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How the second-busiest U.S. fishing port is powered by wind and water

Kodiak, Alaska, is not only home to abundant fishing grounds, but also to one of the most innovative power grids in the country. As the cost of diesel rose a decade ago, a local electric co-op decided to aim for 100 percent renewable energy by harnessing the wind and water. Special correspondent Rachel Waldholz of Alaska Public Media reports on their engineering feat. This report comes from Alaska's Energy Desk, a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kodiak, Alaska, is not only home to brown bears and abundant fishing grounds, but also one of the most innovative power grids in the country.

    From Alaska Public Media, Rachel Waldholz reports.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

    Kodiak, Alaska is all about fish. From commercial fishermen, to the island’s four-legged residents, everyone depends on seafood.

    James Turner manages the Ocean Beauty seafood plant in Kodiak. The town’s half-dozen processors serve the second busiest fishing port in the nation.

  • James Turner:

    This is a 24-hour plant, so we run round the clock. This plant will run anywhere from 40 million to 91 million pounds a year.

  • Rachel Waldholz: 

    Processing all that fish takes a lot of power. And, in Kodiak, all that power comes from renewable sources right here on the island.

    Kodiak decided to aim for nearly 100 percent renewable energy back in 2007.

  • Jennifer Richcreek:

    There was risk. There was engineering risk. There was construction risk. It was — it was taking a leap.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

    Jennifer Richcreek works for the Kodiak Electric Association, the local co-op that runs the community’s power grid.

    A decade ago, the co-op had a problem — the cost of diesel. Back in the ’90s, Kodiak got just about all of its electricity from a hydro dam. But as demand increased, they had to use diesel generators more often, and diesel costs were going through the roof.

  • Jennifer Richcreek:

    We were burning millions of gallons of diesel oil. It was a very vulnerable position. Diesel is very expensive. Its price is very volatile.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

    So the co-op decided to harness something Kodiak has a lot of wind. But wind isn’t always easy to work with.

  • Jennifer Richcreek:

    Wind is a wild child. You don’t know when the wind is going to blow. You don’t know how long it’s going to blow.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

    It’s that variability that communities across the country, large and small, are struggling with as they try to add more renewable energy to their grids.

    The way you deal with that is energy storage.

  • Jennifer Richcreek:

    Energy storage is the hot topic in renewable energy, because of the variable nature of solar and wind, to be able to stabilize that. Energy storage is huge.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

    Kodiak’s first solution was a bank of batteries. Wind can drop away in a moment, but it takes minutes for the hydropower to ramp up behind it. The batteries bridge that gap.

    They absorb excess power when the wind is blowing hard, then release that energy back into the grid as the wind drops. But just as engineers figured out how to balance wind and water, a new challenge was brewing over at the port.

  • Rick Kniaziowski:

     Our old crane was diesel-powered. It was fairly small, and it started breaking down quite a bit and made us very nervous that our ability to operate was in jeopardy.

  • Rachel Waldholz: 

    Rick Kniaziowski manages the Kodiak shipping terminal for the company Matson.

  • Rick Kniaziowski:

    So, we will go up to the elevator and then head up to the third floor.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

     The company wanted to install a new larger electric crane. That was a big ask.

  • Jennifer Richcreek:

    How do we supply that much power that fast, while maintaining all of the other power quality factors throughout the grid to keep it stable? So, took some time to think about it, modeled it out, and came to the decision that flywheel can do the job.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

    Just like the batteries, it’s a kind of energy storage.

  • Jennifer Richcreek:

    A flywheel is a massive piece of steel spinning in a frictionless vacuum chamber hovered by magnets.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

    In practice, it works a bit like the braking system on an electric car. As the crane lifts a shipping crate, it draws a bunch of power from the grid, pulling energy from that spinning flywheel.

    But when that container is lowered back to the ground, the crane’s braking system generates electricity. The flywheel stores nearly all the energy required to power the next lift.

  • Rick Kniaziowski:

    There are no grids this small that operate an electric crane. So this was kind of a leading edge.

  • Rachel Waldholz:

    The result is a grid like nowhere else on the planet.

    And they have managed to do that while keeping electricity costs slightly lower than they were a decade ago. For Kodiak, that means a local source of power that isn’t vulnerable to swings in the price of oil.

    Jennifer Richcreek believes the lessons learned here could help communities around the globe.

  • Jennifer Richcreek:

    As renewables continue to grow and expand and displace fossil fuels, it will require a shift in infrastructure design. And so we’re collecting the data, we’re modeling it, we’re sharing it.

  • Rachel Waldholz: 

    Which might help other communities follow Kodiak to more than 99 percent renewable power.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Rachel Waldholz in Kodiak, Alaska.

  • Editor’s Note: 

    This report comes from Alaska’s Energy Desk, a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment.

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