Birds, salmon and energy storage: Going 100-percent renewable in Alaska’s pristine, resilient remote communities | SEPA Skip to content

Birds, salmon and energy storage: Going 100-percent renewable in Alaska’s pristine, resilient remote communities

Late last year, the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) posted a fanciful holiday blog about Santa’s microgrid. The piece was, in essence, a hypothetical case study of the use of solar, storage and other distributed energy resources (DERs) to meet the electricity needs of a small, remote community with an extremely high seasonal peak demand.

I was reminded of the piece earlier this month, when I traveled to Cordova, Alaska — an isolated, off-grid community that is now working on a real-life, renewable energy microgrid.

Downtown Cordova, Alaska, on the Copper River Delta, where the summer salmon season drives high peak electricity demand. (Photo by Erika Myers)

Cordova is located along the southern coast of Alaska, at the mouth of the Copper River, known for its highly prized and extremely tasty Copper River salmon. The town’s population of 2,300 full-time residents and its electricity use swell during the summer salmon season as thousands of workers arrive to staff the area’s processing plants.

I was there for another of Cordova’s big draws, the annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, but found myself equally intrigued by the opportunity to find out more about the town’s electric system and its small utility, the Cordova Electric Cooperative (CEC).

With its fantastically beautiful natural setting, Cordova is truly isolated, accessible only by boat or plane. As a result, for years, the town has relied on an “islanded” microgrid — disconnected from any other transmission system — run on a mix of local hydropower and two diesel-powered generators. Further, the co-op’s total fixed assets, valued at nearly $70 million, have a redundancy rate of 220 percent; that is, to meet its peak demand, the town must maintain a relatively large power and distribution system that stands idle much of the year.

Overabundant summertime hydropower resources, fed by mountain runoff, also mean the co-op must “deflect” some of that power, allowing runoff to spill without generating electricity. The economic impact of this system — and its reliance on high-cost diesel in the winter and to meet high summertime peak demand — is that average electricity rates in the town are about 30 cents per kilowatt hour.

But now, to cut rates, and preserve the area’s near-pristine environment and rising profile as an ecotourism destination, CEC is working toward having a 100-percent renewable energy supply — a goal that may only be achievable with energy storage. In other words, according to Clay Koplin, who is both Cordova’s mayor and co-op CEO, the town is a near-perfect test bed for energy storage applications that can produce multiple value streams.

The challenge, he said, is that, historically, “corporations, large research universities, and national laboratories have ignored smart grid innovation that may be best suited for smaller utilities. The big corporations don’t realize how much they could learn from a small, agile utility like ours.


The storage tipping point

In fact, being a small utility has required CEC to focus on resiliency and respond creatively to fast-changing and often-unexpected economic and technological conditions. For example, as Koplin told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in March, the region has bounced back from disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, which devastated its fisheries, and the catastrophic floods that followed 48 inches of rain in 2006.

Moreover, with a total staff of 17 employees who handle everything from maintenance to billing, the co-op has had to be extremely selective in its choice of special projects. To date, Koplin and his crew have focused on “‘low-hanging fruit” that yields the most benefit for their community, such as converting Cordova’s street lighting system to 100-percent LED bulbs.

Bird watching near Cordova, you can also see the snow-capped mountains that provide runoff and ample hydropower to the community. (Photo by Erika Myers)

But storage costs are now falling, and the global off-grid market is growing. Speaking at the Energy Storage Association’s annual conference in Denver last month, Lyndon Rive, outgoing CEO of SolarCity, said the economics of solar plus storage have reached a point that makes it financially viable for island nations to switch from their historical reliance on diesel.

A recent study from Navigant sizes the global storage market — including residential, commercial and off-grid — at between 27 gigawatts and 49 gigawatts by 2026.

The implications for remote communities such as Cordova are obvious, and the national labs and research universities have started to pay attention.

Since 2014, the CEC has been working with the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratory and the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) at the University of Alaska on developing a storage system that can optimize the utility’s use of hydro and other renewables.

A report on the project is currently in the works, but in a previous study outline, the Sandia and ACEP researchers provided a list of benefits storage could provide.

Among them, Koplin said, storage could help support “system frequency, help use up to 500 kilowatts of hydro capacity currently deflected, and provide spinning reserves for the diesel plants. The ultimate goal of storage would be to pave the way for solar, tidal, wave, and wind power.”

The next steps in the process will be identifying exactly where a storage system should be located and, even more important, finding a corporate partner to help guide the utility in acquiring and deploying the system. With plans to release a request for proposals (RFP) for a storage system this summer, Koplin said, the co-op has “a lot of ideas and opportunities, but (we) don’t have big partners to help implement them.”

For example, while a utility-scale system might seem the most cost-effective answer, the co-op is also interested in behind-the-meter storage options, he said.

If Cordova could “charge and discharge a behind-the-meter storage system on behalf of the consumer, it could ultimately save the entire community money by more fully leveraging the cheap hydropower instead of the expensive diesel,” he said.


Electric vehicles: another storage option

Still another opportunity that gets Koplin excited is converting the community’s fleet to electric vehicles (EVs). Despite only having about 30 miles of road in Cordova, Koplin sees EVs as a way to save residents money, both on their gasoline and electricity bills. At an average of $3.80 per gallon, gasoline is very expensive in the town. With the right EV options, the utility could theoretically use managed charging to push electricity into the vehicles at times most advantageous to the grid, which could, in turn, help increase renewable energy consumption.

The utility is researching options to import secondary-market — that is, used — Nissan Leafs, which, Koplin said, have worked well in other Alaskan communities, such as Juneau. However, he noted that EV manufacturers are not making the kinds of vehicles that communities like Cordova rely on — specifically, larger trucks and SUVs. Regardless, Koplin still sees EVs as a major opportunity, along with other local electrification strategies, to increase energy consumption during times of seasonal high generation.

Remote and island communities are increasingly on the front lines of both climate change and energy system transition, becoming living laboratories for adaptive, resilient and cost-effective change. At stake is the economic, environmental and, in many cases, community survival that is critical to maintaining traditional cultures and ways of life.

In addition, Koplin and the Cordova Electric Cooperative can also be seen as part of another frontline issue involving the incremental transformation of utility business models, a topic that is only being talked about in other parts of the country. A basic function of all utilities, he said, is to create demand on the customer side and then meet that demand with supply-side solutions that provide safe, clean, affordable and reliable power.

That is how he sees storage, other DERs and the smart grid growing — in Cordova and elsewhere — by supplying customers with signals that renewable energy is available so they can shape their demand to use it.

If not to protect the beautiful natural environment of Alaska, we should work towards that goal to make Copper River salmon a little less expensive.


SEPA will host a webinar on “Microgrids: The benefits of including energy storage,” 11 a.m. PST, 2 p.m. EST, July 13. Additional information and registration are available here.

Other relevant SEPA publications include Microgrids: Expanding Applications, Implementations, and Business Structures, a joint report with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and Is Battery Storage Cost-Effective for Utilities?, a recent member brief.