Energy Dept. grant aims to harden microgrids

  • Tucked between the Wrangell Mountains and Prince William Sound, the City of Cordova and its mix of hydro and diesel power plants is an example of the electrical microgrids that are the focus of recent Department of Energy grants aimed at adding resiliency and efficiency to power remote locations. (Photo/Courtesy/Cordova Electric Cooperative)

Imagine that Puerto Rico’s electrical grid had the ability for one power plant to “talk” with another plant in a long daisy chain.

Then, when Hurricane Maria sweeps in, the plants’ automation kicks in and amps up power production in one facility while another remains offline. Their systems’ communications capacity evaluates which “assets” could be used and whatever backup activation fixes were necessary to generate electricity until full power could be restored.

That’s no pipe dream, but a plan in place for Alaska’s microgrid resiliency, backed by $6.2 million in grant money from the Department of Energy via Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office.

The award funds a partnership between the City of Cordova Electric Cooperative, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, or ACEP, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative that operates electricity for 58 villages, and three national laboratories.

One of the entities is Sandia National Lab, known for its space age innovations such as the Ultrafast X-ray Imager that can capture stars and other images down to 2 billionths of a second. It’s responsible for the WANDERER, a bipedal robot that can operate for long periods performing the types of jobs relevant to scorched earth disaster response scenarios.

Two other labs at work on solving critical problems — the Idaho National Laboratory and the Northwest Pacific National Laboratory —will also be in on the project, though concerned with different questions.

Now, back to Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria: Alaska’s natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes and severe climatic storms also cause electrical grid vulnerability.

Addressing those vulnerabilities, the $6.2 million project is called exactly what it’s supposed to create: Resilient Alaskan Distribution System Improvements using Automation, Network Analysis, Control, and Energy Storage, or RADIANCE for short.

The Cordova example

Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin, also serving as director of the Cordova Electrical Co-Op, is especially excited about what’s ahead.

Back in 1999-2000, Cordova skipped a few generations when planning its hydro projects, and went straight to the most advanced technology available, Koplin said. The hope was to eventually shift from diesel dependence to 100 percent hydro for electrical generation.

Cordova’s two hydro projects — Power Creek and Humpback Creek — are separated by a mile and a mountain ridge. The Orca Power Plant, which runs on diesel, is located in Cordova, about eight miles away from the hydro plants.

But even 18 years ago, communication between the power plants was on Koplin’s mind. The planners wanted each of the plants to be able to supply communication to the other.

“(When we were done), manufacturers were looking at what we did with their equipment and said they didn’t know that could be done,” Koplin said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we just did stuff. There are eight miles between the community and the hydro plants, so we used copper telephone lines and an ethernet with DSL modems,” Koplin said. “We hopped modem to modem, each three miles apart. The manufacturer said no one tried to daisy chain like that.”

It cost $10,000 and provided “bulletproof communications,” Koplin said.

Two hydro plants supply the city’s 2,300 residents with power most of the summer months, or about 90 percent. In winter, the hydro has to give way to expensive diesel.

A “good” winter means 500,000 gallons of diesel is consumed. A stormy, snow-piled one sees nearly 800,000 gallons of diesel use, he said. A single kilowatt hour, or kwh, can cost 65 cents in the winter, with “bare bones” heating of 450 kwh causing a $300 monthly bill per household.

But Cordova Electric Cooperative not only serves the residents; it is responsible for the major commercial port activity for Prince William Sound and one of the richest fisheries in the world. After the economic devastation of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, the community set its sights on diversifying. One key hindrance was the high cost of energy, Koplin said.

“We’ve gotten costs down by using closer to 90 percent hydro in the summer. But we don’t have a dam to store a reserve of water to access for winter,” he said.

Hydro would be capable to shoulder more of Cordova’s electrical load if there were two innovations: a reservoir to store water that can be accessed by the plants during the winter and a backup battery system to store generated energy that goes to waste in summer, Koplin said.

