Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion 
Renewable IPP CEO Jenn Miller presents information about solar power during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Oct. 12 in Soldotna.

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion Renewable IPP CEO Jenn Miller presents information about solar power during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Oct. 12 in Soldotna.

Changing tides

Peninsula turns attention to renewable energy sources

From probing opportunities to harvest tidal energy in Cook Inlet, to the installation of Tesla batteries in Soldotna, to interest in building Alaska’s largest solar farm, the peninsula has renewable energy on the brain.

Cook InletKeeper and the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society on Nov. 15 hosted the first of their six-part “RePower the Peninsula” series. The seminars will examine how renewable energy resources can move beyond what the organizations say is a “monopolized” natural gas system. A separate seminar, held on Nov. 17, presented the findings of tidal energy research in Cook Inlet and was hosted by the Renewable Alaska Energy Project, or REAP — a nonprofit organization with a stated mission of developing renewable energy and energy efficiency in Alaska.

Both events featured subject matter experts, and both included Homer Electric Association’s Director of Strategic Services David Thomas as a keynote speaker to talk about the cooperative’s renewable ambitions. HEA supplies energy to roughly 24,600 customers on the Kenai Peninsula and is actively working to incorporate renewable energy resources. Among the stated goals of the RePower series is to examine “what’s at stake” in HEA’s 2022 election.

An ‘ambitious’ renewables goal

The Homer Electric Board of Directors developed in 2020 a goal of achieving 50% renewable energy by 2025, which HEA Director of Strategic Services David Thomas said is “very ambitious” but aligns with steps HEA is already taking to become more renewable.

“It was a shift from what we think we’re probably going to do on the track we’re already on to a much more ambitious and aspirational goal,” Thomas said during the RePower seminar.

About 86% of HEA’s energy comes from natural gas while 14% comes from renewable energy. That includes 10% from the cooperative’s Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Plant, near Homer, and 4% from its Battle Creek Diversion Project, another hydroelectric project, Thomas said.

HEA is also pursuing a hydroelectric project at Grant Lake near Moose Pass, for which it has already received a permit. Construction of the 5 MW project would start in 2023 to be completed in 2026 and would generate about 18,600 megawatt hours of energy annually.

That’s in addition to a battery energy storage system, or BESS, that HEA charged for the first time last week and will provide stability to the company’s energy system by reducing outages. BESS is composed of 37 modular batteries, made by Tesla, stored in containers called megapacks, which are capable of storing 93 Megawatt hours of electrical power that can be delivered at a rate of 46.5 Megawatts per hour, according to HEA. It’s the largest chemical battery in Alaska and will also lower HEA’s greenhouse gas production.

“It’s a big battery,” said Seldovia geologist Bretwood Higman during the RePower seminar. “It could power the entire HEA grid for … an hour and a half.”

Location, location, location

Whether or not a renewable energy project becomes a reality, Thomas said, largely comes down to where the project is located. Proximity to existing infrastructure like roads and transmission lines is often make-or-break for a renewables project.

“Where those things — the resource, the transmission, the road infrastructure — come together is where you can make a project happen that otherwise might not pencil out when $50 or $100 million evaporates into infrastructure,” Thomas said.

There are also unique challenges that come with incorporating renewable energy. With natural gas, Thomas said, HEA is able to turn a dial to make sure the amount of energy being supplied matches the amount being used by customers. Renewable energy sources don’t come with a dial and are less predictable.

“There are a lot of pieces that go into meeting this minute-by-minute demand of all of our members,” Thomas said. “Dispatchable power — although it’s a big expensive dam or it’s a fossil fuel with all of its downside — is the most flexible. Wind and solar are the least and tidal is in between because of that predictability.”

Still, many say there’s a compelling economic argument to be made for the incorporation of renewable energy. Ben Boettger, of Cook InletKeeper, says that in addition to harmful pollution, natural gas on the peninsula is a monopolized market that saw prices increase in the early 2000s, when major gas fields started to become “depleted.” Despite efforts to stabilize the market, Boettger said, the price of gas in Alaska is now comparable to that of gas in the Lower 48.

“The Alaska Department of Natural Resources estimated that there are about five to eight years of supply at current consumption rates and that companies could break even by selling it for $8 per 1,000 cubic feet,” Boettger said. “Beyond that, prices would have to rise about 50% in order to break even for extracting the next eight to 11 years of supply.”

That’s compared to energy generators like HEA’s Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Plan, which Higman said is currently the peninsula’s cheapest energy source.

