Unlocking the Energy Transition with Solar Added to Microgrids in 8 Remote Alaska Communities

July 1, 2024
Each of the communities of Anvik, Grayling, Holy Cross, Huslia, Kaltag, Minto, Nulato and Shageluk now has its own existing microgrid consisting of a centralized diesel-powered generator with medium-voltage power lines connected to local loads.

Adding solar and storage to diesel-powered microgrids offers the opportunity to cut diesel consumption by 40%, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide resilience, quiet the noise of diesel generators and save on energy costs in eight rural Alaska communities now being studied by Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal consortium representing 42 tribal communities in interior Alaska.

 These eight communities are among many small towns in Alaska striving to turn off their diesel generators as often as possible.

 Project awarded grant from Department of Energy

 This project – a study of the communities of Anvik, Grayling, Holy Cross, Huslia, Kaltag, Minto, Nulato and Shageluk, which have populations ranging from 74 to 306 people – received a $26 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations.

 Each community now has its own existing microgrid consisting of a centralized diesel-powered generator with medium-voltage power lines connected to local loads, said Lucas Miller, senior engineering consultant at Mayfield Renewables, during a teleconference about the project. 

 Mayfield is working, along with Xendee – whose software platform identifies options for deploying distributed energy resources – on feasibility studies for the communities. The existing diesel microgrids, small power plants that cover about 1,500 square feet, range in size from 10 kW to 300 kW.

 The plan is to add energy storage, photovoltaic arrays and switchgear, cutting diesel use and eliminating more than 1,500 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. The diesel generators will stay in place but won’t run as often.

 Identifying project possibilities with modeling

Working with Mayfield Renewables and Xendee has helped identify the best sizing for the projects and attract DOE funding, said Edward Dellamary, rural energy specialist for Tanana Chiefs Conference.

 “We were looking for the best approach for hybrid systems that would unlock the energy transition in these communities,” he said.

 The rural communities pose unique challenges. Most of them can’t be accessed by car but are located along rivers, Dellamary said. Liquid fuel is barged in on large river boats that transport thousands of gallons of fuel, generally between June and September. And some of the communities are so remote that they must fly in fuel, which is the most expensive way to access fuel. While bulk diesel fuel generally costs about $3/gallon, if it’s flown in, the cost ranges from $6/gallon to $15/gallon, said Dellamary.

What’s more, pilots can face challenges flying to these communities in the winter when fuel is most needed. It’s difficult to safely fly in when weather is bad, and the communities can be left without fuel and experience days-long outages.

 A simple way to explain the benefits of solar and storage

 “Inherently, the Alaska native people are some of the most self-reliant.

For tens of thousands of years they've lived off the land and intrinsically understand what must be done to provide power,” Dellamary said. The feasibility studies, which describe the solar and storage technologies and their benefits, have helped explain to community members how they can achieve the transition to cleaner energy.

 “The studies are a meaningful and simple way to describe how they can go through this transition. It’s helpful to have a concise way to demonstrate how we can achieve self-reliance,” Dellamary said.

 To create the feasibility studies for different options, Mayfield began by collecting information to plug into the Xendee model. In some cases, that involved installing a meter on-site and conducting a one-month load study for the communities that didn’t have utility information available, Miller said. Mayfield also asked the communities how much land is available for solar. “The goal is to determine what the constraints are. It’s a very collaborative process,” he said.

 The model offers different scenarios, he said. This provides information that allows all involved to be “clear-eyed about what is possible.”

Mayfield then sends to clients a comprehensive report that’s intended to help decision makers choose how they want to implement the project.

 Ratepayers burdened by price of electricity

 “The report could be for a grant application for the client. We’re trying to share information that’s accessible and understandable that we can hand off to a client to keep the project moving,” said Miller.

 Tanana Chiefs Conference is now looking for funding for design and construction, said Dellamary.

 “Ratepayers are put in this burdensome position paying hundreds per month. It’s a difficult position when a community of 60 people pays three to five times the price of electricity,” he said.

Not only do the microgrids save money and improve the environment, but less diesel means less noise pollution.

Lights on, diesel noise off

When a solar, storage and diesel microgrid in Hughes, Alaska, first began working solely on solar in 2021, First Chief Wilmer Beatus asked why his lights were still working, Dellamary told Microgrid Knowledge earlier.

Beatus asked this question because he could no longer hear the sound of diesel generators – an important benefit of cutting diesel use.

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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