Small wind case study: Alaskan winds are strong, cold & far out of the way
Appalachia Wales, Alaska, is a small community of about 160 people, primarily an Inupiat Eskimo community, situated at the end of the Seward Peninsula on the Bering Strait. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Russia from this northern outpost of the United States.
Wales is an ideal site to examine the challenges and benefits of operating small wind turbines in a remote location and harsh weather.
Lesson learned: Black, anti-stick prevents freezing
In 2002, a wind-diesel hybrid research and development system was installed with funding from the federal Environment Protection Agency, the federal Department of Energy, the State of Alaska Energy Authority, and the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation. This innovative hybrid project incorporated two 65-kW AOC 15/50 wind turbines, 3 diesel generators, 2 electric dump loads, a rotary power converter, and a battery bank. Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA), a rural Alaskan public utility, owns the system.
Wales has among the best wind resources in the world – a Class 7 – with an average wind speed of nearly 20 mph. Extreme winds here on this peninsula are rare, so it is expected to be a very productive site. “Several times a winter, however, there are storms out of the south, where the wind is coming over open water, and that can cause the wind turbine blades to ice up, which can lead to turbine unavailability for days or even several weeks, depending on the ensuing weather,” commented Steve Drouilhet, President of Sustainable Automation LLC, the designer of the system. Among the lessons learned from this R&D project is that any future installation in a similar icing environment should include blades painted black with a special anti-stick coating applied.
Residents welcome wind energy project
Unlike some regions of the “lower 48,” local residents were not opposed to the project. Many in the Alaskan town were largely indifferent, interested only to the extent that the wind turbines would lower their electric bills. Some local residents benefited from employment by the project during the construction and installation phases, but the ongoing requirement for local help was quite modest.
“The beauty of this hybrid system is that any excess wind power above what is required to meet the primary village electric demand is sent to one or both of two electric boilers that were installed as part of the project,” commented Drouilhet. As a result of this arrangement, the wind turbines in this hybrid configuration not only reduce the amount of fuel used to generate electricity in the village, they also reduce the amount of fuel used for heating at a local school, he pointed out.
Hybrid system performance
Overall, the hybrid system has performed quite well. Still, the system has suffered from periods of poor availability of the wind turbines, which has the caused the fuel savings and the amount of diesel-off time to be much less than it could have been based on the superior local wind resource. In most cases, the problems have been relatively minor and were addressed with fairly small repairs or design modifications. The challenge of this situation is that Wales is very remote, difficult and expensive to travel to. Being a fairly technologically complex system, practically all problems have required a visit by a technician, sometimes from as far away as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.
The host utility, the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC), the owner/operator of the Wales power system, has saved a substantial amount of fuel since the system began operating while paying a considerable amount for plant upgrades. This project has highlighted, as have many others, the unique benefits and ingenuity needed to sustain renewable energy power systems in remote areas.