Alaskan Power Microgrids

Alaskan Power Microgrids Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Alaska leads the way to a more independent and renewable energy supply.


Alaska’s power microgrids. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Unlike the rest of the United States, Alaska’s remote communities don’t run off of an interconnected power grid. Instead, they’re powered by local microgrids—small, independent power stations. And they’ve become leaders in integrating diesel-fueled power generation with local renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Erin Whitney
It’s very expensive to power those grids because they’re primarily based on diesel generators, which require imported fuel. And so many of them are looking toward local and sustainable energy sources to counter those high costs of energy.

That’s University of Alaska, Fairbanks, experimental scientist Erin Whitney. She writes in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy that Alaska can serve as a model for resilient power microgrids in both small and large communities worldwide. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Unlike the contiguous United States, which relies on a vast, interconnected series of electric grids, the state of Alaska's electric system is made up of microgrids, which are small, local power stations that operate autonomously. This situation exists in Alaska because the state's terrain makes it difficult and cost prohibitive to establish a large-scale electrical grid. 

According to the research conducted by Erin Whitney and other researchers with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska, the establishment of microgrids by local communities has had the effect of not only making those communities less prone to the problems encountered by a large, interconnected system, like failure in one part of the system that could affect millions of customers or the possibility of sabotage, it has also encouraged them to think of how they could use alternative forms of energy to meet their needs.

The microgrids in Alaska provide permanent, self-sufficient islands of electricity that can produce up to 2 megawatts of electricity for remote communities. Alaskan microgrids provide electricity for more than 200 communities and generate more than 2 million hours of operating power annually. In addition, the communities that use these microgrids consider how to integrate sustainable, and often renewable, energy into their systems. They take this step to help reduce the cost of shipping expensive diesel fuel to their communities. The cost of the diesel fuel is so high because often it can only be transported to those communities a couple of times a year when the ice melts.

The researchers argue that oil and local, renewable resources can work in tandem to supply electricity to microgrids. A diesel generator typically provides base power generation, while renewable energy sources reduce the load on the generators and save fuel, lowering energy costs. And, even though some of the communities are in the dark for part of the year, they get around this problem by switching between solar power in the summer months and wind power in the winter.

Whitney hopes that other communities can learn from the research she and her colleagues have conducted and the experiences of these Alaskan communities to help make their own electric grids more resilient.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is a microgrid?
  2. Why do communities in Alaska use microgrids instead of a larger, interconnected electric system?
  3. What do you think are the benefits of using a microgrid? What do you think would be some of the downsides?
  4. How many communities in Alaska get their energy from microgrids? How much power do they generate annually?
  5. What kinds of renewable energy do these communities use to help power their microgrids?

To learn more about microgrids, read this report from the Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

The Science Update Fossil Fuel Switch looks at a program to replace 70 percent of our fossil fuels, using only current technologies like storable solar power, safer nuclear plants, and methanol from crop waste.

Going Further

For Educators

You can use this Science Update to help engage your students in a discussion or unit about energy and, in particular, about renewable energy or alternative ways for people and communities to get their energy. You could listen to the story with your students and then follow up with your own questions to tie in what they've learned from this podcast with what they're learning in the classroom. You also could have them conduct their own research on microgrids and alternative forms of energy.

In addition, you can supplement this Science Update with these Science NetLInks' resources.

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