Yakutat looks to wave power as relief to high power costs


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A team of workers from the Boston-based renewable energy company Resolute Marine prepares to launch a wave energy converter at the Army Corps of Engineers research facility near Duck, N.C. The City and Borough of Yakutat hopes to employ similar technology in the Gulf of Alaska to convert wave energy into affordable electricity for its residents.

Photo/Courtesy/Resolute Marine

When Bill Staby first arrived in Yakutat he drew a quick realization from a small tube of toothpaste on a store shelf: life in Yakutat is expensive. The toothpaste was $4.

“Not only did I think, ‘gee, that’s really expensive,’ but I wondered how many of these the shopkeeper needs to sell to pay the light bill, to keep the place warm,” Staby said. “It was a very visceral kind of thing.”

That trip to the isolated coastal community of about 650 residents was in February 2012. As CEO of Boston-based Resolute Marine Energy, Staby was in Yakutat to evaluate the viability of harnessing wave energy for electricity production.

While countless communities dot Alaska’s seemingly endless coastline, Yakutat is one of the only to have an unobstructed view of open-ocean without the restriction of seasonal ice from its locale on the Gulf of Alaska. That, combined with other factors, led Staby to conclude that Yakutat is primed for wave power.

Alaska Energy Authority’s Alan Baldivieso came to a similar conclusion as Staby.

“Yakutat is far and away the best place to do a wave project if we’re going to do one,” in Alaska, Baldivieso said.

He manages hydrokinetic and emerging energy technology projects for AEA, and the Yakutat project is both. Hundreds of miles of open water, or fetch, in the Gulf provides consistent and predictable wave action near-shore. Subsequently, Yakutat is also one of the epicenters for surfing in Alaska.

The leading “other factor” is the cost of diesel, or fuel oil, generated power in the town, which in late October was going for 53 cents per kilowatt-hour, or kWh. By comparison, Anchorage’s Municipal Light and Power was charging 14 cents per kWh, and electricity from Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks was 20 cents per kWh for small users.

Yakutat Power Manager Scott Newlun said many residents spend upwards of $200 per month on power for small homes.

The cost of power has long been a hurdle for fish processors in Yakutat, one of the town’s main commercial ventures.

With his company’s wave energy converters, Staby said he hopes harnessing wave energy can eventually produce up to a megawatt of power to cut into the 400,000-plus gallons of fuel oil the borough-run utility burns every year, and in turn, cut energy costs in the town.

“It’s very interesting for me and rewarding to see the potential impact of cutting electrical prices in half in Yakutat — our goal — and what the economic impact that could have on the community,” he said. “The positive social and economic effects are very tangible.”

Staby is confident the wave energy technology can help bring power costs below 30 cents per kWh in Yakutat, he said.

The wave converters planned for Yakutat have flaps that protrude up from a base set on the ocean floor of 8 meters wide and 5.5 meters high. Set in 30 meters of water, each converter can produce up to 50 kilowatts of power.

Renewable energy companies in Scotland are using flaps up to 30 meters wide on the shores of Scotland, he said.

The power is generated as the flap oscillates in the wave current. That motion is used to force seawater through a tube and a past small onshore turbine, which finally turns a generator.

“All of the power generation equipment is onshore and the wave energy converters located offshore are simply described as pumps,” Staby said.

A gently sloping seabed near Yakutat should make for easy installation of the converters, an added site bonus, he said.

Staby called the movement of the flaps “benign” to marine life, but added the wave energy project needs to go through the same regulatory process as any other energy or development project. So that, along with site modeling, is what’s being worked through now.

Preliminary study permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission were approved in January. If all goes well, Staby foresees converters being towed into the ocean by late summer 2015.

Renewable energy coordinator for the borough, Ian Fisk, said the City and Borough of Yakutat has spent about $150,000 on the project mainly through in-kind contributions of vessel and equipment use. The borough also leased an acoustic Doppler current profiler from the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, or ACEP, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

The Doppler device continuously records a multitude of undersea measurements including current, salinity, water pressure and depth to determine wave height. It was installed in September and will be in the water for a year and pulled every couple months for data retrieval.

AEA’s Baldivieso said the state agency contributed $150,000 to ACEP to fund two years worth of wave-action modeling began recently in conjunction with the first retrieval of Doppler information.

The Army Corps of Engineers is also conducting sedimentation for the project. Additionally, Fisk said 10 state and federal agencies were represented at the first scoping meeting the borough held on the project.

The process of providing Yakutat with wave-generated power involves so many groups because it’s a true pilot project, Baldivieso said. Wave energy has not been harnessed anywhere else in the country and rarely have projects gotten to Yakutat’s stage.

“From our perspective we don’t want to benefit just a single community; we want the approach of — we’re going to advance this project but this is also going to inform what best practices are in developing wave energy,” he said.

Resolute Marine is developing wave energy, ocean water desalinization and power projects in Southern Africa. Staby said the company has tested wave converters for the Army Corps of Engineers in North Carolina and is studying wave energy for the Oregon National Guard at Camp Rilea in Northern Oregon. He said the site near Astoria, Ore., has similar characteristics to Yakutat.

Staby said his team became aware of the wave potential at Yakutat after reading the report from a 2009 Department of Energy study. The study cataloged wave energy throughout the country and highlighted Yakutat as a community ripe for development of the technology.

Yakutat works as a model location because of its high-cost of power combined with the available resource, Staby said. Wave power wouldn’t have to compete with low-cost power in the Lower 48, rather just make it more affordable in Yakutat — a scenario common across Alaska for other energy resources as well.

Fisk stressed that the borough is investing in wave energy as a piece to the proverbial puzzle. It is working to make public buildings as energy efficient as possible and is encouraging residents to do the same, he said. The borough is also investigating localized biomass district heat systems to reduce community dependence on fuel oil.

“We believe the borough should contribute to these projects, but we also need  the assistance of people like UAF and the Alaska Energy Authority. Those types of partnerships are essential for rural energy development. It’s just too much for small communities to bite off otherwise,” Fisk said. “I think we’re just one of many trying to get to the point were we can be self-sufficient and reduce the amount of imported diesel fuel that we use and that’s what all of these projects are aimed at.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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