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Episode 19: Power of Ideas

By KTVA Alaska 6:16 PM September 6, 2015

As we look at various renewable energy systems across the state, we hope this week’s Frontiers program speaks to the inner geek in everyone. It’s always exciting to see new technology applied in creative ways. When it comes to meeting Alaska’s energy needs, there are no cookie-cutter approaches.

One of the highlights of this week’s show is a look at a power system, designed to supply both heat and electricity to the individual home. A prototype, about the size of a handcart, debuted last month at the Chena Hot Springs Resort near Fairbanks.

Those attending Chena’s annual Renweable Energy Fair were the first in the nation to see the “Genious,” which is basically a miniature power plant — developed by Inresol, a company in Sweden. The unit can burn wood pellets, natural gas, even coconut husks. It also uses a Stirling engine, technology developed 200 years ago.

Bernie Karl, co-owner of Chena Hot Springs and founder of the resort’s annual Renewable Energy Fair, believes the Genious could be a game-changer in providing rural Alaska with affordable energy.

Renewable energy promoters always say Alaska could easily become a national laboratory for developing wind, solar and tidal energy — not only because we have so many off-the-grid communities, but because each has a different set of circumstances, which require tailor-made applications of new technology.

Kirk Garoutte, of Susistna Energy Systems, specializes in providing energy systems for homesteads. Depending on a customer’s energy needs, there are no two systems alike. Kirk himself lives 17 miles from the nearest electric power pole and uses a mix of small windmills and solar panels for energy.

We visited Kirk at his exhibit at the Alaska State Fair. This year, his dome houses were the big draw — buildings that can be put together in a matter of hours for temporary housing — or insulated and outfitted with kitchen and bathroom amenities for more permanent lodging.

While some Rural communities have looked to multi-million-dollar windmill projects to meet their energy needs, Kirk believes there’s a place for small scale projects in rural Alaska — perhaps a few windmills to run a water-treatment plant, or solar panels to supplement a home’s energy needs.

Learning how to right-size a project is one of the biggest challenges.

We talked about one promising, small-scale project on our show this week with Doug Johnson, director of business development at Ocean Renewable Power Company.

Doug’s company worked with Igiugig, a small Bristol Bay community, to test the river currents of the Kvichak River, to see how much power they could generate.

Igiugig has a few windmills, but other than that, it is completely dependent on diesel fuel — delivered by barge, to run its electric generators. Its price-per-kilowatt-hour for electricity is close to one dollar, compared to 16 cents for Anchorage.

Ocean Renewable Power has other projects across the country, but the unusually clear waters of the Kvichak River added to a body of research on how fish handle the underwater turbines. The good news, Johnson says, is there is apparently very little impact. The fish simply swim around the apparatus.

Meera Kohler, president and CEO of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC), was also a guest on our show. AVEC serves 56 communities, each with a relatively small population, which makes it more challenging to reach an economy of scale to deliver energy. AVEC has been gradually integrating wind energy into existing diesel power generation plants, which has helped to offset the high cost of fuel.

The takeaway from this week’s program: meeting rural Alaska’s energy needs is probably one of our state’s most challenging frontiers. But as we go forward, the energy solutions we devise for individual communities add to a growing body of knowledge — about how to adapt and improve renewable energy technologies.

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