“If a battery can take spinning reserve function, that frees up capacity to save over 100,000 gallons of fuel,” he said.

Another part of the project is a layer of technology overlaid on the microgrid to control what happens when one part of the system breaks down. This is where one plant can “talk” to another one, either automatically or via human operators.

“If a tsunami hit, the system could automatically reconfigure to look at say, a hospital critical load. If you’ve lost part of system, then it reconfigures to maintain critical loads,” Koplin said.

The project will take three years.

Dr. Abraham Ellis, one of Sandia’s scientists and a principle member of the technical staff, came to Cordova in June for a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, led by Murkowski and ranking Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington.

Also present were Gwen Holdmann, director of the ACEP, which will be working with the labs on RADIANCE, and Meera Kohler, director of Alaska Village Electric Cooperative.

“We told a story that kind of dazzled them,” Koplin said, speaking of himself and the Alaska partners of Holdmann and Kohler.

In announcing the awards, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry talked about how a resilient, reliable and secure power grid is essential.

“As round-the-clock efforts continue to help communities recover from the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the need to continue strengthening and improving our electricity delivery system to withstand and recover from disruptions has become even more compelling,” he said.

The world-class innovation of the national laboratories — including Idaho and the Pacific Northwest in partnership with Sandia — forms an investment, Perry said, meant to “keep us moving forward to create yet more real-world capabilities that the energy sector can put into practice.”

Village power

Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, or AVEC, oversees electrical generation for 58 villages. Kohler explained that beginning in 2004, many of the villages took advantage of DOE programs making wind turbines available. They became hybrids of wind and diesel.

“Now we operate 50 microgrids, electric utilities that aren’t connected to each other,” Kohler said. “The objective of this grant is to work with national labs to optimize the grids so we’re getting the best value out of the systems we have.”

Toksook Bay in western Alaska has an automated, fuel-efficient power plant and four Northwind 100 wind turbines with a generating capacity of 400 kilowatts.

An electric tie line was built between Toksook Bay and the communities of Tununak and Nightmute. This allowed AVEC to reduce substantial costs by being able to shut down the old power plants in both Tununak and Nightmute.

The tie line allows all three communities to reap the benefit of reduced diesel fuel costs on their electric bills when the wind turbines generate electric power.

A similar intertie between Nunapitchuk and Kasigluk on the Kuskokwim River also shares three 100-kilowatt wind turbines.

AVEC operates standalone microgrids in Hooper Bay where three Northwind 100 wind turbines were erected; Savoonga’s two wind turbines and Gambell’s three wind turbines. Working with expensive diesel backup, the challenge is always to get more out of wind and cut back on diesel use.

AVEC pays $26 million per year for diesel, a cost passed on to communities whose residents point to energy expenses as often surpassing food costs.

“The problem here,” Kohler said, “is when the winds grow strong and we can’t use all the power.”

Like Cordova, AVEC would like more storage to retain wind-generated power. They also want to keep optimizing power during storms so that each hybrid operates seamlessly, Kohler said.

Partnering with the labs means giving them “quite a university of class options in each environment,” she said.

Gwen Holdmann, the director at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, agrees that there are many advantages for the labs to learn from real life systems.

Alaska has 15 percent of the nation’s microgrids, Holdmann said.

“AVEC owns more individual wind farms than any other other co-op in the United States,” Holdmann said. “This is a real challenge to operate remotely. They have a complicated network of different communities they are trying to serve.”

Not only will AVEC’s villages receive some assistance, they’ll be teaching the university partners on real life microgrids, she said.

In exchange, the village systems will be made more efficient and reliable.

The goal is to enhance the resilience methods for distribution grids under harsh weather, cyber-threats, and dynamic grid conditions. They’ll do this by using multiple networked microgrids, new energy storage and early-stage grid technologies, Holdman said.

The labs then will have more information and tools to take to other projects around the world. Hopefully, before more devastating power-loss catastrophes strike, as it did in Puerto Rico.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at naomi.klouda@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
10/04/2017 - 12:15pm

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