Environment

Rural America is on the frontlines of low-emissions electricity

They’re proving that energy can be cheap as well as green

October 15, 2018
Two windmills stand in a field
If wind, solar, and hydro are one side of the equation, the other side is storage.

The 6,000 residents of Alaska’s Kodiak Island are used to being on their own, and paying for it. A 10-hour ferry ride separates them from the nearest mainland town, keeping grocery prices high and tourism low. But the one thing the fishing port doesn’t overpay for is electricity. While the typical Alaskan forks over 21 cents for each kilowatt-hour to power their home, the island’s isolated inhabitants get away with around 15. What’s more, Kodiak’s one-of-a-kind power grid now delivers that energy from a 98 percent renewable blend of hydro and wind power, ending a decades-long reliance on pricey and polluting diesel.

Cutting-edge energy systems are increasingly finding their way into remote communities like Kodiak, where the harsh economics of seclusion make new strategies that replace costly fossil fuels especially appealing. Kauai, Hawaii, and Greensburg, Kansas, also overhauled their electricity infrastructure in favor of renewable sources. But even at the right price, transitioning to clean energy sources is far from a foregone conclusion. It often takes external pressure to push communities to embrace new energy systems.

For Kodiak, that push was diesel. In the early 2000s, booming energy needs of the fishing industry presented the Kodiak Electric Association, or KEA, with a dilemma: burn more of the stuff (increasing reliance on the expensive-to-import fuel) or engineer energy independence. “We realized, we can’t do this. Diesel is just an unsustainable form to have as the basis of your power supply,” says KEA regulatory specialist Jennifer Richcreek.

Spurning diesel, Kodiak Electric Association, the not-for-profit, locally-controlled cooperative, has now spent a decade building out their power system piece by piece. Now, their electric chimera can wring just about every joule they need from local wind and water.

Hydropower forms the cornerstone of the system in Kodiak: 85 percent of the town’s power originates from water spilling down the sluices of Terror Lake Dam. One might assume KEA prioritizes this rock star power source, but that would betray a misunderstanding of the fickle nature of wind.

Kodiak’s wind energy is cheap – less than half of diesel’s 29 cents per kilowatt-hour – but mercurial. The KEA can adjust the power coming from Terror Lake by opening and closing its floodgates, but the wind does as it pleases. When it blows, the KEA reacts accordingly, pushing energy from its wind farms’ six turbines straight out to the grid. Switching back to hydro can take minutes, so Kodiak relies on a hybrid energy storage system to keep the lights on.

During momentary dips in supply, a large battery pack kicks in, releasing stored energy to match demand on a second-to-second basis. Kodiak also built two massive steel flywheels for guaranteeing energy on an even shorter timescale. While spinning, each wheel can store hundreds of homes‘ worth of power in their motion, although only for a few minutes. Tasked mainly with satiating the electric hunger of the port’s massive crane, they also smooth over microsecond blips, Richcreek says.

The wind and hydro system may have been too successful. With energy prices low, fishing activities are expanding and the nearly vanquished diesel is rising again to meet the port’s growing energy demands. To beat it back, Kodiak is adding water to Terror Lake. Richcreek predicts the project will stop diesel use for decades, but says the KEA needs to remain vigilant about growing its energy capacity. “If loads continue to grow, then we can start looking at wind again. Wind, hydro, wind, hydro. The process is never done.”

At the other end of the ocean, the 65,000-person island of Kauai, Hawaii faces similar problems to Kodiak. Relying on diesel makes the Hawaii’s electricity prices three times higher than in Idaho or Louisiana. Additionally, few places sit more exposed to the changing climate. “Being an island community, anything we can do to reduce our carbon footprint is hugely important to us,” says Beth Tokioka, spokesperson for the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative, the KIUC. “It is really important for us to get there as quickly as we can and as responsibly as we can.”

And the community is well on its way. KIUC has achieved a 45 percent renewable mix of solar, biomass, and hydro, putting it on track to hit a target of 70 percent renewables by 2030. One challenge to further expansion? A glut of solar panels floods the sundrenched island’s grid with too much energy during the daytime. The cooperative realized years ago that it needed to find a way to move that daylight energy to when people need it most – the night. Rather than design their own storage solution like Kodiak did, in 2014 KUIC put out a call for help: Would anybody be willing to sell them energy?

Tesla answered: They could gather solar power, store it in batteries, and sell it back to the co-op at the desired time. And they promised to do it for just under 14 cents per kilowatt-hour. Even more valuable, with Tesla footing the bill, if the project failed the cost wouldn’t get passed along to islanders. Fortunately, it didn’t, and Tesla was able to deliver energy at the promised price point.

Buoyed by success, co-op leadership requested proposals for a larger solar farm just one year later in 2015. The winning bid came in at 11 cents per kilowatt-hour from AES Distributed Energy, an international power company. This rapid development underscores how important it is to transition step-by-step, Tokioka says, to take advantage of future advances.

And it’s not just diesel-weary islands who are transitioning to renewable energy sources. At the center of the country, in Greensburg, Kansas, when a 2007 tornado destroyed nearly every building in town, residents had a tragic, but rare opportunity to decide how to rebuild. Merely reconnecting to Kansas’s power grid may have been the most affordable option in the short term, but the community had different concerns.

“Their big problem was everyone would leave town after they graduated high school,” says Shanti Plessi, an energy efficiency researcher at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. “They wanted to develop a reason to be sustainable long-term as a city.”

Leaders decided that the town would be reborn with the goal of running on all renewables, all the time. The effort focused on conservation, which dovetailed with the community’s agricultural roots. Home to the world’s largest hand-dug well, Greensburg’s survival has long-prized water efficiency, and Plessi says the trick was to connect that instinct with energy resources.

Redesigned public buildings used thicker insulation, natural lighting, and heat pumps to increase efficiency and slash energy use. Many private residents followed suit, and today the town consumes less than a third of the energy it once did. The sturdier buildings are more tornado-proof too.

A utility-scale wind farm completed the changeover to renewables in 2010, producing three to five times the power the 700-person town needs, and making Greensburg a net energy exporter.

The transition may have cost 20 percent extra than relying on traditional energy sources, according to some estimates, but many feel the investment is already paying off. “From their point of view, it was the only way to rebuild. It was an economic development opportunity,” Plessi says. “And that’s turning out to be true now with the wind industry filling up their hotels.” Wind turbines need regular maintenance, so they create jobs as well as joules.

Spurred into action by physical destruction, Greensburg was able to tackle the economic hazards that threaten many Midwestern towns. For Kodiak and Kauai, the economic realities of their physical isolation drove cutting-edge changes to their energy infrastructure.

And now other areas are poised to benefit from their hard-won lessons. Greenberg serves as a proof-of-concept for how to rebuild sustainably. Kauai proves that large-scale energy storage is available for purchase today. And Kodiak has become a case study in how to design an independent grid that hands off electrical power seamlessly between many elements: the town hosts researchers from around the world.

Transitioning to renewable energy may seem daunting, but the secret – according to those who’ve done it – is to take it step-by-step. “It’s definitely a large elephant to eat,” says Richcreek, who’s worked at KEA throughout the 10-year transition. “You eat it one bite at a time.”

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About the Author

Charlie is especially into physical sciences both on and off the planet. His work has appeared in Popular Science, Quanta Magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor. In previous lives, he taught physics and English in Mozambique and Japan, and he has a bachelor’s in physics from Brown University.

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