Alaskan Challenge is Finding a Fit for Renewables
by Lara Skinner, Reporter, SolarAccess.com News
water tower at Chena Hot Springs holds heated water from the natural
hot springs there so it can be distributed as a heat source for the
cabins at the resort spa
Image: Chena Hot Springs
Fairbanks, Alaska - September 28, 2004 [SolarAccess.com]
Acres of wilderness and cramped with wildlife are descriptions of
Alaska that make the state sound like a haven for environmentally
friendly practices. However, when Bernie Karl and his wife Connie
Parks-Karl decided to purchase the Chena Hot Springs Resort six years
ago they found a spa full of diesel generators and wood stoves. Bernie
said he wasn't surprised. The energy approach was indicative of the
renewable energy efforts Bernie said he sees in the state and across
the nation. People simply aren't using the available resources.
"If we would put the same effort into alternative energy as we
would putting a man on the moon, we would already be (using alternative
energy)," he said.
A resort physically based on one of the more natural heat resources
around that chooses to heat with fossil fuels is a classic case of not
seeing the forest for the trees. The hot springs are a result of
geothermal heat that is allowed to rise to the earth's surface through
fissures in the planet's core. Heat from the springs can offer more
than a toasty mineral bath, it can help provide electricity.
The resort was recently awarded two grants from state and federal
sources totaling $2 million to develop a generator and turbine
electricity system. Bernie is working with United Technologies of
Hartford, Connecticut on the development of a demonstration 400 kW
low-temperature power generator that should be able to generate
electricity from the 165 degrees F water at the springs. The prototype
should be ready by July of 2005. If the demonstration is a success,
Bernie said the company should begin manufacturing production models at
the end of 2005.
Being on the cutting edge of an energy technology is an exciting prospect for him.
"When this prototype starts making electricity ý it will totally change small energy consumption and production," he said.
Geothermal isn't the only energy source Bernie has experimented
with at the resort. A renewable energy learning center features, and is
powered by, a 480 W solar photovoltaic (PV) array and 200 W AeroGen
wind turbine. In Alaska it is always necessary to have as many back up
sources of power as possible, however, and a gas generator is always
standing by just in case.
Alaska has never had a power grid that connects the whole state.
There are often 60 or more miles between neighboring towns, and each
town to supplies its own source of power. Diesel and propane generators
are portable and convenient. And the generators will often work through
the dark winter months when places, such as Chena Hot Springs, live
through six weeks when there is only about an hour of dusky sunlight
during the day. Power from a geothermal generator could cut down on the
time when a diesel generator is necessary.
Bernie is convinced that the generator will work for the village
situation, now he just has to bring people from the state on board with
the idea. One of the grants for the project came from the Alaska
Industrial Development and Export Authority, so the state is interested
in the work. The resort also hosted a geothermal energy conference a
few months ago.
Projects Manager Gwen Holdman said part of the reason the resort
has such a mix of renewable energy technologies is so other people can
come in to learn about the available power options. Though they plan to
demonstrate low-temperature power generation, Holdman said Chena Hot
Springs is not the best geothermal resource Alaska has. Pilgrim hot
springs, and the Makushin and Akutan volcanoes have much greater
potential, and encouraging state officials to look for power there
should help move things right along.
"That is going to get us so much further ahead than if there were just one or two people working on this," she said.
Energy is Holdman's area of expertise, she designed micro-hydro
projects before working at the resort, and she said that promoting the
use of all renewable energy sources in Alaska is the big picture
project. There are state sponsored loan programs and solar land
easements that support PV and solar thermal installations for
businesses and private homes. But a summary of the state's statutes and
administrative codes doesn't show much more than that.
Bernie said he isn't afraid of promoting available energy sources
to the state so Alaska will start looking at renewable options. But he
knows it's going to be a challenge.
"There's been several snake oil salesmen in the history of alternative energy," he said.
If he can show that the geothermal steam from the Chena Hot Springs
is a viable and cost efficient option, he said, then at least he's
working to make the state better.