historical level, and would lower our utility rates by about a penny per kilowatt hour instantly by replacing the very expensive gas fueled peaker plant operations. Excessive peaker plant operation is the cited reason for denying expanded wind farm and solar energy for rail-belt utilities.”

The latter might actually have as much to do as the salmon with getting Williams started on the idea of an Eklutna battery. His blood runs a little green. He hates to see energy used inefficiently. And as an Alaska here BO, he worries about Alaska after oil.

As he  told Bjorn Olson at the website Alaskans Know Climate Change, “when I retired fifteen years ago, I decided that the problem that most needed solving was how to get Alaska’s post-oil economy stabilized.”

Cheap energy would help do that. And if you can come up with a plan for economical electrical power that helps both the environment in general and salmon in particular?

“I think this thing slapped me in the face,” he said, given that the linchpin in his plan – Eklutna Lake – already produces hydroelectric power.

Clean energy plus enhanced salmon habitat plus, best of all, lower power costs. Who could be against that?

Hard to say, but the plan does call for creating four reservoirs in the mountains surrounding Eklutna Lake and, as Williams concedes, “most of it is actually inside the (Chugach State) Park.”

Among the NIMBYest of people, Alaskans have over the years been extremely protective of the Chugach Park. Still, Williams said the environmental groups he has talked to so far seem to like his pumped hydro idea.

“Every reaction I’ve seen is good,” he said. “I’m good with it. This would actually enhance the park.”

Raising the level of Eklutna Lake, he said, means more water in the Eklutna River for salmon. The dams for reservoirs he envisions high in the headwaters of the Peters, Hunter and Thunderbird creeks could be built using aerial trams instead of roads, which would open up new opportunities for winter skiing and summer bike trails.

All of this could serve not only to facilitate power production but create new opportunities for outdoor recreation in the Eklutna/Peters Creek area north of Anchorage.

“There’s so much potential,” Williams said, that he can’t see why any green group would be opposed. Olson, who is so green he’s getting ready to take off on a bike ride from Nome to Fairbanks as this is written, laid out Williams’ plan in detail at Alaskans Know Climate Change for those who want to dig down into the nitty gritty.

The pushback

Though Williams believes the plan is sure to drive down electric costs and is far more sensible than the use of more of the natural gas which now powers Anchorage electricity, he doubts his idea will find immediate favor with the Chugach Electric Association and Anchorage’s Municipal Light & Power for the simple reason that they are heavily invested in natural gas.

And a pumped-hydro project, even in its first phases, “cuts down the needs for gas turbines really fast,” he said.

“They’ve just put a lot of money into gas, too. But that’s not a barrier if they seriously look into this.”

Many utilities across the country are now transitioning from coal and oil electric generation to natural gas both to reduce pollution and cuts costs. Alaska utilities wouldn’t have much trouble selling their gas turbines, Williams said.

Alaska, he said, might even be able to help Hawaii out by not only selling the island state Anchorage’s gas turbines, but also contracting to supply natural gas the Anchorage-based utilities now own. They paid ConocoPhillips $152 million to purchase a one-third share of the Beluga River gas field on the west side of  Cook Inlet in 2016.

Hawaii generates increasing amounts of power with solar cells, but is still heavily dependent on costly fossil fuels. About 70 percent of Hawaii’s electric energy is generated by oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 

Hawaiian Electric Companies tried to work out a deal for liquified natural gas from British Columbia to start a shift to gas generation in 2016, but it fell through. 

Since then, the Hawaiian group has said it’s trying to accelerate its move to renewable energy, but concedes in a statement on its website that “the potential of LNG as a bridge fuel…should be evaluated.”

Alaska has an idle LNG plant in Nikiski now owned by Andeavor, formerly Tesoro. Andeavor bought the LNG plant from ConcocoPhillips in February. 

What the company plans to do with the plant is unclear. Andeavor at this time holds no contracts for Cook Inlet or Kenai Peninsula gas. Gas for Hawaii might provide it an opportunity.

