This is the way we hoped it would go in the 1980s. While much of the wind energy industry has been focused on bulk power generation for the large-scale utility systems of the U.S. and Europe, there has always been a segment that cast a longing eye on the remote communities of the world that depend on very expensive diesel fuel for electricity. The potential market was obvious, and engineers have labored for decades to exploit it, only to be thwarted by market realities—in most cases, the companies seeking to supply turbines have been small and poorly capitalized, and the challenge of maintaining reliable equipment operation at installations separated by thousands of miles has been daunting.
As time has gone by, though, the companies venturing into the market have gotten larger, the equipment more reliable, and the benefits more obvious for all to see. Which brings us back to the Kodiak (AK) Electric Association (KEA), the subject of an earlier post, and its three-turbine, 4.5-megawatt wind farm on Pillar Mountain. Kodiak’s 1.5-MW turbines are many times larger than any that would have been attempted or installed at a remote community in the 1980s or, indeed, as little as 10 years ago. The small island utility has just passed a milestone, according to the Alaska Business Journal, with its first million gallons of diesel fuel saved and the wind turbines in operation for just over a year.
KEA chief executive Darron Scott puts it this way: “These turbines took half of our diesel away … It makes us less dependent on the oil being barged here. It also keeps the energy on island. It's a self-sufficiency Alaska is known for and gets us closer to controlling our own destiny. We won't be as susceptible to the ups and downs of the price volatility found with fossil fuels.”
KEA has a permit to add another three 3-MW units to its wind farm—something Scott says will happen over the next 3-4 years—and the community is hoping to ultimately have 95% of its electricity come from renewable energy sources (hydro and wind). Meanwhile, the Alaska Energy Authority’s project manager, Karsten Rodvik, says renewable energy will be saving the state’s remote communities 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel annually by the end of this year, and 9 million annually by 2013.
As it turns out, we were right—wind IS a no-brainer for isolated communities depending on diesel generation. It’s taken longer than anyone imagined it would to work the kinks out, but now we are starting to cash in, and it’s great to see.