Buckland sets a milestone for rural energy capabilities with new Li-ion battery

 Solar panel arrays in Buckland (Photo courtesy of Timothy Gavin)
Solar panel arrays in Buckland (Photo courtesy of Timothy Gavin) (KTUU)
Published: Aug. 13, 2019 at 5:20 PM AKDT
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A few years ago, the village of Buckland in northwest Alaska set a milestone a leader in rural renewable energy when installed several wind turbines and solar panels.

Now, the village has hit an even more ambitious target: unofficially becoming the first village to power itself entirely off of wind and solar renewable energy stored in their recently-installed lithium-ion batteries.

“It’s a huge hurdle and a huge milestone for renewable energy in rural areas,” said Greg Stiegel of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, which tracks renewable energy use across the state.

Sonny Adams is director of alternative energy for NANA. He says that Buckland is the first village that he is aware of to, for a number of hours, run itself entirely on renewable energy from solar and wind systems combined with batteries, and that it’s a long-term sustainability vision that began in 2008. Other rural Alaska communities are now using wind and batteries but have not included solar.

“That’s when the energy crisis hit,” he said in a phone interview with Channel 2, “We received three energy grants from the Department of Energy and one of them was to create a strategic energy plan for the NANA region and what we did is we did an energy option analysis for all of the villages within the region.”

The analysis showed promise for wind and solar energy, but they didn’t extend to all of the villages in the region. Buckland and Deering, which both sit near the windy coast of Kotzebue Sound in Northwest Alaska, became the flag bearers for NANA’s vision of a renewable energy future. But despite the promise, there were still major challenges.

At the time, the idea of turning a traditional power grid into something in which the various energy sources can run independently of the main power grid, was a pipe dream. The ability to compartmentalize these different energy systems so that they can operate autonomously from the diesel-generator at times of high input is known as a microgrid.

“Ten years ago they were thinking that high penetration of renewables into an existing grid was impossible, and here we are today, in July 24, 2019,” said Adams.

The new technology has allowed the village of about 400 people to turn off its expensive diesel generator for up to six hours at a time, beginning on July 24, when the diesel generators went silent for the first time. The power station coasted on energy that is stored from the turbines and solar panels for just a few minutes during the first test, but since then it has worked its way up to six hours -- that's six hours of quiet, 100% renewable energy generation. And that’s already after daylight started to decline.

“If this was to happen back in June, when you had plenty of wind, plenty of solar, and you had plenty of time to collect more data, it would have been even better,” said Adams. “I think had we had one more wind turbine in Buckland, we could really see some huge savings.”

He also hopes that a sister village of Deering can get its battery system operating soon, although the winter months tend to have less wind -- and much less sun.

Aside from analyzing the energy potential, the project required smart purchasing of equipment. After a lot of shopping, the project managers decided on ordering the batteries and solar arrays from a California company called BoxPower, which sells self-contained energy systems that are transported in shipping conexes that make barging them up to rural Alaska easier. The system consists of three BoxPower solar arrays, a Saft battery bank, and a grid-forming inverter from ABB.

The batteries from BoxPower (Photo courtesy of Timothy Gavin)

And the batteries’ size required a retrofitting of the old village power house to add an HVAC system to stabilize the temperature during the hot summer and cold winter of Northwest Alaska.

The company even made a promotional video about the project, which states that the systems are up an ready in just 24 hours.

The power comes as rural energy subsidies are threatened by budget cutting. The Power Cost Equalization (PCE) program was vetoed once already by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, though he signed off on it in the most recent budget bill. Still, Adams says he isn’t optimistic about keeping energy subsidies in the future.

“They've put a spotlight on PCE,” says Adams, “And that spotlight's not gonna go away anymore. They're gonna be eye-balling that for a while, so it's important to start thinking about well, we need to start doing something different in case something drastic happens. Renewable energy is part of the solution.”

Adams says that it’s been a long, hard road, but he sees it as the culmination of a decade of work, but he hasn’t been guarding the spoils of the village’s hard work. Instead, he’s been in helping other regional corporations, including Calista and Kawerak, develop their own renewable energy resources.

The project was expensive, and much of it was funded through large federal grants, including $1 million from the DOE and $1.6 million from USDA, resources which not every village can get access to. That’s why he says that it’s crucial that regional corporations and non-profits work with the private sector. He described the players in the Northwest Arctic project.

“You've got the energy industry, you've got DOE, USDA, the tribe the city, the regional corporation, and all these different contractors, like the Saft batteries, the ABB controls, all these different things coming together, working together with a common goal to see if we can reach diesel generators off,” he said.

The teamwork and collaboration has been giving managers hope, but managers have had to blaze trail to a rural energy future for the last decade. Adams says its admits that the project has been difficult, but rewarding. Besides, he says villages no longer have much choice when thinking about their energy futures.

“Is it perfect? No, but neither is going from making that transition from the dog team to the snow machine -- that wasn't perfect,” he said.

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