That said, the many and varied interests involved in power issues in Alaska could make the idea for an Anchorage Metropolitan Area future powered by renewable energy hard to pull off even if, as Williams observes, “this would last forever, and electric bills would drop.”

The big question might a simple one of leadership.

Former Gov. Wally Hickel, who once envisioned a $30-billion, 55-mile rail and highway tunnel under the Bering Strait to connect the North American and Eurasian continents, would likely have been on this idea like a starving wolf on an ailing moose if he were still alive, but Alaska today lacks for Hickelesque visionaries.

And rechargeable green batteries have no hope of producing electrical energy unless the idea is first charged with human energy.












31 replies »

  1. The problem with Alaska is that Alaskans cannot agree how to make a “cheese sandwich” when they only have bread and cheese on their plates.
    Without a general consensus or agreement in planning and fund allocation, we as “arctic dewelers” will remain an Oil Colony who has political leaders beholden to big forgein oil companies.
    Shell, Exxon, and Conoco Phillips will continue to run our resources and local economies into the ground and invest our Permanent Fund wealth outside of Alaska.
    We will be left with more oil spills, more pipelines and forced to work with communist superpowers to earn a living.
    This is not the direction that our pioneers had hoped for when migrating to this “last frontier” with their families years ago.

    • Steve, I question your statement about Oil cos. “investing our Permanent Fund wealth outside of Alaska.” While our PF is very clearly invested “outside of Alaska,” that’s by the design for the most part and Oil cos. have nothing to do with it.
      There have been a few instances of investment (in state) and also cases whereby the State has chosen to take its royalty payments in kind, rather than money but they are few.
      I take it you think we should be investing PF wealth in Alaska. What is your reasoning?

  2. How about this golden oldie?: The tides between Portage and Whittier are almost exactly opposite. Therefore we could generate power by moving the water both directions Also, we would get nice clean seawater from Prince William Sound and turn Turnagain Arm into an ocean paradise! The people in Whittier won’t like it much – but there aren’t that many of them….

  3. I wish discussions of Solar and Wind energy would do so in terms of their total percentage of energy contribution.
    It is always discussed in terms of percentage increase. A 200% increase of an energy source that currently provides 2 or 3% of our energy mix doesn’t really change much.
    Pumped hydro is currently the most efficient way to store large amounts of excess energy if you have energy excess to store.
    The Grand Coulee in Washington, which has a huge reservoir into which water is pumped to store excess hydro power at night when energy demand is low, is a great and successful example.
    Alaska, unlike Texas, doesn’t have large expanses with consistent winds to fill with wind towers and Alaska’s low solar angle makes solar problematic even in the summer.
    Alaska will need to find a green way to generate significantly more excess energy than the current capability of wind and solar technologies before this project will look feasible.

    • Ken: if you look at the project, there’s a fair bit to be gained just from surplus hydro as at Grand Coulee, and here in Anchorage we already have a wind power peaking problem. it would be good to have a place to dump some of that power to smooth the flow. i don’t know that this project would pencil, but given those issues it certainly seems worth a look.

      • Craig,
        The problem with the wind power in Anchorage has nothing to do with peaking power, it has to do with the inherent unreliability of the wind within an industry that demands reliability, this is the problem with integrating renewables and conventional power sources. Solar and wind work when they work on their own timelines. People want their lights to work when they flip the switch…every time, they want their fish and meat to stay frozen in the freezer…year round, they want their computer to turn on and goto the series of tubes that algore made…each and every time they turn it on.

        According to the artist illustration that you’ve provided there are four reservoirs, a catchment pond, a new pump house, and a new powerhouse all of that won’t be cheap and it won’t be powered by excess Fire Island power unless they build a lot more wind turbines that our infrastructure can’t support due to the aforementioned unreliability issues.

      • Another way to look at this.
        Gas, Coal, Nuclear can be ramped up and down with anticipated demand.
        So if those are in your energy mix, there never really is much excess because they will be adjusted to keep supply and demand relatively close to each other.
        Only scenarios like WA hydro (a large percentage of energy production in the area) where energy production can’t be ramped down enough because the Columbia river is going keep flowing beyond demand at certain times of day or
        if Wind and Solar can produce more than the total energy needed in a system some of the time, will you truly have excess that is significant enough to consider storage.
        If you have excess energy in a system with gas or coal, it’s the gas or coal providing most of the excess.

