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Department of Interior Doubles Budget to Decrease Reliance on Diesel in Remote Alaska

Anchorage, AK - An effort to decrease reliance on diesel fuel in Alaska’s remote villages by up to 75 percent is in the early stages of development at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory based in Colorado. During a speech at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention last week, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor announced an additional 400-thousand dollars in funding.  

The Remote Community Renewable Energy Partnership got underway last year with a meager 300-thousand dollar budget.  Deputy Secretary Connor’s announcement doubles available funding. He says it will speed up the development of hybrid systems in remote communities that mix both renewable sources of energy with diesel fuel.


“It’s intended to try and create a system where we can bring in renewable energy components, marry it up with a diesel microgrid, optimize the system, so we can make use of renewable energy resources and drive the cost of diesel fuel,” says Deputy Secretary Connor.


Brian Hirsch directs National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects in Alaska. He’s spent more than 20 years working on the technology to combine renewable and non-renewable sources of energy.


“For many years, we’ve been trying to reduce the amount of diesel fuel used by putting wind turbines and solar panels into the system," explains Hirsch. "What we found is that once you get over maybe 20 percent of the contribution from renewables, you start having some challenges with the diesel generators, because wind comes and goes and sun comes and goes, etcetera.” 


He says there are efforts like this in other parts of the country, but the challenge is finding a cost effective way to optimize it for Alaska’s remote communities. 


“Right now,  every system requires a lot of custom engineering," says Hirsch. "If you’re talking about a big system - like trying to do this in New York City - it make sense to put a lot of money into engineering.  If you’re talking about a village that has 300 people in it, to put half a million dollars or two million dollars into engineering, is really challenging because that’s before you even get started,” he says.


The goal is to reduce diesel fuel consumption by 75 percent.  Hirsch admits that’s ambitious.


“Right now, state of the art is probably something like 40 percent or somewhere in there," Hirsch says. "Probably on an annual basis, not even.  That would be like a huge accomplishment, so we’re really going way beyond what right now is kind of the glass ceiling.”


Deputy Secretary Connor says specific villages haven't yet been chosen to implement new systems.


“No, we haven’t chosen that yet. So, as we try and develop the technology itself, looking for those opportunities where it might be the best situation to try and improve the technology and it’s feasibility on the ground is an ongoing process too," says Connor.


But Brian Hirsch says some villages could be better candidates than others.


“More along the lines of a typical community: 200 to 300 people," he says. "150 kilowatts is a typical load on their system. What that would translate to in terms of the amount of diesel fuel and types of diesel generators and things like that is kind of what our initial focus is and all the way up to a couple mega-watts, which would be more along the lines of 500 people or 700 people, something in that range," he explains.


With the Deputy Secretary’s announcement, the total budget is now 700-thousand dollars, which Hirsch admits is small. But he says the National Renewable Energy Laboratory plans to partner with state and federal agencies and private industry. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks and the University of Colorado are currently collaborating on the project.