“Hydropower from Bradley has actually decreased in cost over time,” Higman said. “Most of this is actually due to inflation: the costs have been fairly flat, but the dollar’s worth less over time so it’s become cheaper. Natural gas, on the other hand, has increased at a rate that would be fairly satisfying if it was an investment — over 5% per year increase over this long term here. It’s been a long time since gas was a cheaper way to generate electricity than hydropower.”

Rivers and lakes are no longer the only places people are working to turn water into power. Interest is growing in the energy potential of Cook Inlet’s strong tides.

Turning tides

Cook Inlet’s strong currents aren’t news to peninsula locals, but a new study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, over the summer confirmed that those currents make the region a strong candidate for pilot tidal energy projects.

Levi Kilcher, a researcher with NREL, said during Wednesday’s REAP seminar that the harvest of renewable energy from Cook Inlet’s tides is one of many marine projects the lab is looking at in Alaska. The lab works under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and is operated by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy LLC.

Almost half of the United States marine energy resources, Kilcher said, are in Alaska. Cook Inlet alone accounts for more than 30%. Marine energy refers to wave energy, tidal energy, ocean currency energy, thermal energy and river current energy.

NREL’s research team was concentrated mostly in Nikiski, but also cut back and forth across the inlet to take measurements. Kilcher said the resulting data affirm that Cook Inlet has a lot of potential to be a tidal energy behemoth.

As part of the study, NREL deployed mooring systems during July and August off the shores of Nikiski where the land juts out into the inlet. The systems included two mid-water mooring systems and one on the floor of the inlet, all of which gathered data on both the velocity and turbulence of Cook Inlet’s tides.

Velocity refers to the rate at which something changes its position and in the context of the research determines the amount of energy that can be generated at the site. Turbulence readings are used to inform the design of technology so it is able to withstand it.

“What we see is really strong currents at this site,” Kilcher said.

Cook Inlet flows in two directions north to Anchorage during peak flood and south toward Homer during ebbs. Peak flood currents consistently measured as moving more than three meters per second and slack currents were still “very strong,” Kilcher said.

In NREL documentation explaining the research project, it’s explained that places where coastline “pinches” the flow of water produce fast tidal currents, which can be converted into energy. That is true in Cook Inlet, where NREL finds that water flow accelerates as it moves between the east and west forelands — between Nikiski and the adjacent land across the inlet.

“Just in this little section of Cook Inlet, there’s a potential for like 100 MW of so based on these volume flux calculations,” Kilcher said.

Tidal energy technology has already been tested in other parts of the country, such as in Igiugig, Alaska, where Ocean Renewable Power Company’s RivGen pumped 26.5 MWh of power to the community, and in New York City, where Verdant Power’s Gen 5 Turbine and TriFrame put 310 MWh into the city’s electric grid.

“Alaska, I think, has an opportunity to play a role at this early stage,” Kilcher said. “Maybe in the future we can show other countries and other parts of the world how to do this right.”

On the horizon

The seminars came roughly a month after Renewable IPP, a company that develops, constructs and operates utility-scale solar farms, pitched the development of Alaska’s largest solar farm on the Kenai Peninsula to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. The 60,000-panel farm would be capable of powering 4,500 homes, Renewable IPP CEO Jenn Miller told the assembly, but would sell energy directly to HEA to lower energy costs for all customers.

The company has requested that the borough exempt them from property taxes on the project’s capital assets. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce — who said he supports the development of solar farms in Alaska — questioned how to sell the project to borough taxpayers.

The solar farm would bump HEA’s renewable percentage to 24% and that getting to the goal of 50% would take a similarly large project. Thomas said tidal energy is beyond the scope of HEA’s 2025 goal.

Marathon Petroleum also announced earlier this month that it was in “advanced discussions” with multiple parties about the sale of their Nikiski plant as part of the company’s efforts to pivot some operations to becoming more environmentally friendly. Marathon has a stated goal of reducing direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions intensity 30% below 2014 levels by 2030.

The company already ceased crude oil processing at three facilities over the past year, one of which was converted to a renewable diesel facility.

The REAP and RePower the Peninsula seminars can be viewed on YouTube.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Correction: This story has been updated to say that HEA’s Grant Lake hydroelectric project would have a capacity of 5 megawatts and to say that transmission lines are important infrastrucuture for renewables projects.

Homer Electric Association Director of Strategic Services David Thomas testifies during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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