        It would be interesting to know how much energy is involved in the “wind peaks”.
        Is the scale of it large enough to be worth the cost of building storage?
        We need an electrical engineer to puts some numbers to this.

  4. When it comes to dams and electricity it is all about acre feet and mw output. What is the current acre feet allowed to be used from Eklutna for electrical generation and what is the current electrical output of the Eklutna power plant? Building new reservoirs and new power plants takes money, and water. This is a good idea and it clearly has its place in the world, even now. How much will it cost to build the infrastructure required, how much energy will be consumed pumping water uphill, and how much electricity will this project generate…I’m guessing not enough to provide for even a small city.

      • Thanks for the response Bill, you’ve managed to partially answer the question I asked with the smallest overall impact of all my questions. This model isn’t new, it just hasn’t been widely deployed due to all of the costs and other mitigating factors involved.

        On a side not energy is never wasted, only converted. It might not be used for the intended purpose but it is never wasted.

      • Sorry about that, Steve-O but I didn’t have answers to your other questions. I get that about wasted energy and should have used “potential energy” but I’m sure you got my point.
        The below post by Marlin Savage gives a look at a similar project that has been working for some time and a study of it could get some answers for you.

  5. I love the presentation of innovative ideas such as this but count me as a skeptic. It would have monumental political problems due to the status of Chugach State Park. I also do not believe the benefits exceed the costs. Are there any cost estimates for this project? And what would be the annual output in mW-hours?

    • i have to agree CSP presents a problem, Chris; which also goes to cost v. benefit. i’m sure there are some people who could have a lovely argument over the cost of losing the forever-wild value of the upper Peters Creek drainage. Alaskans seem generally opposed to organized and coordinated change for a societal purpose. we’re rather have it sneak up on us willy-nilly.

  6. Yep, lots of great ideas and new technology out there. These projects are expensive and will raise rates to facilitate. Therein lies the problem. The ratepayers must be willing to absorb the capital expense.

    • maybe, but there’s no good cost data on this one yet. what you can say is that infrastructure construction costs don’t look to be all though that high, and some of the investment has already been made in the form of the Eklutna power plant.
      are costs higher than for Snow River, at which Chugach wanted to take a serious look at damming until it got scared off by a flood of environmental objections? who knows.
      and rates always depend on how things are financed. something like this could be financed over a long, long term because part of the infrastructure investment is in damn-near-forever dams for reservoirs.
      generators and pumps have a lifespan, but dams? there are some damn old dams out there:
      right here in Alaska, the 168-foot tall Salmon Creek dam in Juneau is more than 100 years old and still sound:

  7. Natural gas powered trucks, SUVs, and cars are clean and solve some of electric vehicles’ limitations.

    • agreed. the problem is the lack of a fuel distribution system, and i don’t see that coming. electric cars are here. lots more seem to becoming. and with clean-energy-crazy California being the big tail that has a lot of influence on shaking the U.S. dog, i’d expect steady expansion of quick-charge stations similar to those in Norway.

    • You are correct here, Marlin. However, there are limited facilities for refueling which limits their use. A company (Clean Energy) provides filling stations for overland trucks along major interstates and many fleet trucking outfits fill their own fleets.
      Such filling facilities will be some time coming to Alaska IMO. Should the price of diesel jump up again, this could change though.

  8. In this story we see a constant problem with well-meaning green power activists. They can’t restrain their enthusiasm and unnecessarily push solid incremental plans out into areas that society has not yet evolved for.

    It is _sufficient_ for his argument to merely talk about Eklutna as a shift to greener electricity for commercial and residential use, which could then, if the cost is right, simply via market action, also _gradually_ shift commercial and residential heating and cooking, etc from gas to electric for new construction and as existing furnaces and boilers wear out.

