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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.