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Lab-, Field-Testing May Enable Hydrokinetic Technology to Bring Power to Alaskan Villages

Adapting sustainable-energy technology for the remote communities …  

Ever since researchers began field-testing in Alaska with small hydropower systems that generate electricity with a turbine submerged in a river, they’ve had to deal with such real-world setbacks as the generators getting hammered by logs carried along in the river’s current.

That’s what happened to hydrokinetic generators soon after they were submerged into the Yukon River at Ruby in 2008 and Eagle in 2010. But Jeremy Kasper and other researchers with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power say lessons learned from those tests helped them develop a structure called a “debris diverter” to protect the generators.

Credit New Energy Corp.
Left, the hydrokinetic turbine tested in Eagle shown laying on the deck of its platform barge and, right, submerged into the Yukon River.

“It’s a big step forward,” he said. “I think it really opens up a lot of opportunities that kind of had shut the door after Ruby and Eagle.”

Kasper and his team working at a test site in Nenana are now focusing attention on other problems that’ve held back development of hydrokinetic-generating systems, which hold the promise of both providing renewable energy to remote communities and off-setting the cost of generating power with diesel-fueled generators – fuel that can cost 10 dollars a gallon, or more, in the Bush. 

“The real issue is technological,” he said. “We’ve got to overcome these technological hurdles. And then we can start driving down the cost of energy.”

Credit UAF
Marc Mueller-Stoffels, program director of ACEP's Power Systems Integration Program, in the Power Systems Integration Laboratory. He's also a research assistant professor with UAF's Institute of Northern Engineering.

Most of those hurdles were cleared before the field tests in the Power Systems Integration Laboratory, a facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks managed by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, or ACEP.

“We see ourselves as kind of a last stop for technology before it can go for a long-term test deployment,” says Marc Mueller-Stoffels, who directs ACEP’s power-systems integration program. The program tests systems that generate electricity from such renewable-energy sources as hydro, wind and solar and then helps develop technologies to integrate that power into remote communities’ microgrids.

“By troubleshooting a lot of the R&D issues in a laboratory’s controlled settings, we can create the worst-case conditions and see how the system interacts with the typical components of a grid,” he said.

Mueller-Stoffels says hydrokinetic technology is promising, but needs more development before it’s industry is likely to begin manufacturing and marketing river-powered generators on a scale that will make such systems reliable and affordable – like what happened in recent years with wind- and solar-energy powered systems.

“I would say roughly the hydrokinetics industry is somewhere where the wind industry was in the ’80s,” he said.

Mueller-Stoffels says hydrokinetic technology developed in Alaska’s rigorous conditions will help researchers design systems that can be used worldwide.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.