    Instead, like all too many true believers, he jumps right to “electric cars.” Look out the window, people here drive trucks and SUVs and many people need those vehicles. We are not Norway, until electric car technology and, more importantly, roadside infrastructure is mature enough to provide an actual functional and cost equivalent for those particular products, bringing up a near-term switch to electric vehicles as more than a casual mention of “what might also happen someday” poisons the rest of an otherwise rational argument.

    • Regardless of your feelings about their “unnecessarily push” towards something society is not evolved for, I suspect that these ratepayers can get around the cost savings they are talking about.

      • That’s my entire point. The plan makes perfect sense simply on a power generation and gradual phase out of gas power. Full stop.

        Adding in “electric cars in Norway” just muddies an otherwise clearly well-thought-out plan which should be an easy sell. Not every granular detail of every potential long-term (not near term here in the real world) outcome needs to be brought up every time for every audience. It’s bad salesmanship.

      • but i’m not trying to sell anything. simply pointing out how much the world changes. the Vikings no longer travel by longboat? now they’re in electric cars? what the hell?

      • Juneau has had cheap hydropower for some time and recently the number of electric vehicles has jumped with City adding power-charging stations to accommodate them. Granted the road situation is different in Juneau but as the article mentions, much of Mat-Su driving is also commuting that doesn’t take those trucks and SUVs.

      • The bottom line is economy of scale. Of which Alaska does not have one. To build infrastructure like this you need lots of money. Of course, you can finance a lot of it. But you have to be able to make the bond payments. There are two ways to do this. The people/ratepayers make the payments. Or a sugar daddy pays for it. Alaska has enjoyed sugar daddy funded infrastructure for many decades, thanks to the feds and oil revenues. But it seems like sugar daddy money is hard to come by these days. So the costs would fall on Alaskans. For many decades we have proven again and again that we have too few people to generate much revenue for … well, anything. We’d likely need to quadruple out population in the Anchorage area to be able to have the economy of scale to make the numbers work for this project.

        Overall, good idea. But it will most likely take a place on the dusty shelf next to Mike Gravel’s Teflon domed city at the headwaters of the Tokositna River.

      • “Granted the road situation is different in Juneau but as the article mentions, much of Mat-Su driving is also commuting that doesn’t take those trucks and SUVs.”

        Again, that’s my point. Areas can and will develop electric transportation nets organically as their utility in those areas becomes practical. The commute from the Valley, in winter or summer, has nothing similar in risk of collision, or environmental conditions, to Juneau. Some people are using electric cars now because they pencil out for them in practical (the largest factor) and economic terms, if it penciled out for others, they’d be driving them too. After all, they do more than commute and many people can’t afford a single-use vehicle.

        Which is why statements like “their commute “doesn’t take” the vehicles they choose” is another problem with many green activists, the constant assertions to others of what they “need” rather than trying to convince them of the position with reasoned argument.

    • The transition on the left coast, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and even Texas is pretty impressive; technology and infrastructure is keeping pace with the demand. Someday is happening today and the pace toward renewables is relentless; massive solar farms dot the desert southwest, along with wind farms in the upper desert. Imagine, 80% of the daily trips into Anchorage powered by renewable technologies. Alvin Tofler hit the nail on the head in Future Shock, but we shouldn’t stick our heads into the sand.

      • Organic change? Go figure. Though acres of ugly bird blenders is not much of a selling point for me.

        Though I question whether in the near-term 80% of the people driving into Anchorage can afford a single use vehicle that can’t also haul a boat, gear, 3 kids and a dog, a month’s worth of groceries, get up the 8 miles of bad road to their house, etc, etc.

  9. Great article, Craig. Alaska needs more Wally Hickel-types to help blend the best of Alaska living with some up-to-date energy vision. The advance of the storage capabilities of Lithium-Ion batteries (and what ever is the next step) should encourage an eclectic blend of energy sources. Next step for Alaska heating is to encourage the change from the standard wood stove to a more efficient German/Russian style stove that reburns the exhaust gases until very little emissions are released into the environment. It’s all in the exhaust ducting and taking advantage of thermal mass. M

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